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How could a vote on the unification of Ireland play out? | Northern Ireland

Brexit has shown the dangers of not fully planning the consequences of referendums, so what would happen if we were to get one to unite Ireland?

It seems that there is no chance that political leaders on both sides of Northern Ireland will buy into the kind of predefined results that a referendum will require. There is active opposition from the unionist parties to entering into a discussion on modeling a hypothetically united Ireland. “Why should we talk about union? It would be like discussing our own suicide, ”said a leading union politician. On the other hand, Sinn Féin will not argue for a permanent place in Britain. So the chances of both sides agreeing on the terms of the vote do not seem slim.

But a group of 12 leading academics gathered by the Constitution Unit at University College London have spent the last two years considering the big issues for fear that a vote could almost happen by accident.

In a thumping 259-page report, the Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, they ask how a border survey can best be designed and conducted.

So how could a referendum happen, when could it happen, and what are the big questions?

Who has the authority to call a border check?

The Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) of 1998 gives the Secretary of Northern Ireland the discretion to convene a referendum at any time. However, he is legally obliged to call someone if there is a majority in Northern Ireland for association.

A vote should be called “if at any time it seems likely to him [sic] that a majority of those entitled to vote express a wish for Northern Ireland to cease to be part of the United Kingdom and to form part of a united Ireland ‘.

Can this be prosecuted? Yes, says Alan Renwick, deputy director of UCL’s Constitution Unit and one of the lead authors in the working group’s report.

“This part of the agreement is written in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Therefore, it can be brought to court in the United Kingdom. Whether judges will be particularly interested in balancing this is another matter, ”he notes.

How is a majority defined?

It is not defined. But Renwick says a majority must appear consistently over time in polls. “If this evidence consistently showed support for association in the low 50s, it appears to meet the threshold set out in the agreement.” The Secretary of State is then under a “mandatory duty” to convene a referendum.

The UCL says the UK government could use six pieces of evidence before exercising its discretion: election results, polls, qualitative research, voting in Stormont, seats won in elections and demographic data.

Using the latter as a benchmark for voting is something that trade unionists fear. The latest census is expected to show the number of Catholics close to resembling or even overtaking the number of Protestants for the first time in the state’s 100 years.

What do the latest polls show?

A recent poll from BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight program shows that 43% in Northern Ireland support a united Ireland, with 51% in Ireland.

If a vote was taken and the result was as close like Brexit, could there be agreement?

Yes, says UCL. “A referendum must be convened if a vote on unification seems likely, even if it is by a small margin.”

“It simply came to our notice then [BGFA] to require a higher threshold than 50% + 1, ”says UCL.

However, the working group observed in detail the need for legitimacy for a border survey and the need for consensus, which was agreed in the Good Friday Agreement. If politics prevails, a simple majority will not be enough. Consent south of the border would also be needed.

Where would Parliament be in a united Ireland?

UCL outlines five constitutional options:

  • Disbanded institutions retained in Northern Ireland but with sovereignty transferred from London to Dublin.

  • A single central legislature, probably in Dublin. Unionists are likely to see this as a hostile takeover. “This model has been the historical preference of many Irish Republicans, constitutional or otherwise. But some will see this approach (which came across our evidentiary meetings) as contrary to the consensus-building aspect of the 1998 agreement, ”says UCL.

  • A federal state. This model “would avoid some of the government complications of skewed delegation. But an association with two units would be unbalanced, ”says UCL, which looked at institutions based on urban regions in population centers.

What about the question of staying in the union?

UCL suggests there would be two options in the referendum, one to remain in the UK and one to leave. “The possibility of staying in the UK would not necessarily lead to any change in the status quo, although reforms of constitutional or political arrangements could be proposed.”


A border inquiry is not inevitable, although Brexit made it part of the national conversation in Ireland.

While “the fundamental issue of sovereignty is binary and majority”, says the UCL, the peace agreement also emphasizes the need to adhere to the ethos of “reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust”, qualities that are not always abundant in the rooted communities of Northern Ireland.

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