At over 600 pages, the University College of London’s report on “unification referendums on the island of Ireland” is a tome.
he academic title obscures the fact that it’s the most significant contribution to the constitutional debate in decades.
The report is based on the research of a group of academics, including Dr Katy Hayward and Professor John Garry. They take no position on a united Ireland, they’re just nerds who’ve thought about the big picture. I was privileged to be asked to give evidence to the panel in Belfast last year.
People think a united Ireland a simple matter of holding a vote and waiting for a result. It’s more complicated than that. Who should get the right to vote in a border poll? What will the question on the ballot be? What will the process look like?
In its report, UCL provides detailed answers and options. If a poll is ever called, the research could inform the Irish and British governments.
The report throws up a dilemma for unionism that never seems to go away. How should it respond to the united Ireland debate? To engage or not engage? There are no easy answers, but UCL has some suggestions. Even if it doesn’t want to talk about a united Ireland, unionism should pay attention to this report.
For unionists, our new political landscape is daunting.
It was reported in The Times last week that the Ulster Unionist Party will not attend an all-Island citizens assembly to discuss constitutional change. When questioned on Twitter, Doug Beattie said that it wasn’t his job to help design a united Ireland.
Bettie’s reluctance to engage with a Citizen’s Assembly is understandable. It’s one thing for unionists like me to talk about a border poll and a united Ireland, it’s another thing for political unionist leaders to do so. They fear that talking about a united Ireland gives the idea credence, that engaging with pro-unity groups could make it look like a border poll is likely. In its report, UCL noted that several unionists declined their invitation to give evidence.
There’s a push for unionists to tell pro-unity activists what they would like to see in a united Ireland. Some things should be obvious. Along with an all-island NHS, unionists and loyalists would want cultural protections in law and changes to the Irish constitution to allow British citizens the right to vote in constitutional referendums. Activists don’t need unionists to publicly talk about constitutional change to confirm this.
Unionism needs to be smart about who it talks to. At the same time, it shouldn’t bury its head in the sand. Forum is important, but there’s a difference between talking to campaign groups and organisations set up to look at process and detail. If an impartial body is set up to inform an actual border poll and the structure of a united Ireland, unionists should engage. Even if they don’t want to do so publicly, they could do it in private.
In its report, UCL examines the border poll process in detail. A border poll could be called but the Secretary of State could set a date for several years later. UCL suggests that unionism could feed into discussion at this point or do so later if Northern Ireland votes to join the south. There could be two referendums, one on the principle of a united Ireland, another on the form it will take.
We live in changed times. Groups have already been formed to fight on either side of the debate if a border poll is called. We’re told that people are having the conversation, to #think32 and #thisunionworks. For unionists, our new political landscape is daunting. They’ve never had to sell the union or Northern Ireland.
A united Ireland shouldn’t be unionism’s main focus right now. Voters care about housing, the NHS, their job prospects and their children’s futures. Political unionism is occupied with the Protocol, the pandemic and the union.
You still take out fire insurance when there’s a low chance of flames. Even if a border poll is rightly down unionism’s list of priorities, I hope people are paying attention to UCL’s report. You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules. Only then can unionism prepare and plan accordingly.