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The Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science the UCL School of Public Policy have done a lot of work on what needs to happen before any referenda are held. Their Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland" have produced an impressive report which discusses many of the options and complications which are likely to arise.

My submission to the working group was published on ET here. In it I argue that a binary vote between a known status quo and a largely unknown future "united Ireland" will always favour the former because of a natural tendency of most voters to prefer "the devil they know" to some unknown future which will be presented by nationalists as a Nirvana and by unionists as the road to hell. I thus argue that any referendum should be preceded by detailed negotiations on how sovereignty would be transferred, what governance arrangements would apply in the current N. Ireland, and what would be the practical outcomes for citizens in terms of their jobs, pensions, health and social welfare entitlements, taxation, and civil liberties and human rights.

The referendum in N. Ireland would therefore be between two clearly articulated propositions - a continuance of the union with Britain - possibly including reference to the how the Barnett formula allocating central resources to N. Ireland might be tweaked - and a clearly articulated constitutional structure for a united Ireland.

Only the Government of Ireland can call a referendum in Ireland and does so on the basis of a clearly explained proposal often accompanied by drafts of the legislation required to enact the details contained therein. You are correct that the shape of any proposal put to the Irish people in a referendum vote will not be entirely determined by the debate in N. Ireland, unless that debate has concluded in a formal agreement between interested parties - chiefly the N. Ireland parties and the British and Irish governments - on what a united Ireland would look like.

That would, however, require the formal engagement of unionist parties in that process which is unlikely to happen, as they might view it as increasing the likelihood of a referendum being passed in the North.   However I could see the Alliance party engaging in that process and coming to an agreement which protects the internal political structures of Northern Ireland, at least for a lengthy transition period as part of an overall Federal Structure. The Alliance Party is a non-sectarian moderate unionist party, and probably represents the swing vote in any referendum campaign.

Voters, both north and south, would therefore end up voting on precisely the same proposals with the Irish government having represented the "southern interest" in any preceding talks. Unlike the Brexit referendum, there would be no prior vote on the principle of a united Ireland with the details to be worked out later. That didn't work out to well for the UK, and we won't want to go down that road.

The Good Friday Agreement is silent on all of this. In theory the Secretary of state for N. Ireland could wake up one day and decide to call a poll in the north without any prior work articulating what either option would mean in practice. But there is no obligation on the Irish Government - much less the Irish people - to go along with this. Everyone will want to know what they are buying into, and that can only be sorted out by negotiations between all the interested parties.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Dec 28th, 2021 at 12:44:03 PM EST
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