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.


Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland logo

Read the Interim Report

Read the Interim Report's Executive Summary

Read a summary blogpost

The Working Group published its interim report in November 2020. The Working Group would like to thank everyone who submitted responses to the interim report. Written responses are being considered in the drafting of our final report, which we hope to release in late spring/early summer 2021. 

About the Working Group 

The Constitution Unit has teamed up with eminent scholars in Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the United States to examine how any future referendums on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would best be designed and conducted. The project is not looking at, and does not take a view on, whether such votes would be desirable or what the outcome should be if referendums were to be held. Distinguised Professor of Politics and International Relations John Coakley described the project as "one of the most important academic interventions in policy debate in Ireland in recent decades."

Vimeo Widget Placeholderhttps://vimeo.com/439169397

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. If such a vote does happen, it will be vital that the process is designed and conducted well. Yet the 1998 Agreement is silent on many aspects of how this would be done, and no detailed public thinking has been done to fill the gap. The goal of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland 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. Comprising scholars with expertise in politics, law, sociology, and history, the Working Group has consulted and deliberated in depth since late 2019. Its interim report is now published. It expects to produce a final report in late spring/early summer 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 background paper

Read the summary blogpost

Blog Posts

Working Group members

Oran Doyle
Oran Doyle
Oran Doyle is Professor in Law at Trinity College Dublin. He is an expert on Irish and comparative constitutional law, and his 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 was 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 Director of QUB's Democracy Unit. His research interests focus on electoral and deliberative democracy, his most recent book being Consociation and Voting in Northern Ireland. He recently led 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 has also been a regular political commentator for the BBC.

Katy Hayward
Katy Hayward
Katy Hayward is Professor of Political 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 is Professor of Government and the Constitution at UCL and was the founder and first Director of the Constitution Unit from 1995 until 2015. He is an expert on the UK constitution, including devolution and inter-governmental relations. He led the Unit’s early work on the possibility of Scottish independence, and has long maintained an interest in independence and 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,
L Bates Lea Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Member of the Royal Irish 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. He is a Fulbright Fellow to Ireland in 2021–22. 

Alan Renwick
Alan Renwick
Dr Alan Renwick is project lead and Chair of 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. 

Arthur Aughey, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University, was also originally a member of the group, but was forced to withdraw on health grounds. The members of the group would like to express our great gratitude to him for his insight and advice during the early stages of our work, and to wish him all the best.

In the media

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

Public consultation on format of any future 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

Clear roadmap must be in place prior to any Irish unity referendum, say academics, Belfast Telegraph, 26 November 2020


Academic project on unity referendums to discuss interim report at webinar, Irish Legal News, 26 November 2020 

Ireland unification referendums should only be held with 'clear plan for what follows', report finds, Journal.ie, 26 November 2020


Extensive planning needed before any Irish unity referendum, writes Working Group member Professor Katy Hayward in the Belfast Telegraph, 26 November 2020


Post-referendum plan should be in place before border poll is called say academics, Irish News, 27 November 2020


The mechanics of a unification referendum need attention, blogpost in Slugger O'Toole written by Dr Alan Renwick, 27 November 2020 


How to hold a referendum on Irish unity, writes by Working Group members Dr Etain Tannam and Dr Paul Gillespie, The Irish Times, 27 November 2020 


Border poll ‘must include clear plan’, to avoid acrimony, Law Society Gazette Ireland, 27 November 2020 

‘Irish unity vote must only be held with clear roadmap for future', experts say, The National, 27 November 2020


How to hold a referendum on Irish unity, Inside Politics podcast, The Irish Times, 27 November 2020

We need to talk about referendums, north and south, on Irish unification, writes chair of the Working Group, Dr Alan Renwick, in The Times Red Box, 30 November 2020


Alan Renwick and Katy Hayward discussing the interim report with Michael Portillo on Times Radio, 4 December 2020 (recording no longer available).

Interim report launch webinar series

Dublin: 1 December

  • Panel: Dr Alan Renwick, chair of the Working Group; Jennifer Todd, Professor of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin; and Working Group member Professor Oran Doyle.
  • Chair: Professor Aileen Kavanagh of the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin
  • Co-hosted by the Trinity Centre for Constitutional Law and Governance, Trinity College Dublin; the Institute for British-Irish Studies, University College Dublin; and the Constitution Unit, University College London.

Watch the recording 

London: 3 December

  • Panel: Dr Alan Renwick, chair of the Working Group; Clare Salters, former senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office; Martin Kettle, writer for The Guardian; and Working Group member Alan Whysall
  • Chair: Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, University College London
  • Hosted by the Constitution Unit

Watch the recording 

Belfast: 10 December

  • Panel: Dr Alan Renwick, chair of the Working Group; Sam McBride, political editor of the Belfast News Letter; and Working Group members Professors Katy Hayward and Brendan O’Leary.
  • Chair: Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Working Group member
  • Co-hosted with the Democracy Unit at Queen’s University Belfast and the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University

Watch the recoding