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A British university has launched a major project investigating the practicalities of a united Ireland

University College London is working with Irish universities on the project.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and DUP leader Arlene Foster in Dublin in 2017.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and DUP leader Arlene Foster in Dublin in 2017.
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Archive/PA Images

PLANS ARE BEING drawn up in London for a united Ireland. A team of academics, based in University College London, are starting a new project that hopes to investigate how a border poll could be designed, held and implemented. 

With Brexit and fears over a hard border raising the prospect of a united Ireland, Irish, British and Northern Ireland academics are working together to consider how a border poll could be conducted. 

A report, expected in 12 months, will draw on a range of experts from the fields of constitutional law, conflict resolution and political science. 

The project is being led from University College London’s Constitution Unit, which specialises on research into constitutional reform. 

It will look beyond simply how a border poll would be conducted in Northern Ireland, but also at what kind of constitutional change might be necessary in Ireland too. 

While the project is still in its early stages, it will examine whether Ireland might need to hold more than one referendum – such as one before negotiations on a united Ireland and one following such negotiations. 

In 1998, both Ireland and Northern Ireland approved the Good Friday Agreement in simultaneous votes.

‘Timely’

“We have seen an extraordinarily badly designed referendum process in relation to Brexit,” Dr Alan Renwick, the leader of the project and an expert on referendums and elections at University College London, told TheJournal.ie. 

“This makes getting the process right in Northern Ireland particularly important.”

Renwick said that there was something of a reluctance to start thinking about the issue of a unity referendum. “Both UK and Irish politicians are reluctant to encourage this process in the short term and to talk about it,” he said.

There has been a recognition that these issues do need to be thought about. A referendum could happen. It could be required. Going into that blindly would not serve anyone’s interests.

Renwick does hope, however, that politicians will decide to give their views as part of the process.

In Ireland, academics from both Trinity College Dublin and University College are involved. From the North, staff from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University will also contribute to the project, which has received funding from the British Academy.

David Kenny, an expert on constitutional law in Trinity, said that the project was “timely”.

Ireland’s experience of citizens’ assemblies is expected to feed into the project, which will consider everything from how a border poll would be triggered to how ballot papers will be designed in the event of a referendum. 

Both Kenny and his colleague Dr Oran Doyle, who is also involved in the project, worked on citizens’ assemblies in Ireland ahead of the Eighth Amendment referendum. 

“We have that experience and both of us are interested in the role of citizen assemblies in framing constitutional questions,” Kenny said. 

However, he warned that such bodies should not be seen as “quick fixes” for addressing complex policy questions. 

While acknowledging that the project might face some opposition, especially from unionist communities, Kenny said that the questions couldn’t be ignored. 

ulster-talks-pmsmitchell-smile British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US Senator George Mitchell and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The new project will deal with similar constitutional complexities. Source: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

“You’re going to have to consider it at some point anyway,” he said. 

With some polling indicating that support for a united Ireland is rising in Northern Ireland, significant questions remain about how the process could be carried out amid fears that a border poll could add further tension to a region experts think could be hardest hit by Brexit. 

A Constitution Unit report, published in March, found that: 

The real world risks are high. An early poll, particularly if it takes place in a political atmosphere that is strained following a hard Brexit, could seriously destabilise both parts of Ireland, and put at risk the political gains and civil order of recent decades.

The project plans to engage with the public and civil society organisations over the next 12 months before making any recommendations on how a unity referendum could be facilitated and organised. 

Renwick said that while a public event would be held in London, the main focus of the work will be in Ireland on both sides of the border. 

The looming threat of a no-deal Brexit has prompted growing debate in Northern Ireland about a border poll.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly called on the Irish government to plan for a united Ireland, while in July 2018 former DUP leader Peter Robinson said that the North needs to prepare for the possibility.

Meanwhile a new report, authored by academics from Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University, has warned that unification would require a “major” cut in the standard of living in Ireland in order to allow Northern Ireland to maintain its own living standards. 

The research, by John FitzGerald and Edgar LW Morgenroth, warns that “whatever form Irish unity took there would be a heavy economic cost for both Northern Ireland and Ireland”. 

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