The Constitution Unit


Alan Renwick speaks with Oireachtas Joint committee about Working Group report

1 April 2021

Members of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland joined an oral hearing with the Irish parliament's Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, to discuss the group's interim report. 

Dr Alan Renwick speaks with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

Dr Alan Renwick, Chair of the Working Group and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and three other members of the Working Group  Drs Etain Tannam and David Kenny of Trinity College Dublin, and Professor Christopher McCrudden of Queen's University Belfast  discussed the findings of the Group's interim report on 30 March 2020 with a committee of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). The Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement includes members of both houses of the Oireachtas the Dáil and Seanad – and some members of the Westminster Parliament elected from constituencies in Northern Ireland also attend. You can watch the session here.

Alan first outlined the purpose and nature of the Group. The Group was established because referendums on the unification question might happen. While the Group concludes that such referendums are not imminent, the group recognises and emphasises the importance of conducting them well. However, no one has thought through in detail how such referendums would take place. The aim of the research of the Working Group is to fill that gap by examining how referendums would best be designed and conducted. The Group does not take a view on whether such referendums should take place, or what the outcome should be if they do. The group comprises 12 academic experts based in London, Belfast, Dublin and Pennsylvania. Find out more about the composition of the group here

Alan outlined some of the main conclusions of the Working Group's interim report, which was published in November 2020:

  • Unification could not happen without a referendum vote in its favour in Northern Ireland. A referendum would be required in the South as well, either amending or replacing the Constitution.
  • The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a referendum if a majority for unification appears to him or her likely.
  • Referendums north and south wouldn’t have to be on the same day. But the same proposal would have to be put to voters.
  • The threshold in each referendum would be a simple majority of 50% + 1. If that threshold were met in both jurisdictions, unification would then have to take place.
  • The 1998 Agreement’s wider ethos of seeking to proceed by consensus should be upheld as far as possible.
  • A plan for a referendum and its processes should be agreed upon before a referendum is called.
  • There are several plausible configurations of referendums north and south, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Referendums may take place relatively early in the process, before the details of a united Ireland have been worked out; or later, once a plan has been developed. 
  • Existing campaign rules are badly out of date in the digital age in both the UK and Ireland, and urgently need to be strengthened.

The Working Group were asked questions by representatives of all the parties present – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Labour, the SDLP and the Alliance Party – as well as independents. Political representatives were interested to hear more about the referendum threshold, how the governments in Westminster and Ireland can better work together on the issue, and how best to enable people in Northern Ireland and Ireland to participate in discussions about the future of the island of Ireland in a way that includes all parts of society. Those present also raised concerns that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has not been fully implemented and that there should be a greater focus on fulfilling what was set out in 1998. There was recognition that academics play an important role in providing a neutral forum for discussion of such matters. 

The Working Group aims to publish its final report in May 2021. 

Key Links

  • Read the interim report by the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.
  • Learn more about the Working Group and the project here.
  • Watch the session in full here.