by Frank Schnittger
Sun Feb 14th, 2021 at 02:49:33 PM EST
The Constitution Unit at University College London has set up a working group comprised of 12 experts based at universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States, to examine how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland should stay in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland would best be designed and conducted. They have issued an interim report and executive summary here.
Their starting point is the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which states that:
it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement is light on the detail of how such referendums should be organised, and the interim report seeks to explore the options in this regard. I have submitted a response to the interim report as follows:
I would like to welcome your initiative in trying to think through the processes that would ideally be followed prior to the holding of any referendums on a united Ireland on the island of Ireland. I wish to comment on your interim working paper, and, in particular, on the options presented in para. 33 of the Executive summary.
The proposed referenda essentially provide a binary choice between the status quo and a possible alternative future designated as a "United Ireland."
I am aware that some "reforms" or policy changes could also be proposed within the Status Quo, in parallel or prior to any referenda. But in constitutional terms, that is no different to the status quo, in that such changes can be proposed at any time under current constitutional arrangements.
As the status quo is self-evident in everyday life, it does not require much imagination or explanation for voters to understand what this means in practice. A "United Ireland" on the other hand, could mean whatever various parties could decide it should mean, ranging from a nationalist utopia to an oppressive dystopian world. All sorts of predictions could be made for the economic, political, social, human rights, community and personal consequences of a vote for a United Ireland. And as with any prediction, no one can be entirely certain which version of such consequences will ultimately come to pass.
There is, therefore, a fundamental asymmetry in the vote between a known and relatively certain present, assumed to available in future with a vote for the status quo, and an unknowable and relatively uncertain future, the perceptions of which will depend very much on what messages are broadcast by various interested parties, depending on their resources and ability to control the narrative.
The experience of holding the Brexit referendum was instructive in this regard. Wildly contrasting visions of what Brexit would look like were presented to the electorate, and they had very little hard evidence to go on as to which version would end up being correct. While it is too early to comment on the economic consequences, it is clear that the final shape of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement - are very different from what voters were led to expect at the time of the referendum vote.
To provide voters with a fair, balanced, and objective choice, it is therefore necessary to provide them with the maximum information possible about what the future will look like, be it under the constitutional status quo, or under a proposed United Ireland.
There is no requirement for a referendum anywhere to initiate the process of providing such clarity. It could simply be a decision by the two Sovereign governments to initiate such discussions and develop detailed proposals. They would also be well advised to, consult widely with the political parties and civil society groups in both jurisdictions through the various mechanisms you suggest. The greater the involvement of N. Ireland parties and civil society bodies in the process of developing such proposals, the greater the degree of ownership they are likely to take of the outcomes.
Those proposals could include details on how sovereignty will be transferred, what the governmental structures of a united Ireland would look like, and what constitutional provisions will govern those structures. As you suggest, voters will also want some assurances on what public policies will be pursued in areas such as health care, education, policing, civil defence, security, and international relationships. Crucially, such policy proposals should also include a consideration of what financial arrangements will apply, and how this will impact on the taxation and living standards of individuals and families in all parts of Ireland.
My point is, that the more clarity and detail that can be provided, the less fraught the debate, and the more informed any voter choices will be. The scope for misinformation and manipulation will also be reduced accordingly.
Of course, it is impossible to predict the future with absolute accuracy under either the Status Quo or United Ireland scenarios, but voters deserve no less than the good faith and best efforts of both Governments to make as accurate a presentation of the real choices facing voters as possible. Joint British and Irish Government reports on the financial, economic, political, social and public services consequences of voters taking either option would add greatly to the credibility of those reports.
One issue that needs to be addressed is the fear that many Unionists would have that even considering what shape a United Ireland might take could hasten its arrival, and many would be unwilling to engage in that discussion for that reason. However, if the terms of reference of any consultation process where to include, also, what changes might be made in governance structures and public policies within existing constitutional structures, they would have every incentive to engage. After all, the more things can be improved under existing constitutional arrangements, the less likely a vote for a united Ireland.
The incentives for nationalist actors would be the reverse. But crucial to the credibility of any proposals that might emerge would be whatever resources both governments are prepared to commit in either scenario, and independent economic projections on the impact of same.
But both Unionism and Nationalism is based on much more than estimates of economic advantage. It is also based on social and cultural affinities, loyalties, and feelings of belonging. Thus, any proposals for either scenario, brought forward by both governments, would have to address how both Irish and British identities would be provided for and affirmed under either scenario.
It might very well be that any engagement between the British and Irish governments on planning for the future of Northern Ireland would result not, in the first instance, in proposals for referendums on a united Ireland, but on reforms to and updating of the Belfast Agreement, to take into account the 23-year experience of operating the Agreement, and the fact that one party is no longer within the EU.
What is clear, however, is that both governments need to engage in such a process, without prejudice to any particular final outcome, if the strains created by Brexit, demographic change, and the continued divisions in N. Ireland society are to be addressed. The more certainty that can be provided on the options and opportunities that the N. Ireland electorate may have in the future, the better the chance that wise choices will be made and those tensions reduced.
One of the criticisms frequently made of the Good Friday agreement (GFA) is that it has entrenched and reinforced pre-existing sectarian divisions so much so that there are still many "peace walls" separating loyalist and nationalist areas in Belfast to this day. The priority at the time was to bring the "hard men" of the various republican and loyalist paramilitary groups into the mainstream political process in order to encourage the de-militarisation process.
As a consequence, the GFA provided that both Nationalist and Unionist parties had to be included in any administration, and all parties had to designate themselves as one or the other, to ensure that both were represented. This has resulted in the non-sectarian Alliance party having to designate itself as unionist, for the purposes of the GFA, and in the formation of an administration.
But the more serious consequence is that the more extreme loyalist and nationalist parties eclipsed their more moderate rivals and have been the dominant forces in N. Ireland politics ever since. Thus the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has dominated the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Sinn Féin has overtaken the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP), founded by human rights activists and intended as a non-sectarian party, as the dominant force in nationalist politics.
Every issue, even the Covid 19 pandemic, has come to be refracted through this unionist/nationalist prism, as interpreted by these more radical and extreme parties, and the prospects for inter-communal reconciliation have become vanishingly small. The price of the inclusion of the militarists on both sides and a relative peace has been the institutionalisation of sectarian divisions.
This has obviously suited the hard-liners in both the DUP and Sinn Féin, but has disenfranchised a growing and increasingly disillusioned centre ground: people who wish to self-identify as neither unionist or nationalist and who yearn for the normalisation of N. Ireland politics and life in general. Even more moderate unionists and nationalists have been disenfranchised by this process, and are increasingly embarrassed by the posturing of DUP and Sinn Féin leaders claiming to speak on their behalf.
Sinn Féin has been calling for a referendum on Irish unity in an increasingly incessant and strident manner as the one and only solution to all of N. Ireland's ills, whilst unionists tend to see this as sheer provocation, perhaps in retaliation for the DUP's support for Brexit, despite a large majority in N. Ireland voting to remain in the EU. Opinion polls on whether a majority in N. Ireland actually want a united Ireland are at best ambiguous, and the provisions of the GFA state only that the (British Government) Secretary of State for N. Ireland must call such a referendum "If he forms the view" that a majority would support a united Ireland in such a poll.
But the bottom line is that a a referendum will only be held if the UK government decides it wants to hold one, and that is unlikely to happen in advance of a referendum of Scottish Independence, which the the UK government is dead against. In that context a referendum on Irish Re-unification would only set a dangerous precedent for a Scottish referendum, and heighten Scottish grievances that N. Ireland has managed to retain a privileged position within the EU Customs Union and Single Market, whilst Scotland has not, despite also voting to remain in the EU.
The GFA provides that a majority of 50% +1 is sufficient for a United Ireland to come to pass, which provides an incentive for each N. Ireland election to become a sectarian tribal headcount. But the political tradition in Ireland is less a "winner takes all, first past the post" system, and more a collaborative and inclusive ethic which seeks to build consensus across a range of parties and viewpoints. Many in the South would not feel comfortable "taking over" a N. Ireland including almost a million angry and disgruntled Unionists.
So the critical process, before, during and after any referendum campaign would be the building of a wider coalition of parties and interests around any constitutional change proposal. It is not enough for party leaders and sovereign governments to discuss re-unification, reconciliation and a willingness to live together must be evident on the ground in local communities as well.
This can only proceed on the basis of both Governments leading the process, taking into account the 23 year experience of running the institutions set up by the GFA, and the fact that the UK is now no longer part of the EU. I think the Constitution Units Interim report is a useful contribution to UK thinking on how this process might proceed, and hope that both governments will take the opportunity of leading that process forward.