Readers looking for insights into the recent turmoil surrounding the DUP will have to wait until that storm subsides before I essay some impressions. In my last blog, I said I would return to the weighty and thought-provoking report from the team of academics led by University College London’s Constitution Unit on the mechanisms and procedures for a future Irish unity referendum.1 Earlier this month there was an interesting online debate on its findings involving a panel including several people whose views I greatly respect, notably Professor John Coakley, emeritus Professor of Politics at UCD and Avila Kilmurray, former director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust and founding member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition.
Coakley said the UCL report was entirely right to insist that “the mechanism of decision-making by majority vote on this issue needs to be respected. It categorically rules out the requirement of any kind of super-majority, describing it as a clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement, which was unequivocal that the threshold in a referendum on the unification question in Northern Ireland would be a simple majority, 50% plus one of those casting a valid ballot.”
The report “unambiguously corrects” the interpretation of politicians like Leo Varadkar, Bertie Ahern and the late Seamus Mallon, who had suggested such a weighted majority in order to bring as many unionists as possible on board for unity. “It is hard to imagine that Sinn Fein would ever have signed up to the Good Friday Agreement without this provision,” said Coakley. “In effect, in 1998 Sinn Fein compromised on a crucial component of Irish nationalist ideology. It conceded that the counting unit in a referendum would not be whole of Ireland where nationalists could outvote unionists, but the two jurisdictions on the island, each of which would have a veto on unity.”
So those of us who worry deeply about a future Border Poll passing by the narrowest of majorities, relying on the almost complete support of the Northern nationalist community in the face of the even more complete opposition of the unionist community, will just have to pipe down. The legal position has been explained to us by some of the leading political scientists (including those I admire) and academic lawyers in the land, and the conversation on this aspect of an existentially epoch-changing vote must be now closed. I can only hope that is not the case.
To be fair, Coakley went on to say that it would be vital for a detailed blueprint of what Irish unity might look to be drawn up before any vote. “It would be a big mistake to rush into a vote on unity before that had been done. It is hard to over-estimate the amount of work needed to draw up such a blueprint. Even a sketch of what Irish unity might look like would be enormously demanding.” He warned, in particular, about the financial implications (although he also referred to a recent Irish Times article by Dublin City University political scientist John Doyle, in which explained his belief that the British subvention could be as low as €2.8 billion, compared to the nearly €10 billion usually cited2); the numerous thorny cultural issues (including flags and anthems, state rituals and symbols, commemorative ceremonies and historical myths) and, most importantly, the constitutional and institutional design of any new state. He stressed that all these questions would have be to be addressed before any Border Poll.
Avila Kilmurray, a Southerner who has made a significant contribution to the civic and political life of Northern Ireland in her more than 45 years there, is always a rock of good sense. She made a number of important points about a future referendum. She regretted the absence of a Charter of Rights for the whole island, promised by the Good Friday Agreement, but not delivered, because it would have been important in the ultra-sensitive period surrounding a referendum. She emphasised the importance of a broader process of deliberative democracy to involve ordinary people, so as “to take the discussion out from the purely party political into broader society – that’s where you’ll get the unexpected reactions.”
That process should be about far more than just the Border question, which would immediately put people “back into their respective boxes; it should be about health and education and welfare and gender and ‘What type of society are we signing up to?” There was a group in the North, around 20% of the population, many of them under 35, who were fed up with the constant talk of Border Polls and wanted answers to this fundamental question. And she said it was her experience that within unionism there was a whole spectrum of views on the unity issue: ranging from those who would say “if it happens, we’ll pack our bags and leave” to those who say “if at the end of the day it’s happening, it’s acceptable.”
She was strongly critical of that community’s political leadership, stressed that a proper internal discussion within unionism needed to be given more space, and praised the work of Professor Peter Shirlow of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University for his promotion of a debate with multiple voices (why wasn’t he invited to join the University College London group?). “There needs to be a degree of positive thinking about the benefits of Northern Ireland remaining within the UK to balance the arguments in our binary choice scenario.” There was a growing ‘civic unionism’ in the North which sought “a more liberal, progressive society. Where are they going to find that? They look at what’s being created in England and don’t find that particularly attractive.”
Turning to the Republic, she believed much more work needed to be done to explore the implications of constitutional change, with academic initiatives accompanied by more inclusive and open-ended discussions involving ordinary citizens. “I am acutely aware of the level of disengagement in the South, that Northern Ireland is viewed there as cantankerous, disruptive and even embarrassing – probably the same reaction as you’d get in Surrey.”
There is a lot of talk about ‘process’ in the UCL report. In a lecture in March, the researcher who wrote the background paper that formed the starting point for this project, former senior Northern Ireland Office official Alan Whysall, said its report was “essentially about the process for getting to a united Ireland, if that is the wish in polls north and south, and for deciding what it should look like.” He went on: “The group’s work was mainly focused on suggesting processes before, during and after border polls, that would give the best chance of stability in the new state, if that was the choice, and through transition to it – the ‘how you get there bit.”
Unfortunately, it is the process which is a large part of the problem, and not one (in this writer’s opinion) that the report comes up with any clear or obviously workable solutions to deal with. Another member of this month’s panel, Belfast solicitor and unionist-minded commentator Sarah Creighton, quoted the east Belfast community worker and former DUP assembly member, Sammy Douglas, as telling author Susan McKay (for her recent book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground): “I know a lot of people fear a united Ireland. But it is a bit like death. Most people don’t fear being dead, they fear the process of dying. Irish unity wouldn’t be as bad as the process of getting Irish unity. You could actually probably live quite peacefully in a united Ireland; it is just that the ten years of it becoming a united Ireland would probably be pretty awful.”
In the question and answer session, one searching question was asked by Rory Montgomery, the recently retired senior Irish diplomat who was a key member of the Department of Foreign Affairs teams which respectively negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and had an important input into the post-Brexit settlement with the UK. He asked the panel: “How do moderate nationalists, north and south, square the simple majority requirement of the Good Friday Agreement with strong public disquiet, as evidenced in opinion polls, about the idea of change effected by 50% plus one, which is at odds with the longstanding philosophy of persuasion and consensus?” The panel, which included the UCL referendum team’s chair, Dr Alan Renwick, had no answer to this.
In an Irish Times article last month Montgomery had answered his own question with three further questions.3 He wrote then: “For decades mainstream nationalism has emphasised the need for reconciliation and agreement with unionism as the basis for a new Ireland, and for those who favour a united Ireland to persuade those who do not.
“The  Downing Street Declaration said ‘stability and well-being will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected on grounds of identity by a significant minority of those governed by it.’ Recent opinion polls confirm that this anti-majoritarian philosophy of persuasion and agreement is widely shared.
“Under the Agreement a narrow majority could be achieved in favour of a united Ireland without a single self-defined unionist having been persuaded. Of course, as traditional unionist preponderance within Northern Ireland is already no more, and as the decisive votes either way would come from the growing middle ground, this would simply be the outworking of democracy.
“The prospect of a united Ireland being achieved in this way is, however, rightly a cause of concern. It seems to me that supporters of unity who feel like this essentially have three real options. To try to change the majority threshold – this was never canvassed in 1998 and is surely unlikely to win consensus. To follow [Seamus] Mallon and not vote for unity until a significant number of unionists are won over. But is there evidence that this would ever happen? Or, after winning a divisive referendum, to be generous and imaginative in trying to reconcile unionists to the new Ireland – recognising that this might fail.”
He concluded: “This issue does not have to be explicitly addressed now. But it is likely that sooner or later it will have to be.” I would put it in even starker terms. Sooner or later the politicians and people of the Republic may have to choose between insisting on the 50% plus one threshold laid down by the Good Friday Agreement – i.e. absolute equality of votes between those in favour of the union and those in favour of unity, probably leading to a fragile ‘united’ Ireland at some point in the future – or finding some beyond ingenious mechanism (probably based on one of the options outlined by Montgomery above) to ensure a peaceful and relatively harmonious ‘new Ireland’ by persuading a sufficient number of unionists to go along with it.
Such beyond ingenious mechanisms need to be seriously considered. In Alan Whysall’s words: “We ought to reflect imaginatively on hybrid constitutional forms that might better accommodate the different identities. That is, forms that on the one hand could be regarded as a fulfilment of Irish unity, Northern Ireland becoming part of an Irish union; and on the other, maintaining a British link. We do not need to get hung up on heavily dated conceptions of the nation state.
“And this reflection needs to take place in the context of potential constitutional change within the UK, which may see Scotland and even Wales cease to be part of the UK, with arrangements likely to be put in place for cooperation and coordination between them, possibly even structures of a confederal nature.”
1 Report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland
2 ‘UK subvention is irrelevant to the debate on Irish unity’, 9 June 2021
3 ‘Questions Belfast Agreement raised remain to be answered’, 8 May 2021