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Ireland unification referendums should only be held with 'clear plan for what follows', report finds

The working group said the “years of acrimony” following Brexit show the dangers of calling a vote without adequate planning.

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AN INTERIM REPORT on Ireland unification referendums has recommended that they should only be held with a clear plan for what follows afterwards.

The report, compiled out by prominent academics, explores how any future referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would be carried out.

It made a range of key findings, including that planning for the potential referendums should start in good time before the votes and should be led by the Irish and UK governments.

Unification can come about only through referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement supplies the framework for holding a referendum in Northern Ireland. It stipulates that a majority of 50% + 1 would be required to change the status quo. 

The decision to hold a referendum in the North lies with the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The report finds that they must act with “conspicuous care and transparent honesty and so maintain public trust.”

The Secretary of State is advised to weigh up a range of evidence in arriving at the decision to hold a border poll, including election results, opinion polls and votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly. 

If the North votes in favour of unification, a referendum would have to be held in the Republic. However, the report notes that the votes could take place on the same day.

The group said it would be for the Irish government to develop proposals for the form of a united Ireland. It suggested that a model could be proposed in advance, or the government could propose a process through which a model would be worked out afterwards.

If voters back unification, the governments of Ireland and the UK would negotiate the terms of the transfer of sovereignty. The report advises the governments to consult widely and seek as consensual an approach as possible.

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The working group also warned that the rules for referendum and election campaigns are badly out of date in the UK and Ireland, and they urgently need to be strengthened.

The document was created by a working group set up by University College London’s Constitutional Unit. The group is made up of 12 academic experts from universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Britain and the United States.

The group’s chair, Dr Alan Renwick of UCL’s constitution unit, said: “We have embarked on this work not because we think referendums are imminent—we do not—but because the whole process needs to be thought through well in advance.

The years of acrimony following the Brexit referendum illustrate the dangers of a vote called without adequate planning.

“To hold another referendum without a proper plan would risk the legitimacy of such a vote and political stability on the island of Ireland.”

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Ceimin Burke

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