Is there going to be a referendum on a united Ireland anytime soon?
The question is dependent on public opinion. If it appears likely that a majority in Northern Ireland would support a united Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement obliges the Secretary of State to hold a border poll. There are, of course, a number of opinion polls asking the public this very question.
These polls currently show minority support for a united Ireland, but with wide variation, in part due to the different methodologies adopted by the survey companies. In December 2021, Lord Ashcroft found 49% in favour of staying in the UK and 41% favouring a united Ireland. In late October 2021, Pete Shirlow put support for the status quo at 55%, compared to support for a united Ireland at 33%. There is, then, no evidence yet of the clear majority support in Northern Ireland needed to trigger a vote. But, as a referendum is at least plausible over the next 10 or 15 years, it makes good sense to think carefully about it now.
The experience of Brexit highlights how important advance planning is for a referendum on a major constitutional issue, so that voters have a clear idea of what they are being asked to decide. ‘What does Leave mean?’ could become the proud uncle of the newborn question of ‘What does a united Ireland mean?’ should a majority vote for unity in an under-prepared referendum on the future of Northern Ireland. Post-referendum ambiguity in that context could make post-Brexit disagreements look like a picnic.
The two most plausible answers to the question of Irish unity are shown in Figure 1. In an integrated, united Ireland, an all-island government in Dublin would run the whole island, and Northern Ireland as a political entity would cease to exist. In a devolved United Ireland, Northern Ireland would indeed continue as a political entity, but as a devolved component of a United Ireland. It would keep its power-sharing system of government and powers over some major policy areas.
Currently, there is little public or political focus on which of these models would likely be chosen.
Which type of United Ireland do citizens’ assemblies favour?
Opinion poll findings are an important means of ascertaining the level of support for the general principle of Irish unity. But a different approach to assessing public opinion is to examine what the public thinks about each option for a united Ireland, once they have had a chance to learn about it and discuss it.
To achieve this, we conducted a one-day citizens’ assembly. A representative cross-section of 50 people from across Northern Ireland were brought together to learn in detail about the two possible types of united Ireland and to discuss the merits and faults of each. We also conducted, along with Paul Gillespie, the same exercise in the Republic of Ireland.
In both our Northern and Southern citizens’ assemblies, participants were keen to avoid what they saw as the confusion of Brexit. Consequently, they were strongly in favour of a clear explanation of what exactly was being voted on in any Irish unity referendum.
Equally, they were surprised to learn that there were different possible types of united Ireland. Most people had assumed that the traditional integrated model would be the one implemented. We found, unsurprisingly, that Protestants in British Politics after Brexit 109 Northern Ireland do not like the idea of a united Ireland. More surprisingly, we found that their views of the two types of united Ireland changed after deliberation.
At the start of the day, Protestant members of the citizens assembly were much less opposed to the devolved model than the integrated model. After learning more about the options and discussing them, however, they became more supportive of the integrated model than of the devolved model. This change is in part attributable to a belief that the problems of power-sharing could be even worse in a united Ireland, and in part to their conclusion that two systems of policy making on one small island could be inefficient and confusing.
In the Republic of Ireland, we found that participants preferred the traditional integrated model to the devolved model and did not change their minds after the day’s learning and discussion.
Finding out what the informed and considered views of the Northern and Southern publics are on the issue of types of a united Ireland is particularly important for the government of the Republic of Ireland. It is the Irish rather than the UK government that has the responsibility of making it clear what type of united Ireland it will implement in the event of pro-unity referendum votes in both parts of the island.
Of course, given current Anglo-Irish sensitivities, it may be difficult for the Irish government to publicly describe in detail its preferred version of a united Ireland. But failing to do so well in advance of any referendum risks a Brexit Groundhog Day of ambiguity.
It is important to identify the views of the public after they have been informed and deliberated, via citizens’ assemblies, well in advance of any possible Irish unity referendum. This will help both the public and politicians in both parts of the island consider how best to hold a smooth referendum to maximise clarity, minimise turbulence, and learn the lessons from Brexit.
By John Garry, Professor of Political Behaviour and head of The Democracy Unit at Queen’s University Belfast.