The Constitution Unit


Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland

A project examining how any future referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would be best designed and conducted.

Unification referendums on the island of Ireland

The Constitution Unit has teamed up with partner institutions in Belfast and Dublin to examine how any future referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland (often known as a ‘border poll’) would best be designed and conducted. The project is not looking at, and will not take a view on, whether such a vote would be desirable or what the outcome should be. 

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A referendum of this kind is envisaged by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to call such a vote if a majority for a united Ireland appears likely. Recent developments have increased the chances that this condition could be met in the coming years. Yet no detailed public thinking has been done on what form the vote should take. Fundamental problems may therefore arise: a badly structured process could become chaotic, the results might not be accepted as legitimate, and there could be civil unrest. The goal of the project is to put that necessary thinking in place.

The project is made possible by generous funding from the British Academy under its Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme and from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It responds to the possibility of a future referendum by bringing together a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. Comprising scholars with expertise in politics, law, sociology, and history, this group will consult and deliberate, and expects to produce a report in early 2021. The members of the Working Group are listed below.

Background Paper and Blog Posts

Background Paper

In preparation for the main project, the Unit published a background report in March 2019 that sought to stimulate discussion by outlining the key issues. Written by Unit Honorary Senior Research Associate and former civil servant Alan Whysall, this set out the current situation, including the gaps and anomalies in the existing legal provision, and examined possible ways of addressing these deficiencies.

Read the Report

A Northern Ireland border poll – summary of background paper

Blog Posts

Key Questions

The questions that the Working Group is exploring cover referendums both north and south of the border and processes before, during, and after the vote itself. They include (but are not limited to):

  • What objective evidence should be used to gauge whether the majority of people in Northern Ireland might favour a united Ireland? How would the process of a referendum in the North be triggered?
  • What options for Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s future governance could be considered if there were votes in favour of Irish unity, and what implications would these have for the nature of the decision-making process? Who should make such decisions about the process, and on what basis?
  • How and where in the process should citizens be engaged in discussions about the options? Might citizens’ assemblies be employed, as has happened in Ireland recently on matters such as same-sex marriage and abortion?
  • At what stage or stages in the process would referendums take place, both north and south? Would they take place before any negotiations on the form that a united Ireland would take or after such negotiations, or both before and after? Would they take place simultaneously north and south?
  • How would the campaigns during the referendum be regulated? How should the ballot papers be designed? What provisions would be made to ensure that voters could make an informed choice free from unfair campaign practices?
  • What should be the qualifications for voting in referendums, North and South?
Working Group members

Arthur Arghey
Arthur Aughey
Arthur Aughey is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull. He is an expert on unionism in Northern Ireland and has published widely on constitutional change and politics in the United Kingdom. His latest book, The Conservative Party and the Nation: Union, England and Europe, was published in 2018.

Oran Doyle
Oran Doyle
Dr Oran Doyle is Associate Professor in Law at Trinity College Dublin. He is an expert on Irish and comparative constitutional law, and his latest book, The Irish Constitution: A Contextual Analysis was published by Hart in 2018. In 2016–17, he was a constitutional law advisor to the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. In 2019–20, he is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

John Garry
John Garry
John Garry is Professor of Political Behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast and a Fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. His research interests focus on electoral and deliberative democracy, his most recent book being Consociation and Voting in Northern Ireland. He is now leading a major study of deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland on the topic of ‘Brexit and the border’.

Paul Gillespie
Paul Gillespie
Dr Paul Gillespie is Senior Research Fellow and the Deputy Director of the Institute for British–Irish Studies in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin, and a long-standing columnist with The Irish Times. He specialises in Irish–British relations and European integration. He is co-editor of Britain and Europe: The Endgame, An Irish Perspective, published by the Institute of  International and European Affairs in Dublin.

Cathy Gormley-Heenan
Cathy Gormley-Heenan
Cathy Gormley-Heenan is Professor of Politics and
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and External Affairs) at Ulster University. She is an expert on Northern Irish politics and the politics of peace processes and divided societies, and has published a notable range of articles and reports on Northern Ireland’s peace walls. She is also a regular political commentator for the BBC.

Katy Hayward
Katy Hayward
Dr Katy Hayward is Reader in Sociology and a Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. Having long-standing expertise on the impact of the EU on the Irish border and peace process, she is currently a Senior Fellow of the ESRC-funded UK in a Changing Europe initiative, focusing on Brexit and Northern Ireland/the Irish border.

Robert Hazell
Robert Hazell

Professor Robert Hazell was the founder and first Director of the Constitution Unit from 1995 until 2015. He is an expert on most aspects of the UK constitution, including devolution and inter-governmental relations. He led the Unit’s early work on Scottish independence, and has long maintained an interest in independence and re-unification referendums.

David Kenny
David Kenny
Dr David Kenny is Assistant Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin. He is an expert on Irish and comparative constitutional law, and is co-author of the recent 5th edition of Kelly: The Irish Constitution, the leading text on Irish constitutional law. He has given evidence on Irish constitutional reform to parliamentary committees and the Citizen’s Assembly. His research interests include referendums and the constitutional implications of Brexit for Ireland.

Christopher McCrudden
Chris McCrudden
Christopher McCrudden is Professor of Human Rights and Equality Law at Queen’s University Belfast, William W Cook Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is an expert on human rights law and power-sharing, his current research focusing on the foundational principles underpinning human rights practice.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O’Leary
Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, and World Leading Researcher, Visiting Professor of Political Science, and Mitchell Institute International Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. He is an expert on power-sharing, deeply divided places, and the history of Northern Ireland. His latest publications include a three-volume study called A Treatise on Northern Ireland, published in April 2019.

Alan Renwick
Alan Renwick
Dr Alan Renwick is project lead for the Working Group and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. He is an expert on elections, referendums, and deliberative democracy, his recent work focusing particularly on how to foster more informed and deliberative discourse in politics. He led the 2017 Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and was Research Director for the Independent Commission on Referendums in 2017–18.

Etian Tannam
Etain Tannam
Dr Etain Tannam is Associate Professor of International Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin. She is an expert on Irish–Northern Irish cross-border cooperation and on British–Irish intergovernmental and diplomatic cooperation, with particular emphasis on Brexit’s impact. She is currently writing a book British–Irish relations in the 21st century, forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

Alan Whysall
Alan Whysall
Alan Whysall is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit. He was previously a senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, where he worked for many years on the Northern Ireland peace process. He wrote the background report that formed the starting point for this project. 
Partner institutions
In the media

Academics launch border poll consultation, The Irish News, 22 July 2020

Public consultation on format of any furture Border poll begins, The Irish Times, 22 July 2020 

Alan Renwick was interviewed during BBC Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster Radio show, 22 July 2020

Academic working group launches public consultation on unification referendums on the island of Ireland, Slugger O'Toole, 22 July 2020

Alan Renwick was interviewed during Kildare FM's Kildare Today show, 24 July 2020

The public consultation is now closed.

The Working Group ran a consultation from 22 July to 2 September to hear the views of people throughout Northern Ireland about the prospect of a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. 

The consultation  asked participants to say what they feel when they hear talk of such a referendum – including what their hopes and concerns are. Respondents were also invited to share their views on the particular questions being addressed by the Working Group. For example, who would be able to vote in a referendum, and what would be the rules of the campaign?

If you wish to share your thoughts with the group or have any queries regarding the consultation, please contact Charlotte Kincaid, Impact Research Fellow. T: +44 (0)20 7679 4977, E: c.kincaid@ucl.ac.uk