How could a vote on the unification of Ireland go?

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Brexit has shown the dangers of not fully planning for the consequences of referendums, so what if we were to get one on the unification of Ireland?

There seems to be no chance political leaders on both sides in Northern Ireland would buy the kind of preconceived results a referendum would demand. Unionist parties actively oppose the discussion of modeling a hypothetical United Ireland. “Why talk about unification? It would be like discussing our own suicide, ”said a prominent trade union politician. On the other hand, Sinn Féin will not make any arguments for a permanent place in the United Kingdom. Thus, the chances of the two parties agreeing on the terms of a vote seem slim, if not zero.

But a group of 12 prominent academics brought together by the Constitution Unit of University College London have spent the past two years pondering the big issues amid fears that a vote could happen almost by accident.

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

So how could a referendum take place, when could it take place and what are the big issues?

Who has the power to organize a border poll?

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

A poll should be called “if at any time it seems likely to [sic] that a majority of those who vote would express the wish that Northern Ireland cease to be part of the United Kingdom and become part of a united Ireland ”.

Is it liable to prosecution? Yes, says Alan Renwick, deputy director of UCL’s Constitution Unit and one of the lead authors of the task force report.

“This part of the agreement is enshrined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. And therefore, it can be taken to court in the UK. Whether the judges would be particularly keen to weigh in on this issue is another question, ”he notes.

How do you define a majority?

It is not defined. But Renwick says a majority should be displayed consistently over time in opinion polls. “If this body of evidence consistently showed support for unification in the 1950s, it would appear to hit the threshold stipulated in the deal.” The Secretary of State then has the “obligatory duty” to call a referendum.

UCL says the UK government could use six sources of evidence before exercising its discretion: election results, opinion polls, qualitative research, a vote in Stormont, seats won in the election and data demographic.

Trade unionists fear using the latter as a survey reference. The latest census is expected to show that the number of Catholics is approaching or even exceeding the number of Protestants for the first time in 100 years.

What do the latest opinion polls show?

A recent opinion poll by the BBC’s Spotlight program in Northern Ireland shows that 43% in Northern Ireland support a united Ireland, with 51% in favor of Ireland.

If a poll took place and the result was also To close like Brexit, could unification happen?

Yes, says UCL. “A referendum should be called if a vote for unification seems likely, even if by a small margin. “

“It would violate the agreement [BGFA] to require a threshold higher than 50% + 1 ”, declares the UCL.

However, the working group observed in detail the need for legitimacy of a border poll and the need for a consensus adopted in the Good Friday agreement. If politics prevail, a simple majority will not suffice. Consent would also be required south of the border.

Where would the parliament be in a united Ireland?

The UCL describes five constitutional options:

  • Decentralized institutions retained in Northern Ireland, but sovereignty transferred from London to Dublin
  • A single central legislature, probably in Dublin. Trade unionists would likely see it as a hostile takeover. “This model has been the historical preference of many Irish Republicans, constitutional or otherwise. But some would see this approach (as we saw in our evidence sessions) as being at odds with the consensual aspect of the 1998 agreement, ”says UCL.
  • A federal state. This model “would avoid some of the governance complications associated with unbalanced decentralization. But a two-unit federation would be unbalanced, ”says UCL, which has examined institutions based around urban areas of population centers.

What about the issue of staying in the union?

UCL suggests there would be two options in the referendum, one to stay in the UK and one to leave. “The option to stay in the UK would not necessarily imply a change in the status quo, although reforms could be proposed to constitutional or political provisions.”


A border poll is not inevitable even though Brexit has made it part of the national conversation in Ireland.

While “the fundamental question of sovereignty is binary and majority”, according to UCL, the peace agreement also stresses the need to comply with the ethics of “reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust”, qualities which are not not always abundant in the deep-rooted communities of Northern Ireland.


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