Professor Colin Harvey
The debate on Irish unity has intensified; it has entered the political mainstream across these islands. Brexit is only one part of this, as more people question the merits of the existing constitutional arrangements.
The focus is now shifting to constitutional conversations about how the island is shared in the future, and the timeframe for what is often referred to as a ‘border poll’.
The difficulty remains that there are several unanswered questions about the process, as many interventions concentrate on the merits of this option. That is one reason why the debate around the referendums must be normalised as momentum now builds.
It is wise to ensure careful planning and preparation for this significant constitutional exercise. The next phase must include a better sense of what people are being asked to vote for or against. This argument is occasionally deployed as a way to avoid this conversation entirely: that would be a mistake.
There is an obligation on those making the case for unity to offer a coherent and persuasive view of what the future will hold for the north in these new arrangements, and what it will mean for the south. Those voting in these referendums must have a clear idea about the consequences of their decision.
There is no reason why such preparatory work cannot commence now, and it should be acknowledged that work has already been done.
It must be recalled that ‘events’ could take over (particularly in the context of Brexit), so sensible planning would be wise. If the UK did exit the EU without a deal, there is evidence that a majority in the north might consider Irish unity, as a way back into the EU.
That cannot be ignored, as it would indicate that the existing ‘sovereignty arrangements’ were redundant (as consent for remaining in the UK would be de facto absent).
Here it should be noted that the Irish Government was so effective in the Brexit negotiations precisely because it had anticipated and planned for the possibility of a ‘leave’ vote.
Such governmental level preparation would not prevent a more participatory and inclusive constitutional conversation on the island – with work in the south being as vital and efforts in the north.
However, it is clear that preparations should start now, and be led by the Irish Government in parallel with civil society conversations.
In considering this, it should be recalled that the north would be joining a pre-existing state (within the EU) whose constitution anticipates reunification, and in the context of an international agreement that guarantees continuity of protection,
It is, therefore, possible to exaggerate the logistical and practical challenges of achieving this objective for a region as small as the north: this will simply not be a ‘blank page’ constitutional conversation.
Tensions do exist. There are those who will view the reunification conversation as an opening for radical and transformative change. From this perspective, a vote for unity should be consent to a different and new Ireland; a fresh start for the island.
The other view is more conservative: achieving effective reunification would be enough of a task without also re-opening existing constitutional arrangements in a major way.
These tensions will need to be discussed as part of the planning and preparation, and this is likely to generate a welcome level of detailed debate.
Whatever view is taken, there is a strong and persuasive case (anchored in the Good Friday Agreement) for ensuring that proposals contain robust guarantees for human rights, equality and identity if reunification is to be taken forward in the spirit of the Agreement’s vision of these safeguarding measures.
The basic normative principles to guide the process are already there, and there is an unhelpful tendency to suggest that everything is ‘up in the air’ or ‘up for grabs’: full respect for the Good Friday Agreement indicates that this will not be the case. Some questions can be answered now.
Too many discussions of Irish unity frame it as a distant aspiration; it never seems to be the right time to talk about it. That approach should be rejected. There is an urgent and pressing need to enter a preparation and planning phase. If the Good Friday Agreement really does underpin the new relationships across these islands, then no one need be anxious. This must be an open invitation to a conversation about how we share the island of Ireland in the future.
Professor Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. This article is a revised extract from a new paper written with Mark Bassett on the logistical and legal questions surrounding referendums on Irish unity. The paper is available here: https://brexitlawni.org/library/resources/the-future-of-our-shared-island/