When to call a referendum in Northern Ireland

How the UK government should judge when and whether a majority for Irish unification has emerged

June 03, 2021
GH Maps / Alamy Stock Photo
GH Maps / Alamy Stock Photo

If it appears likely that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would back a united Ireland, the UK government is legally obliged to call a referendum on the issue. This requirement was laid down in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and subsequently written into British law.

That condition is not met at present—there is no evidence that a majority would today opt for unification. But politics in the age of Brexit and Covid is fluid. There is no knowing how opinion might evolve in the coming years. Some evidence suggests a recent trend in favour of unification.  

So how should the government judge whether the condition has been met if in the future the evidence gets more mixed? It’s a tricky—and highly sensitive—question. Yet the 1998 Agreement is silent. And no one has subsequently provided any guidance. Now is the time to work out answers—before too long, the space for considered reflection may have passed.

I have spent the past 18 months chairing a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. Comprising 12 academics based in Belfast, Dublin, London and the United States, the group has looked at many aspects of how any referendum on this issue would best be designed and conducted. We have no collective view on whether we want a referendum. But we all recognise that such a vote could happen, whether individuals want it or not. The process would be contentious and potentially dangerous. Policymakers need to understand what would be involved.

We identify six kinds of evidence that ministers could draw on to gauge the public mood: opinion polls and surveys; votes cast in elections; seats won in elections; the results of any votes on the issue in the Northern Ireland Assembly; demographic data; and qualitative sources such as focus groups and conversations with community leaders.

Some of these sources should clearly carry less weight than others. Qualitative sources could not justifiably trump clear and robust quantitative evidence. Demographics provide no more than an approximate guide. Still, no precise formula can be dreamt up in the abstract as to the weight that should be attached to each source. All the evidence has to be weighed in the round and in context.

That does not mean, however, that ministers have carte blanche to interpret the evidence just as they please. In extremis, the courts could intervene if it appeared that ministers were acting unreasonably. Quite apart from such legal proceedings, it would be extraordinarily unwise for a future government to appear to prevaricate in the face of clear evidence that a referendum was required. Ministers could rightly expect a body of evidence to build over a period of time—a few polls showing a majority in favour of unification, for example, would not be enough. But the UK state committed in 1998 to allowing “the people of the island of Ireland alone,” north and south, to make their free choice “without external impediment.” It must also act with “rigorous impartiality,” and not let its judgment be coloured by its preference to maintain the Union. A government that treated these commitments lightly would undermine the basis of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Ministers have in recent years appeared all too willing to play fast and loose with their commitments in Northern Ireland. Many unionists see the Protocol to the EU Withdrawal Agreement dealing with the Northern Ireland as a betrayal. Last year, the present secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, declared in the House of Commons that the government was willing to breach international law in pursuit of its objectives. In 2019, his recent predecessor Karen Bradley appeared to leave open the possibility that Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland might be excluded from the referendum franchise, in violation of the 1998 Agreement and all precedents.

Earlier this year, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said: “Somebody once said that ‘the UK had no selfish interest in Northern Ireland.’ I dispute that”—seemingly ignorant of the fact that the statement that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” (I quote the exact words because they were carefully honed) was contained in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which was integral to the peace process.

Yet wiser heads must surely prevail. In a hopeful sign, the prime minister said in April that he believed the conditions requiring a referendum would not arise “for a very, very long time to come”—thereby apparently acknowledging that those conditions are binding.

The 1998 Agreement ended a quarter century of violence through a series of hard-won compromises. Everyone who operates under its terms chafes against one or more of the constraints that it imposes. Without these constraints, however, there would have been no agreement and no peace. Should the possibility of a referendum come closer, government ministers will have to act honestly and responsibly.