The Irish government and a referendum

Etain Tannam

Editors’ Note: This post is part of an IACL-AIDC Blog Symposium on unification of the island of Ireland. The Symposium is co-hosted by the Constitution Project @ UCC Blog. Selected posts will also be co-hosted by the UKCLA Blog. The full set of posts can be found here.

The results of the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom immediately placed the issue of Irish unification in the spotlight, further highlighted by the success of Sinn Féin in the February 2020 Irish General Election. When the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was agreed, British and Irish governments assumed that unification was a distant prospect and that the UK and Ireland would remain member states of the EU. Thus, the Agreement provided for a majority rule in deciding whether unification would occur. Even if the Northern Irish electorate voted in favour of unification, under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement there is no obligation for the Irish government to hold a referendum; ‘the difference in the language theoretically opens possibilities for alternative modes’ . Thus, there is very little detail in the 1998 Agreement about the referendum issue, or the Irish government’s role. However, as Oran Doyle notes on this blog ‘it would be appropriate and desirable to make significant changes to the Irish state in the event of unification, principally to make it more hospitable to new citizens with a British identity’. Some changes could be made by legislation, but constitutional amendment would be required for others. It is most likely that Irish governmental involvement in the decision of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call a referendum would be significant for four key reasons:

 The constitutional, financial and public policy implications for Ireland

In practice, if a majority of voters in Northern Ireland vote to support unification, it is likely that a referendum would occur in Ireland, such would be the extent of constitutional and public policy change required. Issues such as creating a federal, or confederal state would arise, as well as a large range of public policy and financial issues. Unification would undoubtedly create extra financial burdens for the Irish state. A unilateral decision to call a referendum in Northern Ireland without adequate consultation with the Irish government would be highly unlikely. As Oran Doyle notes, the electorate in Northern Ireland need to know what exactly they are voting for, or against. Otherwise, the deep division created by the Brexit referendum would occur after a unification referendum and both governments would lack a clear mandate. The Brexit referendum shows the dangers of an open-ended question with no detail. Therefore, the Irish government’s role is significant in a Secretary of State’s decision to call a referendum, as its state would require significant transformation and preparation.

British -Irish intergovernmental cooperation, the peace process and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

For John Hume, former leader of the nationalist SDLP and the key strategist behind the peace process, the core reason for the conflict in Northern Ireland was that neither community felt it was protected securely by British and Irish governments. This logic first emerged in 1985 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and came to fruition in 1998 when the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed. For Hume, the key to peace was to reassure both identities and the key to reassurance was to enshrine the ‘totality’ of the relationship: internal cooperation in Northern Ireland (Strand 1), cross-border Northern Irish/Irish cooperation (Strand 2) and British and Irish intergovernmental cooperation (Strand 3). Thus, the 1998 Agreement provided for these 3 strands. Under Strand 3, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (B-IIGC) was established and it was intended that it would be equally central to the Agreement as Strand 1 (providing for the consociational devolved government). Thus, the Agreement’s Declaration of Support stated that:

It is accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements – an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North/South Ministerial Council, implementation bodies, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland – are interlocking and interdependent.

As regards the B-IIGC , article 5, Strand 3 stated:

In recognition of the Irish Government’s special interest in Northern Ireland and of the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in relation to Northern Ireland, there will be regular and frequent meetings of the Conference concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals. These meetings, to be co-chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would also deal with all-island and cross-border co-operation on non-devolved issues.

The logic of the peace process and the Agreement was that British-Irish cooperation would be institutionalised to ensure that sensitive issues would be managed jointly and a shared understanding would develop. A referendum on unification would clearly be one such issue necessitating British-Irish negotiation.

The need to protect and respect unionist and British identities in Ireland

The third reason why an Irish government would be likely to play a significant role informally in the decision to call a referendum is the scale of preparation necessary in the Irish state is at all levels if unification occurred – elite level and societal. A key issue would be the need to reassure unionists that their identity and rights were secure in an Irish state. Clear proposals to protect unionist identity and rights in Ireland would be necessary, on human rights grounds, but also to build a consent across both jurisdictions. As Aoife O’Donoghue notes: ‘In 1998, Ireland’s Attorney-General highlighted that “the commitments in the British-Irish Agreement to equality of treatment and parity of esteem, and to the dual citizenship rights of the people of Northern Ireland, are explicitly to apply irrespective of the status of Northern Ireland”. In this way, the 1998 Agreement offers protection to unionists in an Irish state, just as it does to nationalists in Northern Ireland. Specifically, the B-IIGC, though the subject of antipathy for many unionists, has the potential to protect unionist interests. Overall the need for specific measures to offer protection would necessitate British-Irish negotiation and discussion.

At societal level, the Irish public would also need to be prepared for a referendum on unification and for a united Ireland. Sensitivity to unionist and British identities would be required in a meaningful multicultural state. The recent controversy in Ireland about commemorating members of the (British) Royal Irish Constabulary who died in the Irish War of Independence highlights that not all Irish citizens have a reconciliation mindset and not all reflect on their attitudes to unionists and to the UK.

Therefore, while formally only the Secretary of State is responsible for a unification referendum, the Irish government is likely to play a significant role in planning for a unification outcome and also in providing information about the appropriate timing of a referendum in Ireland.

The 3 strands peace process approach and the Irish government’s commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement imply that the B-IIGC would be an appropriate forum for both governments to discuss a unification referendum, if a Secretary of State believed support for unification was increasing. However, the B-IIGC was not frequently convened after 2007 and despite Brexit’s challenges, it has barely met in the past few years. Many unionists opposed the B-IIGC, as they believed that by enshrining an Irish role, it signified a slippery slope to a united Ireland. It is unlikely that the current Tory government in London would warm to it. So there is a conundrum that while institutionalised cooperation may ensure long lasting cooperation with a multiplier effect, if there is an absence of political will, institutions are redundant and the multiplier effect cannot occur. However, no Irish government would allow the B-IIGC’s replacement. Apart from its centrality to the ‘totality of relations’ if it was abolished, then more unpicking could follow and the Agreement would unravel. It is possible that a re-framing of the B-IIGC to emphasise its protections for unionists and a repositioning of it would help strengthen it as a forum for British-Irish cooperation. For example, both the UK government and the Irish government have referred to the need to build networks between Ireland and British to help compensate for the loss of EU networks. Positioning the B-IIGC and the Agreement in these networks may make the B-IIGC more palatable to unionists and to the UK government.

To conclude, although legally only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the power to call a unification referendum, the Irish role in the decision would be likely to be significant. However, Westminster politics, most recently the sacking of the much-praised Secretary of State, Julian Smith, imply that the UK government’s prioritisation of Northern Ireland, British-Irish cooperation and its awareness of the need for long term preparation for a referendum, may not be high. In addition, the UK’s departure from the EU leaves it with a daunting international bargaining agenda and overload. As before, it is likely that the Irish government will concentrate resources on lobbying its UK counterpart to intensify communication and cooperation, so that any issues, including the unification issue, are managed as strategically and as sensitively as possible. The relationship needs immediate reinforcement, so that in the event of mounting pressures both governments are well-equipped to weather the storms.

Etain Tannam is Associate Professor International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin. Her main area of expertise is Irish/Northern cross-border cooperation and British-Irish cooperation, with emphasis on Brexit’s impact. She is currently writing a book British-Irish Relations in the 21st Century, 2021, forthcoming, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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