This is an edited text of a talk I gave at the Imagine! festival in March 2021 (as recorded on 18 March), starting with an expanded summary. I look first at the interim report of the working group set up by the University College London Constitution Unit to consider questions around border polls, to which I contributed. I then offer some ideas about where we should take political debate, given our current circumstances: this section of the talk draws on two blogs I wrote last month, here and here, which include many links to sources mentioned below.

Summary

My starting point in this talk is the work that’s been led by the UCL Constitution Unit on border polls. We set up a working group in 2019, and it produced an interim report late last year.

It’s essentially about the process for getting to a United Ireland, if that is the wish in polls North and South, and for deciding what it should look like. The report is not a blueprint, more an agenda for an informed debate about the subject. We have the debate at the moment, but there’s often a lack of information. The group collectively had no views on the desirability of either a border poll, or of unity.

I focus here on three main sections of the report.

When should the Secretary of State should call a poll? He must do so if he thinks there is a majority for unity. The group assessed all the sources of evidence he might consider: all are imperfect, and there is no simple formula to follow. But his conduct in reaching his judgement must be irreproachable: it is vital he maintains trust in its integrity, or many will believe the foundations of the 1998 settlement are in danger. It is clear however that there is no measure a majority for unity at present.”

What should the process be for deciding the shape of a United Ireland? The text of the Agreement on constitutional status can only be read as requiring 50% plus one majorities in each part of Ireland. But the rest of the Agreement lays great emphasis on consensus: cross community support for government structures in Northern Ireland and their key decisions has been regarded as indispensable for half a century. A large measure of consensus may be essential to creating a stable United Ireland. But Unionists are unlikely to contribute to its design before unity is certain. We discuss mechanisms one or more pairs of referendums, and political negotiations.

Finally we look at the decisions that will need to be made in such a process about the shape of a United Ireland – we don’t comment on the substance, but they are wide-ranging and often difficult. All of them need more analysis and debate.

But the main thrust of the talk is about where we take the debate about our political future from here, given the challenging political circumstances that we are now in.

We are potentially in a time when many of the sands are shifting. Trust is disappearing everywhere. The British Government’s position is gravely compromised.

The promise many once saw in the Agreement has largely disappeared, its broader objectives are no longer being pursued, and its institutions are again on fragile foundations.

Some see unity as the answer. But a majority for unity may not be at all imminent. If all the attention is focused on union versus unity, there are serious dangers of sterile and destructive politics.

In the short-term we need an urgent effort to recreate a more positive political culture, and in particular to carry forward the work of the Good Friday Agreement. That involves developing a programme to fulfil its broader objectives. Those objectives are neglected at present, but still highly relevant to providing a better future for people here; and the institutions, to be successful and resilient, need a programme to carry forward.

That is the most urgent issue, but we also need to discuss unity and other destinies: including the questions around unity in the report, but also looking beyond the binary transfer of sovereignty model; and at better arrangements within the UK.

Finally I’ll suggest that that all this new thinking requires a real effort from people outside active politics in Northern Ireland to produce ideas and analysis. Ultimately the political system played its part; and the British and Irish governments must have a clear understanding of and focus on Northern Ireland, and work effectively together. But others need to make the first moves.

[BORDER POLL OR BUST: THE NEED FOR POLITICAL DIALOGUE, AND ITS PRIORITIES]

The working group

Let me begin with why we set up the working group on border polls.

The first piece of work that the Constitution Unit did on the issue was a discussion paper that I wrote a couple of years ago.

It seemed right to look at these questions, because the prospect of early unity was starting to be discussed in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. And we were also seeing a number of opinion polls that, taken at face value, suggested a majority for unity might not be far off – I’ll come back to those polls later.

But what would be involved in the process of unification under the Good Friday Agreement was then very largely unexplored. It would be disastrous – look at the Brexit parallels – for a poll to be called without serious analysis and discussion about the key issues; and without there being on the table, before the vote, a clear plan about what a United Ireland might look like; and for how to get there, involving all traditions as far as possible in its design.

The Agreement sets out the principle that there should be Irish unity if there is simple majority support in both parts of the island, without external impediment. And it says the Secretary of State must start the process, by calling a border poll, if he thinks there is a majority in the North for unity.

But that judgement is potentially a very difficult one, with no further guidance as to how the Secretary of State should decide.

And beyond that, the Agreement says only a little either about the route towards a United Ireland, or what the destination would look like.

These questions weren’t considered in 1998. The Agreement negotiations barely touched on constitutional issues – a recent article by one of my Irish counterparts in the Agreement negotiations, Rory Montgomery, brings that out.

The participants all bought into the principle in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 that unity was a matter for consent in the two parts of the island of Ireland, with the British government having no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.

But time for negotiation was short, there were many issues of pressing political importance and there was no interest in having debates about difficult issues that were seen as unlikely to arise for some decades, if they ever did.

I don’t believe that the arrangement putting the trigger for the whole process in the hands of the Secretary of State, through a border poll, was really discussed at all – though it’s not obvious what other mechanism there could have been in the circumstances.

The questions set out in the discussion paper seemed worth going into further, and we were able to put together a group composed largely of political science and legal academics from universities in Belfast and Dublin, as well as UCL (and Pennsylvania), to look at them.

This project was a neutral study, not a work of advocacy. Collectively the group was neither for nor against a border poll, neither for nor against unity.

That’s in line with my personal position, if I can declare it – we get hung up too much on constitutional forms, or anyway the debates between the political players does. We would be better giving more attention to finding to find arrangements that as large a number of people as possible can identify with…

But we also need arrangements that will give us good government and prosperity. That last objective is something our current system does not take seriously enough, and I think we suffer, and political stability suffers, as a result – which is the reason for my involvement in setting up the think tank Pivotal.

I suggest the Executive would have been much more resilient against collapse in 2017 if it had under its belt a substantial record of achievement, and worthwhile projects in hand.

The group’s work was mainly focused on suggesting processes before, during and after border polls that would give the best chance of political stability in the new state, if that was the choice, and through transition to it – the how you get there bit.

We only looked at the substance, the shape of the unified state, to identify the questions: what decisions needed to be made during the process.

We tried to listen to the widest possible range of views. Though there were some on the Unionist side who thought that it was dangerous to get into these questions at all, and understandable view but one which ultimately I suggest does not serve their interests.

We produced our interim report last November. It’s enormous: I don’t delude myself that many people have read it in full. But we have had some useful responses.

The group will produce a final version in the next few months, and we’ll try then to get the message out to a wider audience.

We are not putting the report forward as any sort of last word on the issues it covers: this is in fact the first time some of them have been seriously scrutinised. It points up a lot of areas where more facts and analysis are needed; and fuller debate on the basis of them.

The report

Let me turn to three key elements of the report. What I say is a personal take on the report, but I think it’s entirely consistent with our findings.

1: when should the Secretary of State call a poll?

Under the Agreement, and UK law reflecting it, the Secretary of State must call a poll if it seems likely to him that a majority of those voting would favour unity. And he can call one at any time. (There is a minimum seven-year gap between polls, but that isn’t immediately relevant).

It is important to say here that that a great deal turns even now on the Secretary of State commanding trust in the way he keeps under review his duty to call a poll.

Because the constitutional status provisions for many people are the keystone of the Agreement, of the 1998 settlement. The Secretary of State is the person charged with ensuring that they are observed.

The courts, in a case bought by Raymond McCord, have underlined the need for honesty and propriety in his decisions.

Any suggestion that the decision is being influenced by considerations about, say, resisting an independence referendum in Scotland would be open to legal action. But it would also challenge the government’s credibility seriously, and that could have grave real-world consequences.

This concern could quickly become serious if there were a few polls suggesting a bare majority for unity.

There are various sorts of evidence the Secretary of State might look at. The main ones we identified were, fairly unsurprisingly, election results, opinion polls, and other expressions of political opinion, like Assembly votes.

But all of these are very imperfect indicators, as I’ll outline.

In these circumstances, the group couldn’t properly suggest any simple formula, or any precise weighting of the different sorts of evidence, the Secretary of State ought to draw on. Each sort of evidence needs to be assessed in context at the time.

Opinion polls have come nearest to suggesting a majority for unity, but it is especially difficult to be confident about them, because different methodologies give different results.

At present, online polling, which is generally conducted by only one company in Northern Ireland, LucidTalk, tends to show significantly more support for unity than other sorts of polling. The LucidTalk poll for the Sunday Times last month showed 42% favouring Irish unity now – though that was three percentage points down on a similar poll last year – and 47% against.

Interview-based surveys, like the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, generally pick up much less support for unity: the 2019 NILT survey showed 25% who would vote for unity in a referendum tomorrow, 51% against and a large proportion of don’t knows. The methodologies used in surveys like NILT are considered by many specialists to be the most reliable.

But there has been much discussion recently about the rival merits of different sorts of polling in Northern Ireland circumstances – questions like which approach best picks up people hesitant to tell a pollster a preference, how do we account for the large proportion of don’t knows in face-to-face polling, what of the people who typically don’t vote but might in a border poll. We hear of shy nationalists and scundered unionists.

There are no clear answers to these questions. If the polls and surveys agreed, they would be more convincing, but it’s hard to argue that online polls alone come near to clinching the argument.

In any event, as the head of the Northern Ireland polling company Lucidtalk has said, it’s hard to put much confidence in the predictive capacity of polling ahead of a debate on the issues – perhaps not before a campaign. And opinion often shifts significantly during campaigns – as in the Scottish independence referendum.

That doesn’t make the Secretary of State’s decision any easier.

The other main sort of evidence for him to look at is election results. Conceptually it can be argued they are less appropriate as indicators, because people vote for parties without necessarily endorsing all their platform. On the other hand, everyone of voting age has a chance to be included; there are not the same problems about methodology; there is a single authoritative result.

Election results don’t at present suggest anything like a majority for unity, or an early poll: we are a long way from 50% support for nationalist parties – 38% in the 2019 general election.

Numbers of seats in the Assembly or Parliament are clearly less good evidence of how the public might vote, given the vagaries of the electoral system – particularly for Westminster.

And so an Assembly vote for unity may not directly address the Secretary of State’s duty.

But an Assembly vote clearly would change the terms of the debate very significantly; depending on the circumstances, it might be seismic. This is one of the cases where we suggest that the Secretary of State might need to call a poll, whatever his assessment of the exact outcome. But that does not appear likely in the near future.

Short of that, the decisions are very difficult – and as I say there is no simple formula to be offered. If opinion became more finely balanced, the group suggests the Secretary of State would benefit from independent, expert advice.

As a group we looked at the evidence as we saw it, and concluded that none of it suggests that there is a majority at present for unity. And such a majority doesn’t appear imminent.

And for that reason, we don’t suggest it’s time that the governments need to work together on a plan for referendums. Any decision to do that would change the political debate in Northern Ireland radically: all the focus would then be on union versus unity, and away from other issues. Which has potentially damaging consequences.

2: the process for getting to a United Ireland

The group concludes that under the Agreement the question whether to have a United Ireland is inescapably a simple majority decision, that is it requires assent by 50% plus one in each part of the island. And, as the Agreement says, with no external impediment: preferences elsewhere in the UK do not figure in the decision.

Historically and politically, the Agreement could not have said otherwise. We would not have had an Agreement if anyone had insisted on supermajority thresholds.

But many other parts of the Agreement, as Seamus Mallon pointed out, emphasise consensus among different political traditions. The Agreement itself was reached by a consensus threshold. It provided for power-sharing government operating on key issues by cross community support.

That model responded to the received wisdom of the last 50 years that you can’t achieve stable government in Northern Ireland without a large measure of consensus.

And the group takes the view that developing the form of a United Ireland – if ever that is the popular will – would need to pursue consensus principles as far as possible too.

That is emphatically not to reintroduce a higher threshold for unity, if unity is what a majority of voters in each jurisdiction want.

But seeking consensus about the form of unity, and particularly as it bears on Northern Ireland, may be essential for the stability of the new state.

It would be a great prize to have on the title deeds of the new unified state the signatures of people representing at least a major part of the Unionist tradition. If there were none, it might well be a recipe for serious discontent.

So we make suggestions for processes aiming at a measure of consensus between the different traditions in the island in the shape of a United Ireland. We look closely at three variants.

This is one of the reasons the report is so long – these processes are complicated. Reconciling the majority principle about constitutional status, and the desirability of consensus about what follows, is a real conundrum.

In the abstract, the simplest arrangement would be for there to be full planning for a United Ireland, and engagement with all traditions on it, before the referendums, North and South. So the electorate would be voting on a clear plan for a new state.

We outline what this process would involve, as our first main option.

But people campaigning for the union are unlikely to divide their efforts between that campaign, and planning for Irish unity. It would probably be a struggle to get any Unionist engagement on the shape of a united Ireland until it is inevitable that is going to be the destination.

So we also looked closely at two configurations in which there would be an attempt, after the referendums to decide the principle of unity – when it is more likely that people on the pro-union side would participate – to seek consensus among the traditions in Northern Ireland and in the south about the shape of the resulting unified state.

It would be necessary even in this case to have a plan, a clear proposed model of the unified state from the pro-unity side, which could be discussed during the campaign.

But that model would be subject to a negotiation in the years following the referendums, aimed at finding a consensus about the future.

On one of these two configurations, the negotiation would take before the transfer of sovereignty. On the other, it would take place afterwards.

In both cases there would be further referendums on the resulting plan.

But a real complication here is that these negotiations will only work if there is no chance of them undoing the decision in favour of unity – otherwise Unionists would be tempted simply to seek that outcome. The only way round this may be to have a default unification plan that takes effect in the absence of consensus and referendum approval. By definition, that wouldn’t be an agreed Ireland.

So there is nothing like a perfect solution. These two models make for a complex and challenging process, with much opportunity for the politics to go wrong. But it’s through painfully elaborate mechanisms that we have at times resolved political differences in the past.

These are our first thoughts. The process for getting to unity needs much more attention.

Ultimately, of course, it would require the British and Irish governments to work very closely together. The group does not suggest the governments need to take the leading role now, and as I’ll discuss later it may not be easy for them to do so at present.

But at some stage they would need to oversee and seek to keep on track the processes around referendums, and that would require a high degree of cooperation and mutual trust.

3: the agenda of issues to be decided about the shape of a United Ireland

The group did not reach any conclusions on any of the substantive issues about the shape of the United Ireland – though we do indicate what is within the terms of the Agreement.

Our main aim in Chapter 7 of our report was to set out what the key questions on the agenda would be – and we have done it, I think, in a more comprehensive and detailed way than has been done before.

These are the issues a debate, and a process of engagement and negotiation around referendums, must encompass. Some of them are very big: of fundamental importance to the way a new state will be run, and what its people can hope for.

In many cases, more information and analysis are needed for them to be debated intelligently.

The debate needs to start with the key values that would inform the structure of the United Ireland. The report brings out some of those.

The fundamental question is perhaps where the unity plan would be on a spectrum running between…

the minimalist extension of the current Irish Constitution to encompass the North… which is liable to be seen by Unionists as a hostile takeover; to

the creation on a blank sheet of paper of a new state… which is clearly a very big enterprise.

More concretely, we identify issues around:

  • how far the 1998 Agreement should govern the structure of the United Ireland – there are very few cases where it makes express provision. But as a matter of politics and principle, it’s hard to say that its fundamentals have no application in a United Ireland.
  • how Northern Ireland would fit into the architecture of Irish government – a unitary state, or a state with a devolved Northern Ireland – mirroring the position of Northern Ireland within the UK at the moment – or a federal state.
  • the possibility of a long transition to Irish unity, and governance in that stage.
  • issues the two governments would primarily negotiate: notably around finance, and the inevitable deficit that would arise, at least in the short-term. We also look at EU issues that would arise; and citizenship.
  • issues about identity, and characteristics of the Irish state – questions like should the rules change on language, flags and other symbols; should Ireland join the Commonwealth; would it be neutral, or might it join NATO; should there be some recognition of the British monarchy, even if only a symbolic one, as an entity to which many citizens of the new state would feel affinity.
  • the question whether all these arrangements should be embodied in a new Irish Constitution, rather than simply amendments to the existing Bunreacht na hÉireann.
  • some of the key individual policy questions that would arise around fusing of institutions and policies. They would loom larger if a unitary model were chosen – devolution might avoid some of them. So around, for example, policing; health and welfare provision; the different systems of law and courts.
  • And we look finally at wider relations, particularly between the different parts of the two islands.

There are a great many tricky questions here. We don’t set them all to suggest that a United Ireland is impossibly difficult to achieve. Indeed we list some of the factors about the shared heritage of the two parts of Ireland that make it easier.

But it shouldn’t be assumed that all the problems can be satisfactorily resolved simply by sufficient political will.

And these are not just detail or geek issues, to be looked at only after the decision in principle. Recently published accounts underline one of the really serious flaws in the British government’s approach to Brexit: lots of people told them there were serious problems around Ireland, starting before the referendum, but they chose either not to hear, or to see them as all a matter of detail to be ironed out once the grand design of Brexit was settled. Again, we must not make the great Brexit errors.

The group also looks briefly at what might be offered in the context of Northern Ireland remaining in the UK. We were able to do no more than nod at these questions. The proponents of the union simply could rest on the status quo – so no issues necessarily arise to be discussed in that context, as they do with unity.

It might be thought that people who favoured the union would want to propose reforms so as to meet the concerns of some of those who favour unity. That is really what the politics of border polls requires: each side needs to appeal not just to its own section of the community, as most of our main parties tend to do, but across the whole field – and especially to people in the centre ground. And they would need the arguments and the people to make them convincingly in that context.

Logically, this is what unionism would be preparing for. But it is a dramatic shift from the way politics is conducted in Northern Ireland at present.

The second part of these thoughts focus on what, in the light of the report, we should do

What follows is purely a personal view: these are not matters that the working group looked at.

I have said we need a debate, and an informed debate. Certainly around the issues in this report, but is that all?

We need to think about this in the current political context.

There is a sense around that we are at a turning point: politics have changed away from the model we’ve operated under, or sought to get back to, over the last 20 years.

For a time the pursuit of the Agreement was a central feature of politics: it embodied a plan, and it had behind it idealism, energy, and hope, which very many people in the community brought into. The Agreement transcended the binary split as regards Northern Ireland’s medium term future.

But the institutional parts of the plan are now largely complete, and in execution they now seem tarnished. The institutions have comparatively few achievements to their credit – and are not held in high public esteem. Many people have put great effort into keeping them going, and how the times taken great political risks to do so – and I certainly do not mean to denigrate that achievement, because having the institutions in places fundamental to everything else. But there is undoubtedly public disappointment over their delivery record.

And as to the larger objectives of the Agreement – they are not now being seriously pursued. I’m speaking here about issues such as reconciliation, recognition of identity, rights and equality, prosperity, and strengthening north-south and east-west relations.

The various attempts to shore up the Agreement structures over the years have neglected these broader foundations: they have been essentially institutional sticking plaster. That may have been understandable in its context, where the immediate threat was from a political breakdown.

But the governments, parties and many others may too often have assumed throughout the process that with the institutions in place, achievement of the broader goals would flow automatically. Functioning politics may be a necessary condition of achieving those goals, but it is not sufficient.

Can we go back to the progress that was slowly being made in the best years of power-sharing? The political context is changing fast.

  • The consensus between the main parties we had in the most positive years of power-sharing has leached away… and politics is likely to continue fractured because of the way Brexit has played out here. Political dialogue seems to be moving into the old binary model of union versus unity, through proxy issues around the Protocol.
  • The sands are shifting elsewhere. Unionism has been losing its majorities, and it may lose another one in the results of this year’s census.
  • There are regular demonstrations of the lack of affinity that the rest of the UK feels for Northern Ireland – only 31% of English voters in a recent poll would be upset by Irish unity, there are regular pieces from English commentators on their willingness to see us go.
  • Scotland may be on the move constitutionally, with potentially great, though uncertain, impact here.
  • And almost everyone in Northern Ireland mistrusts the British government. There was never perfect trust, of course, but there is now massively less. For many people there was once a sense that Westminster offered a safety net, providing basically competent and honest government if local efforts failed. Looking at London over the last few years, the competence and honesty is now much harder to see – though there is still the financial dependence.
  • All this leaves unionism in particular struggling for direction.
  • And it means looking to the British and Irish Governments for the political leadership they have often provided in the past is very difficult. Besides London’s reputation here, its relations with Dublin are in a poor state.
  • Of course the sands may be shifting in Dublin as well, with Sinn Féin riding high in the polls.
  • Finally, we are seeing an active American interest in Northern Ireland once more.

We have the Assembly election next year, risking further upsets, for good or ill:

  • Especially if after a hard campaign around the Protocol, Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party with the right to nominate the First Minister – what would unionism do? It could accept the process and nominate a deputy First Minister: the two posts are after all coequal in power and standing. But this would be another shock to the Unionist system.
  • And if the old two bloc model continues to slip away, with the rise of centre ground parties, as we saw in elections in 2019, we are in a different sort of dynamic, which will raise questions about the way the current arrangements treat non-aligned members: in some circumstances, their votes count for less than those of unionists and nationalists.

It is right to reflect on the gloomy possibilities. It now has to be said that there is a clear risk that we may be looking in the next few months or the next few years at the unwinding of the Good Friday Agreement settlement. The institutions may be holding up at present chiefly because the electorate might be particularly unforgiving to parties who brought it down while a pandemic rages.

If the institutions fall over, it may be very hard this time to get them functioning again. And in their absence, many gains of the Agreement risk falling apart too.

Is Irish unification the immediate answer to the challenges we may face?

A sizeable number of people seem now to think we have reached the turning point, and unity is the answer.

As I said, we haven’t heard a lot about how we get there, or what it will look like.

But it often seems these are the only people who have any sort of plan.

I suggest early unity is not the answer, for two reasons.

First, as I said, we didn’t in the working group conclude that a majority for unity exists, nor does it appear imminent. The polling evidence is for the moment against, or strongly against, depending on the polls you look at. And there is nothing like a majority for political parties with a declared policy of unity.

Is this likely to change suddenly?

The issue now looks likely to be decided in the middle ground, which may loom very much larger in the Assembly after next May.

The parties there have traditionally not gone for constitutional big bangs.

The latest poll, conducted – online – in January – offered some insight into centre ground voter opinion: 26% favouring remaining in the union, 38% favouring United Ireland, and 36% undecided: rather a large number. It also suggested that only 75% of SDLP voters would favour unity at the moment – we are awaiting the establishment by the SDLP of a Commission to flesh out its unity policy.

Opinion may of course move, when we get into a discussion of the shape of a United Ireland, and the road to it. In the North, but also in the south, where polls have generally suggested a majority favouring unity in principle.

How will it evolve? Unity on any plan is likely to bring disruptive change, with potential consequences for many in the north and south, losers as well as winners. And it is quite likely that the debate will lead people to be cautious, as often happens in constitutional referendums.

One way of reading Seamus Mallon’s last book is that people convinced in principle of the desirability of Irish unity might reasonably conclude they should vote against it, if they thought the process of getting there was likely to be a nightmare. As, with 50% +1 majorities, it might well be.

Reasoning of that sort might start to influence votes.

The second reason for not putting all eggs in the unity basket is that unity cannot plausibly be seen as a universal solvent for Northern Ireland’s problems.

There is likely still to be under any scheme of unity a need to govern with consensus in the North, unless and until the fractures in our society disappear. There will still be grave economic difficulties, struggling public services, issues about the past. Indeed the road to unity may exacerbate the problems.

At all events, looking at the present context, we may not see a majority for unity for a considerable time. And in this there is real danger. We may face a prolonged stand-off, with politics essentially sterile even if the institutions survive, where the largest parties take up the traditional battlelines of union versus unity. In that scenario we risk the deterioration of the social and economic fabric, because no one is paying attention, with polarisation deepening in the community, young people deserting and international goodwill ebbing away.

 

Given these dangers, then unless unity is coming in the short-term, and it will solve all the problems the 1998 settlement aims to resolve, I suggest the debate on the constitutional future needs to address what is most urgent.

As I’ve argued in a blog recently, the immediate priority to is to seek to revive the Agreement and positive politics: to develop a new programme to fulfil its objectives, around reconciliation, rights and equality, dealing with the past, building prosperity.

A great deal more could be done in that direction, if there was the political will. I don’t suggest simply combining the traditional shopping lists: we need a really thoughtful look at policies. But work has been done inside and outside government on aspects of these issues.

It has often lacked the political will to implement it, and it has not been brought together into a single programme as was done in 1998, hence has made little impact on the political and media discourse, or public consciousness.

An effort to revive the Agreement, and the spirit of working together on the problems we all face, is urgent.

Because, as so often, we go forward or we go backwards in politics here, we can’t stand still.

And because, I suggest, ensuring Northern Ireland works is a necessary element in the advance of political agendas in whatever direction we may be going. Why?

Political stability here is essential for successful Irish unity, as much as it is for a successful Northern Ireland within the union. As I suggested earlier, voters contemplating nightmare scenarios might be cautious. A thoroughly dysfunctional Northern Ireland with many hostile unionists may not seem to voters in the South an attractive immediate extension to their state. Even voters there convinced of the need for unity may prefer a model where Northern Ireland is insulated by separate institutions: but that requires those institutions to be stable.

Nor will a dysfunctional Northern Ireland endear itself to the other island, whose attachment as we discussed is already doubtful. We risk ending up being unwanted by everyone.

But we also need reflection about the longer term dimensions: to think creatively about new arrangements.

We should certainly debate and analyse the issues around unity in the working group report. I’ve outlined the key ones, but there is an enormous agenda there. What a united Irish state would look like, and how we get there with the fullest buy in.

But we should be more adventurous. The working group’s consideration was set in the context of the provisions of the Agreement. It is hard to see joint sovereignty, or confederation, for example, options that have been looked at seriously in the past, as consistent with the strict drafting of the Agreement.

But as I have outlined, the Agreement was arrived at without any serious thought as to what might in fact be entailed in Irish unity and the transition to it.

And, as we have seen for example at St Andrews, it can develop – though critically it has to do so by consensus: I am certainly not suggesting any unilateral initiatives here.

So we ought to reflect imaginatively on hybrid constitutional forms that might better accommodate the different identities. That is forms that on the one hand could be regarded as a fulfilment of Irish unity, Northern Ireland becoming part of an Irish union; and on the other, maintaining a British link. We do not need to get hung up on heavily dated conceptions of the nation state.

And this reflection needs to take place in the context of potential constitutional change within the UK, which may see Scotland and even Wales cease to be part of the UK, with arrangements likely to be put in place for cooperation and coordination between them, possibly even structures of a confederal nature.

And if there is not an early move to independence, we may at some point see the UK government taking initiatives to change relationships with the devolved parts of the kingdom, in order to maintain unity.

So we need to be inventive. It bears repeating, though, that any future constitution making, whether that is about Irish unity in its classic form, or something else, needs to have serious regard to how effectively any new forms of government operate – rather than simply satisfying some big political equation. The equation is often the limit of political discourse. And the bigger political aspects of a settlement may of course be critical to its success. But as I suggested earlier the lesson of recent years is that we also need to focus on the effectiveness of the institutions in delivering good government and public services: if they do that, they will be much more resilient. Look at Great Britain to see how Boris Johnson is riding high on the success of a key public service, the vaccination programme, despite a much more doubtful record on dealing with Covid earlier.

Who would do the thinking on a revived Agreement programme, and the broader future?

The political system is not going to produce lots of analysis, new ideas, daring proposals, spontaneously. There are constructive people in all parts of the political spectrum, but they need help. The biggest parties are constrained by their bases, who are often inflexible in their outlook.

It is important that work starts to map out what a revived Agreement might look like, and provide an agenda for coherent public debate. And to raise aspirations: poverty of ambition and a fatalism that says nothing can be achieved too often inhibit progress.

The governments ought to be looking at this, but may be unlikely to do so of their own accord. The British government at present seems to have other priorities.

And, since there is no sign of the governments beginning work themselves on broader constitutional options – and indeed in the working group we didn’t suggest that was yet appropriate – reflection about the longer term is also a challenge for the nonofficial world.

That is, civil society if you like. Including academia, the third sector, business unions and think tanks.

There is at present no broadly-based framework for coordinating such work. There are groups with aspirations to make things work better. There are initiatives under the Shared Island programme. There are also academics working in the field: they now include the ARINS project. This is a welcome initiative, but Dublin-based.

Planning for reinvigorating the Agreement needs to bring in practical expertise, and for reasons of political acceptability and nothing else, to be northern-based.

I hope it may be possible to pull together a group that could look, in a neutral way like the UCL working group, at the options for potential future political arrangements, in the near and longer terms.

I hope to produce a discussion paper for UCL about the future options.

Of course, programmes drawn up by outsiders will not be accepted wholesale: the political questions would need to be addressed by the political machine. It may be unrealistic to hope a single draft of a revived Agreement can be developed, given the controversies. But reasoned options for such a programme, to be drawn on as political conditions permit, would have great value. And given that we risk seeing the institutions in danger before long, and that a political crunch is likely to be the occasion for embracing new ideas, it is worth starting this work now.

Conclusion

I’ve tried to suggest that we need that we need debate, and informed debate, and need new analysis to feed into it, about our constitutional future. That certainly includes the issues raised by the working group. But also that saving the Agreement – maintaining its institutions but also renewing the drive to fulfil its underlying commitments – is an essential foundation for any successful future.

And that we need to broaden the debate to transcend the old binary division of union versus unity: our politics now encompasses other possibilities than that, and we need to develop them.

And I believe this work will only get done if people outside politics and government in Northern Ireland, as well as within, provide the impetus – though it will be imperative that we once again see the close involvement of the British and Irish governments, working together, at some point.

Alan Whysall
Honorary Senior Research Associate, The Constitution Unit, University College London

back to blog