Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Working Group on Unification Referendums: Discussion
We have a number of witnesses so we will start. It is fine if any member joins in later. This engagement is with the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Alan Renwick, deputy director of the constitution unit at University College London, Dr. Etain Tannam and Dr. David Kenny from Trinity College Dublin and Professor Chris McCrudden, Queen's University Belfast.
I have to read a privilege note to the witness. It is a process at every meeting. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to that person's or entity's good name.
I invite Dr. Renwick to make his opening statement on behalf of his colleagues. If they wish to contribute immediately or prefer to wait for questions, that is fine.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it today. I am deputy director of the constitution unit at University College London, which is a research centre focusing on how best to structure and operate democratic politics. I am chair of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. I am joined by three other members of the working group. We were due to be joined by Professor Brendan O'Leary from the University of Pennsylvania and Queen's University Belfast. Sadly, he was forced earlier today to drop out. He sends his apologies and great regrets for having to be absent.
In these opening remarks, I will quickly introduce three matters: why we created the working group, the nature of the working group and the group's interim conclusions. We created the working group because referendums on the unification question might happen. If they happen, it is important that they be conducted well, but they can only be conducted well if somebody thinks through what that would involve. Nobody has done that thinking fully yet. We wanted to help fill that gap. We did not create the working group because we thought that referendums are imminent. The evidence is that a majority in Northern Ireland would currently vote for maintaining the union and against unification, but nobody can know how opinion might evolve over time.
As to the nature of the working group, we are looking at how any future referendums on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would best be designed and conducted. We have no collective view on whether such votes would be desirable or what the outcome should be if referendums were to be held. The group is based at the constitution unit in University College London and comprises 12 experts from Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Queen's University Belfast, Ulster University, University of Pennsylvania and University College London. Our expertise spans political science, law, sociology and history.
Turning to the group's interim conclusions, I will outline a few of our key findings. As a starting point, we assume that any referendums would be conducted within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, so we start by setting out what that entails. As is well known, unification could not happen without a referendum vote in its favour in Northern Ireland, and we conclude that 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 likely to him or her. A referendum in the South would not have to be on the same day. It could happen later, but the same proposal would have to be put to voters both North and South. The threshold in each referendum would be a simple majority of 50% plus one. If that threshold were met in both jurisdictions, unification would have to take place. The majority principle applies to the decision on sovereignty, but on other matters the 1998 agreement's wider ethos of seeking to proceed by consensus should be upheld as far as possible.
That is the 1998 agreement. However, there are many other matters that the agreement does not resolve, which our report examines in depth. I will state three broad conclusions that we reach on these. First, it would be highly unwise for referendums to be called without a clear plan for the referendums and other associated processes. These would be complex processes and if poorly designed could lead to problems. Such a plan would need to be agreed by the governments in close consultation with others. We do not say when planning should begin. That is a political matter and we recognise that it is very sensitive. However, a plan should be agreed by the time any referendum is called.
Second, there are several plausible configurations of referendums, North and South, with referendums coming relatively early in the process before the details of a united Ireland have been worked out or later, when a plan has been developed. We will be happy to go into further details, but for now I can say that there is no perfect approach. Each configuration has advantages and disadvantages.
Finally, the conduct rules for any referendums would be crucial. Existing campaign rules are badly out of date in the digital age in both the UK and Ireland and urgently need to be strengthened.
I hope those headlines give a flavour of the working group's analysis. So far, we produced an interim report, last November, presenting our draft conclusions. We are keen to hear the members' reflections and questions. We plan to release our final report later in 2021.
Do Dr. Renwick's colleagues wish to make a contribution at this stage or will I proceed to questions and answers? If his colleagues wish to say anything now, they can do so if he wants to nominate them or they can speak whenever they wish. I am trying to keep the engagement informal as best I can even though I am wearing a mask. We have a two-hour time slot so at every meeting we rotate the order of speakers from political parties. That is how we operate. I propose that we take ten minutes with Sinn Féin followed by ten minutes for Fianna Fáil and ten for Fine Gael. That will be followed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, independents, Aontú, Sinn Féin again, the Labour Party and the Green Party. We will rotate them in that order. I will take that as agreed. Whatever party indicates has a ten-minute slot to ask questions. That is to give everybody an opportunity to contribute and then, hopefully, we can have a second round. I call on Sinn Féin's first speaker for questions.
I thank Dr. Renwick and his colleagues for making the presentation to the committee.
It is timely for us to examine the interim report produced by the working group on the unification of referendums on the island of Ireland. The work the group has done on the technical and procedural matters arising from the explicit provision within the Good Friday Agreement is an important component of the global and national discussions which are currently taking place daily.
I understand the work was funded by the British Academy and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. My first question is in terms of who commissioned the work. Was it the working group? Perhaps Dr. Renwick could explain the context of that. I will ask a couple of questions and perhaps get a couple of answers together. One of my colleagues may then also wish to come in for part of the ten minutes.
The first very interesting thing addressed by Dr. Renwick was around the democratic threshold. Since the vote in favour of unity and the vote for maintaining the status quoare equally valid, the only fair and reasonable outworking of that would be a majority of 50% plus 1. This would then demonstrate a successful outcome for either side. I take it that 50% plus 1 is now a given because there is some ambiguity around that in some of the discussions which have taken place. I ask Dr. Renwick to speak to that.
The other thing that really comes through in terms of the working group's substantial interim report is the need for the Irish Government to plan. The Good Friday Agreement states it is for the people of Ireland to decide without external impediment. This implies the neutrality of the British Government. The Irish Government, however, is permitted and, indeed, obliged to pursue the constitutional goal of the reunification in accordance with Bunreacht na hÉireann and the Good Friday Agreement as it was. We have seen the outcomes of the working of a referendum held without proper planning in terms of the Brexit poll. I believe everybody absolutely agrees with the need to plan.
Dr. Renwick also referred within his report to the need for a constitutional assembly or civic assembly to be able to discuss all the issues he raised pertaining to the unity debate and what the shared island unit could do. Perhaps, therefore, Dr. Renwick could answer those three questions on who commissioned the report, the democratic threshold and the need to plan and the constitutional obligations on the Irish Government to do so. How important does he believe a citizens' assembly would be?
Dr. Alan Renwick:
I thank the Deputy. I will reply certainly to the first two questions and perhaps also say something about the third. I am sure my colleagues will also want to come in on that, however.
On the first question about the origins of this work, we were not commissioned by anyone. This was an independent academic research project in its origins. We came to the view that it was important to investigate these questions. At the constitution unit, we have been doing a lot of work for some years now on the appropriate conduct rules for referendums. We had not applied that work to Northern Ireland. We recognised that Northern Ireland is a very particular case with its own particular sensitivities. We wanted to contribute in this important area. When we reached out to colleagues in Belfast and Dublin, we saw there was agreement on the importance of these questions and the need to approach them in a careful, scholarly way. That was the origin of the project.
We are very clear in the report that the threshold in each referendum, North and South, would be a simple majority of 50% plus 1. This is partly because that is what the agreement says and it is important to follow the agreement. It is also partly because, even in the absence of that existing constraint, to have any other threshold would create an inequality between the two sides. We believe that in a basic question of sovereignty such as this, it is imperative the two sides be treated equally. It is very important the 50% plus 1 threshold be applied.
We talk about two kinds of planning. One is planning of the process of the referendums and another is planning about the form a united Ireland might take. As I said in my introductory remarks, we recognise that the question of when planning should take place and exactly what planning should be done by whom is a very sensitive matter. We do not seek to make bold pronouncements on those kinds of details. We say that by the time any referendum is called, it should be clear what the process will be. Therefore, a referendum should not be called unless it is clear what the processes and timetable of the referendum will be and what process would follow a vote for or against unification.
With regard to planning of the form of a united Ireland, there are different ways in which these referendums could be configured. One approach could be taken where the referendums could be held with no prior planning at all. We believe that is a bad idea, very clearly. A second approach would be to have a plan for a process that would be followed in the event of a vote for unification for working out the form of a united Ireland. The form of a united Ireland would, therefore, be worked out after the referendums. Third, the planning for a united Ireland could be done in advance of the referendums. We do not take a firm view between those two final ways of running the referendums. A great deal could be said about the relative merits of those, which we might get into in the course of the questioning. I will not attempt to go through all that in my reply to this question, however.
Let me quickly say something on citizens' assemblies and then I will perhaps hand over to Dr. Kenny who can comment on the constitutional issues raised by the Deputy. I am a big fan of citizens' assemblies. I ran the first UK-wide citizens' assembly and a number of the other members of the working group have been intimately involved with citizens' assemblies in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We see an important potential role for citizens' assemblies in this process. At the same time, we urge caution. To attempt to hold a citizens' assembly too early in this process, when there is not willingness from all parts of the community to engage with these discussions, could be damaging. It could be damaging to the credibility of citizens' assemblies more broadly, which would be a very unfortunate thing. Thinking through the sequencing, being careful and not going too fast into a citizens' assembly is an important point that we draw out. I will hand over to Dr. Kenny.
Dr. David Kenny:
I will comment briefly on the constitutional question around Article 3, which I believe is a very interesting point. Article 3 of the Irish Constitution obviously establishes something of a national aim in respect of pursuing unification. The way it is sometimes phrased is setting a national aim. The question is how that might instantiate in practical action. In the interim report, we do not suggest it provides a great deal of specificity. We suggest it would place a duty on the Irish Government to hold a concurrent referendum under the Good Friday Agreement if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland decided to call a referendum in the North. Beyond that, it is slightly challenging to suggest it can place very specific duties on the Irish Government to take any particular steps in respect of planning. What that constitutional duty might require would have to be carefully worked out as a matter of politics . It is fair to say there are at least some consequences of that constitutional duty, let us say, an obligation to have a concurrent referendum.
I would be loath to suggest it could suggest very specific action beyond that as a matter of law, though as a matter of politics certainly that could be persuasively argued.
I agree with the principle. I want to get as free a flow as I can. If we take Fianna Fáil now, we will then go back to Fine Gael, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, Independents, Aontú, Sinn Féin again, the Labour Party and the Green Party. That is what we agreed and I will try to stick to it. I hear what the Deputy is saying. I will take the Fianna Fáil speaker or speakers now.
I thank Dr. Renwick for his report. It is a very interesting perspective. We need many perspectives in this conversation. We have had some but not enough and this input is very welcome. The few scenarios thrown about are interesting with regard to planning before a referendum, having a referendum and planning for afterwards. I would like to see more beef in the bowl on this and the thinking around it.
There is a train of thought about the possibility of the Secretary of State bouncing the question on us before planning is done or in the middle of the process of planning. What are the witnesses' views on this? Is it likely? Is it possible? The other issue we have is that the committee is meant to be cross-party but we do not have any unionist party taking part. We also lack engagement generally in the conversation from the unionist community. What are the views of the witnesses on this? How best do we engage with unionism to hear their views on this? We need to get them to the table. Is a citizens' assembly the way to get their view? Should we do more than this? I would like to get the views of the witnesses on this.
I welcome our guests and their contributions. I welcome the fact they laid huge emphasis on the need for proper preparation in advance of a referendum. This is a theme that has gone through all of our meetings with regard to the need to plan for what those of us who aspire to a united Ireland and are passionate about it want to see. We want to see referendum preparations done in good time before any question is put to the people. It would be rather bizarre if the referendum was not held in Northern Ireland on the same day as in our State. It is important the people on all of the island decide on the same question on the same day. On 22 May 1998, we were privileged as a generation to vote as one unit on the question regarding adopting the Good Friday Agreement. We should always remind ourselves it was the first time since 1918 that the people of all of the island voted on the same question on the same day. I sincerely hope that when a referendum is called and the necessary preparation and processes are in place, all of the electorate in our country will vote on the same day on that particular question. It would lead to all sorts of problems if one referendum was held with another one to follow.
The witnesses' unit does academic work. Has it contributed to the new political orders or has it given advice, such as in eastern Europe when those countries, thankfully, from the late 1980s and early 1990s onwards, got their freedom? They had to set up new governance and new administrations. Was the constitution unit or were people in the college in any way involved in advising the new administrations there on the political structures that would best suit their newly emerging states? I thank the witnesses for their work and I hope we will have an opportunity for further engagement with them as we work towards a desired referendum.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
I will reply to the final point because I have already spoken quite a lot and I will bring in Dr. Tannam and Professor McCrudden rather than replying to the other questions. On the final point about the constitution unit, it was established in 1995, so alas we were not around in 1989 to advise on those processes. Perhaps the closest parallel is that we were involved prior to the devolution arrangements being set up in the UK, particularly in Scotland and Wales. In the late 1990s, the constitution unit did quite a lot of work in this area. Most of our work has been advising on constitutional reform processes and political reform processes within the UK. I will turn to Dr. Tannam who might want to pick up some of the other questions.
Dr. Etain Tannam:
On the first point, with regard to being bounced into a decision by the Secretary of State, we stress in the report the necessity of British-Irish intergovernmental co-operation. In my contributions I also emphasise the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and an alternative bilateral institution. Given that the Good Friday Agreement frames what we are doing and frames the law on this, we really emphasise the need for robust British-Irish co-operation so that ideally there should not be that sort of unexpected bouncing by the British Government.
We have seen from Brexit that some of what we thought would never happen, or at least that I thought would never happen, has happened. The degree of low trust between the governments seems to go back to the 1980s. This robustness is needed and the enhancement and revitalisation of the Good Friday Agreement institutions. This is my response to the specific question. It should be more co-ordinated informally even though formally it is the Secretary of State's power and only the Secretary of State's power to call the referendum.
I want to clarify, and perhaps Dr. Renwick, Professor McCrudden and Dr. Kenny can correct me if I am wrong, that there is a misconception sometimes that we say we must plan for a referendum, and the question just asked implied this, whereas what we are saying is that if there is a decision to call a referendum there must be planning before the referendum occurs. This is my impression but I may be wrong about it. It is slightly more nuanced than saying there must be planning. I stress that British-Irish co-operation is essential in avoiding the bouncing.
Professor Christopher McCrudden:
I thank the committee for hosting us. I will add a footnote to Senator Blaney's question on the Secretary of State bouncing a referendum. Essentially there are two different arrangements. The Secretary of State must call a referendum where he or she considers there is likely to be a majority in favour of unity. The scenario Senator Blaney has in mind is where the Secretary of State exercises the second option, which is at his or her discretion, which is apparently unlimited.
Senator Blaney's concern is that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland might in some way manipulate the calling of a discretionary referendum. My point is that a case, the McCord case, was heard in the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and the judgment in that case addresses that issue clearly. The Court of Appeal, correctly, stated that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in those kinds of circumstances "would not be acting with rigorous impartially if in the face of diminishing support for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom he directed the holding of a border poll with the sole purpose of achieving a majority to remain and thereby to delay a united Ireland for a period of 7 years".
In other words, therefore, the conclusion to be drawn from that judgment is that were the Secretary of State to do as Senator Blayney fears, there would be a judicial review and the Court of Appeal would take a very sceptical approach to it.
I thank the Chair. This has been a helpful session with excellent to and fro. I have three questions. I refer to what Dr. Kenny said about the referendums being freely and concurrently given and the question of whether they are contemporaneous or otherwise. Contemporaneous referendums might be desirable as an idea, but what do we do legally and politically if there are different outcomes?
This report reference refers to the 1973 border poll and the boycott of that poll by unionists. How do we view the legitimacy of a poll in Northern Ireland in similar circumstances now, knowing what we know since the Good Friday Agreement? Going back to Article 3 of the Constitution, and this is for Dr. Kenny in particular, it seems to me that the obligation has always been for the Irish nation to "unite all the people who share the territory". Taking into account what we know of the drafting of the Constitution, the wording that legislators used and the choice of wording that could have been used, there is a question in Irish politics at the moment concerning the existence of an obligation to work towards a united Ireland as a territory, as opposed to an equally legitimate aspiration of working towards the unity of people. How does Dr. Kenny interpret Article 3.1 in respect of priority? Does he regard one perspective as trumping the other or as elements having equal weight?
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I have several questions regarding points 46 to 50 in the executive summary of the report, regarding campaign conduct rules. This morning we had representatives from Facebook and Twitter before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to talk about the digital side of campaigning, including political advertisements, etc. There are clearly two different jurisdictions in play here when it comes to finance and acceptable donations. How do we reconcile that disparity? Is it a case that we just have to play by the rules of both jurisdictions? I ask that because there are clearly advantages and disadvantages, depending on which jurisdiction one operates out of.
Turning to point 46, referring to the role of Governments during the campaign, what role is envisaged by the witnesses? Would the campaigns be left to the political parties to fight or would the Governments have a role to play? Moving to point 50, which mentions amending the Referendum Acts and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 in the United Kingdom, what are the big sticking points and major differences between a UK referendum and an Irish referendum? Are there major differences or sticking points regarding how referendums are carried out in the two jurisdictions? What is it specifically that should be amended in the UK legislation?
I have a question regarding different rules concerning standards in public office. We have two sets of rules on the island when it comes to managing political parties and campaigns. What are the witnesses' views on that aspect? We saw how the Brexit campaign went in the UK and how much money was spent on it. How could that aspect be managed to ensure fairness?
The report states that the same proposal would have to be put to voters North and South. Does that mean that there would have to be significant co-operation between the two Governments? Mention was also made of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as a place to do that. Will the witnesses elaborate on that suggestion?
Dr. David Kenny:
I thank Dr. Renwick, and the members of the committee for their questions. Starting with the first point on concurrence, we conclude that it is certainly possible, and it may be considered desirable, to have referendums on the same day. Concurrence would probably not have to mean precisely contemporaneous referendums if there were seen to be some political advantage in having a vote first in one jurisdiction or the other. We think it is possible to do that, once the referendums are close in time and there is no material change in between. Regarding possible political implications of doing that, that should be carefully considered. It is not something that we specifically address in our report, however.
Turning to the question from Deputy Carroll MacNeill on Article 3 of the Constitution, it is an interesting point that textually the article refers to "uniting all the people who share the territory of the island". In addition, it also mentions bringing about a united Ireland by peaceful means. It is fair to suggest therefore that the article is interested in uniting people and territory, and it would be entirely legitimate to conceive of any obligation under Article 3 as existing along both those axes and each one might require different elements. I stress that is my personal reading of Article 3 as an Irish constitutional scholar and it is not something we addressed in detail in the scope of the report. I offer that view only as my own perspective.
I will leave some of commentary on the referendum process to Dr. Renwick, because we are both especially interested in that area. In the report, however, we highlight various aspects of campaign conduct rules which are perhaps in need of moderation in each jurisdiction in any event in respect of areas such as campaign finance, the role of governments, information and misinformation and social media. There may be calls for and a need to examine modernisation in that context, even aside from this specific set of referendums. Dr. Renwick might speak with more precision on this aspect regarding what we recommended in the report.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
I will cite two additional things regarding campaign conduct. Dr. Kenny referred to the need for the modernisation of rules to be able to cope with the reality of digital campaigning today. That is certainly very important in the UK. There is essentially no regulation of online campaigning in the UK now, which is rather problematic. I will comment on some additional elements. Dr. Kenny referred to information made available during campaigns. One difference between referendums in Ireland and the UK is that Ireland has referendum commissions which provide information during referendum campaigns. There is no equivalent in the UK.
In the 1998 referendums of course all voters in Northern Ireland received a copy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. There is, however, no provision in law for something equivalent to that to happen in any future referendums in the UK. It would seem imperative to us that there be proper information provision during these referendums. Indeed, we raised the question of whether the approach taken by referendum commissions in Ireland is sufficient for a choice such as this one. The referendum commissions, as the members of the committee will know much better than I do, have tended to focus specifically on the constitutional implications, that is, the legal change implied by the amendment under consideration, and to not go into the further implications of the change being proposed. For many voters though, the issues which really matter concern healthcare and education provision, and all these sorts of additional features, which in all probability would not be included in any constitutional amendment.
In both jurisdictions, the issue of information needs to be thought about carefully.
The other point I would make about campaign conduct rules is that there is a huge difference between Ireland and the UK in the principles underpinning the regulation of campaign spending. The UK has a cap on total spending by campaign groups but not on donations; Ireland has caps on donations but not on total spending. We have begun to think in our work about the scope for gaming the system that could arise from the difference in rules. It is an area we have not truly bottomed out in in our thinking. We need to consider it further.
Senator McGahon asked about the role of Government during the campaign. Both the UK and Ireland have rules preventing Government campaigning, so that is one area of consistency between the jurisdictions in the rules. The details are different but in both jurisdictions it is not possible for taxpayers' money to be spent on campaigning in the course of the campaign. There is an additional question about whether there are further provisions under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that would restrict the Governments from being involved in the campaign, in particular the phrase "without external impediment" in the agreement. There is discussion in the group as to the precise interpretation of that phrase. Dr. Kenny and Professor McCrudden will correct me if I am wrong but I think our lawyers are in agreement that, at least in law, those words clearly prevent the UK Government from refusing to hold a referendum and prevent any attempt to manipulate or skew the result. However, those words in themselves do not imply that the UK Government cannot participate or express a view in this process.
There are other views on that question and if Professor Brendan O'Leary were here he would likely offer a different perspective. We are keen to hear members' thoughts if anyone here would like to express a view on that.
Mr. Colum Eastwood:
Apologies, I missed the presentation but I have read the report and we have already met about it. I will offer a couple of thoughts. On the 50% plus 1, it is good the speakers are clear on that. We are absolutely clear on that. There is no way of doing a democratic referendum other than 50% plus 1. I do not know how it would work. We had enough years of certain sections of the population's vote not counting for as much as another section and we cannot go back there.
I am interested in what has been said about the external impediment. The British Government is clearly impeding on this issue now. It is doing it in Scotland and in the Internal Market Bill it has given itself the power to direct civil servants on every conceivable policy area in the devolved space. That is, in my view, particularly deliberate around the Scottish referendum question. If we think it will not do that here, we are being naive. That is a big concern.
There was discussion on Article 3 in terms of unity of people versus unity of territory. I think they can be the same thing. It will be hard to do the territory without the people. This is Hume-speak but it is not that John Hume thought it was one over the other.
Around the criteria for calling a Border poll, we need to focus on the fact that the power rests with the British Secretary of State. That area was under-negotiated in the Good Friday Agreement and people who were there would say that at that stage they just wanted to get out the door and not enough consideration was given to that. It has left us in a fairly dangerous position. Professor McCrudden's points are well made around the legal position of this but I am concerned, given who is in that position. The current British Government and the Secretary of State have openly stated they are happy to break international law to suit their political purposes. We would struggle to rely on them to do the right thing.
Article 3 may not place a specific legal requirement on the Irish Government to prepare but there is a political requirement, if we accept that at some point the British Government could call a referendum. That should, as Dr. Tannam said, be done in co-operation and conjunction with the Irish Government, which should insist on that. It comes out of the Good Friday Agreement and that is based on the principle that the two Governments are guarantors of that process and they convene all the incidents around it. That needs to be nailed down early but it also means the Irish Government has a political responsibility to work towards thrashing out all the difficult issues thrown up as part of this report and every other discussion we have been involved in and roll the pitch for a referendum whenever it comes. The Brexit experience tells us it is not a good idea to stay off the pitch and not prepare.
I am grateful for the presentation and the work the other witnesses continue to do. The issue around the criteria of the Border poll will be key. More work will need to be done by all of us on that but I firmly believe the Irish Government needs to insist that is not left to the wording in the Good Friday Agreement. Politically speaking, it is clear that was not fully thought through or thrashed out in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.
Professor Christopher McCrudden:
I will address Mr. Eastwood's point about the criteria for calling a referendum. He is absolutely right that the Good Friday Agreement does not really specify the criteria beyond requiring the Secretary of State to call a referendum where he or she considers a majority in favour of reunification would result. The case I mentioned earlier in the Court of Appeal goes into this in some detail because Mr. McCord tried to pin down the Secretary of State as to the criteria. My colleague at Queen's University Belfast, Colin Harvey, has written to the Secretary of State in pretty much the same terms asking what the criteria would be. There was a document disclosed as a result of a request from a senatorial colleague of members for information from the Secretary of State that seems to indicate the thinking at the moment.
Boiled down, Mr. Eastwood is right that the Secretary of State has to take into account all relevant considerations and exclude all irrelevant considerations. In the report, we have set out four or five different elements the Secretary of State could draw on, including opinion polls, assembly recommendations, the number of seats particular parties have and so on. We are unable, given the way section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act is framed, to pin down any further what the weighting would be for any particular criterion. If Mr. Eastwood is looking for criteria of weighting between the different considerations, that would be difficult to construct.
One thing we say should not be weighted is what we have called the demographic issue, that is, crudely, the number of Catholics and Protestants who will be identified in the census. We have said that anybody who knows Northern Ireland knows it would be risky for the Secretary of State to rely simply on the demographics because, of course, we know that some Catholics will vote for continued unity with the rest of the UK and vice versa. Beyond that, I think the difficulty of weighting the different criteria remains.
Dr. Etain Tannam:
To respond to Mr. Eastwood, we have set out nearly the rules of the game and the choices to be made and have been very careful not to prescribe political choices that are contentious. As for his point as to whether the Irish Government should insist that it be involved - and, as I have explained, it is the case that our involvement is essential, as is robust co-operation - there are so many trade-offs and question marks, as he knows and as he has pointed to, around unification of territory versus people, which he said should happen together, that each decision that is made and each insistence causes another effect. This goes back to Senator Blaney's point, which I did not answer, on unionist engagement and the delicacy of all this. It is very difficult. I just found the language of "must insist" difficult. It is my personal opinion, which is not in the report as such, but that is what stood out when reference was made to the delicacy of this. Getting to that stage, according to the Hume framework, would be very gradual, although the 51% criterion is necessary. The language just rings a lot of alarm bells for me because of the diplomatic nature that is required, which has diminished so much.
I thank all our witnesses for all the work they are doing. This meeting is very welcome. There is no doubt that we can all agree we have had in recent weeks very stimulating, productive and measured conversations about Irish unity. It is very important to build on this momentum. I agree with Mr. Eastwood big time. My concern has always been the criteria. Planning and preparing is absolutely vital. It was said that the Secretary of State can be challenged if he decides to bounce a referendum. I agree with Mr. Eastwood that one just never knows. If the British Government is willing to break an international agreement, God only knows what could happen. We do not know what the criteria are for calling a referendum, and it is vital we find out what the criteria are somehow. Whether that involves an onus on the Irish Government to try to work with and talk to the Secretary of State, I do not know, but it is absolutely vital. Is there some way we can find out from the Secretary of State about the criteria and what his deciding to call a referendum would be based on, or do the witnesses have any suggestions as to how we can do so?
I have a couple of other questions. Do they agree that a unified Ireland will be a member of the EU and that the European Convention on Human Rights would protect minorities and safeguard civil and political rights in a unified Ireland? In addition, more recently, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan published a paper with detailed proposals. What do the witnesses think of his idea of a new constitution for a united Ireland?
Finally, I know Dr. Renwick mentioned that he does not believe referendums to be imminent, but what is his definition of "imminent", and what is his belief based on, given that the Secretary of State refuses to outline the exact criteria for the calling of a referendum?
I have given the witnesses a lot of questions. I hope that is okay.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
Perhaps I will say a little more in addition to what Professor McCrudden said a moment ago about the criteria. Perhaps I should respond also on the definition of "imminent". I think Professor McCrudden dropped out of the meeting for a moment so may not have heard the question about protection of rights under the ECHR. Perhaps we should ask Dr. Kenny to come in first on that and Professor McCrudden can pick up from him.
The question of a new constitution is an issue on which we do not take a view as a working group. We set out the various possibilities but we do not take a view on the form a united Ireland should take. I agree entirely with everything Professor McCrudden said about the criteria the Secretary of State might use. One additional point we made is that we envisage that, at least in some scenarios, the Secretary of State might see that it may be the case that a majority would vote for unification, so it may be the case that that criterion is met. In that circumstance, ideally the Secretary of State would announce a formal process to review whether in fact that criterion is met. Ideally, we suggest that the Secretary of State, perhaps with the Irish Government, set up an independent review process to look properly at what exactly the criteria should be and what exactly the weight attached to different criteria should be; that that review process come up with a judgment; and that it might take a year - it would depend on exactly what evidence were available - to come to a view as to whether in fact that criterion had been met. Of course, however, it is also the case that in law it is for the Secretary of State to make that decision, so the Secretary of State cannot in law make his or her judgment dependent on the view of an independent panel or indeed the Irish Government.
As for the definition of "imminent", at the moment it is I think fairly unproblematic to say it does not appear that a majority would vote for unification because none of the plausible criteria point in that direction. There is no polling evidence that suggests that a majority would vote for unification. There are different types of polls and surveys and, as the committee will know very well, they produce very different answers, but at the moment none of them suggests there is currently a majority for unification. Similarly, neither the composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly nor votes cast in recent elections give evidence that there would be a majority at present for unification. We, therefore, define "imminence" in terms of what we can see from the evidence at present. Of course, the evidence can change, and we do not take a view as to how quickly opinion could change, but "imminent" we see in terms of the current state of the evidence.
I shall hand over to Dr. Kenny on the human rights question.
Dr. David Kenny:
To deal with the question of the European Convention on Human Rights, it is fair to say, and there would probably be broad agreement in our group, that there is no question but that the ECHR would have to form an essential part of rights protection, not least because it is listed expressly as one of the core safeguards in strand 1 of the agreement and because the reason, ultimately, that the convention was incorporated into Irish domestic law was to meet the obligation of rights protection north and south of the Border being of equal standard. There is, therefore, no doubt but that that would have to happen. In addition, an unrealised possibility of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, if it should come about, could provide additional safeguards and standards over those that would potentially pose an obligation on Ireland to respond in kind. Any of those measures will have to form a core basis of human rights protection, and I do not think there is any question about that.
I will comment briefly on the ides of a new constitution. As Dr. Renwick has said, it is outside the scope of our report and I limit myself to saying that in the report we are very much considering the possibility of either very significant amendments to the Constitution, a small number of amendments to the Constitution or an entirely new Irish constitution in the event of these referendums taking place and being successful. It would be impossible to suggest that a new constitution would not be something to be considered in that process. We are not taking a view on whether that is more desirable than the alternatives at this juncture.
That is okay. I am advised by the clerk that there are technical issues with cameras. I ask everybody to turn off their cameras and turn them on again before we get back to the session. The next speakers are from Sinn Féin and they will be followed by speakers from the Labour Party and Green Party, if that is okay. After that we will have done a full round within the first hour, which is top class. The speakers from Sinn Féin will be Senator Ó Donnghaile, Ms Michelle Gildernew, MP, and Deputy Mac Lochlainn.
I have a couple of quick points and then a question. A point was made by Dr. Renwick on the imminence of a Border poll and he suggested evidence could change. They key point is that the evidence is changing. The witness made an earlier point about the need to prepare and stressed its importance strongly. Looking at a series of elections we can see the end of unionism's political majority and the political and societal fallout from Brexit. There is also the ever-growing series of polls pointing to a particular trend. The salient point is that the evidence is changing, and that is why there is such a strong argument for the necessary preparatory work to begin.
I agree with Deputy Brendan Smith on the very clear need, rationale and logic to holding votes on the same day North and South in a similar way to the process for ratifying the Good Friday Agreement. It is really important and welcome to hear it stressed again today with such energy the question of 50% plus one being sufficient. After all, that is democracy and it is in the Good Friday Agreement. We are, after all, the committee dealing with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
The question of a citizens' assembly has been touched on but do the witnesses have a view on the matter of the institutions on these islands and those institutions that flow from the Good Friday Agreement playing a role in, assisting and enabling the work of preparing for constitutional change? As a Member of the Seanad, I am always encouraged by the fact that we can be nationally representative as an institution, as we have been in the past. We have that same potential over the next number of terms to represent a broad range of communities, including those that are traditionally under-represented. Separate to what the Irish and British Governments will do, do the witnesses believe there are roles for parliamentary institutions in facilitating, assisting and enabling the work advocated by the witnesses in the form of proper planning and engagement?
Dr. Renwick mentioned there is no polling evidence for a united Ireland. Two polls were carried out by LucidTalk on behalf of The Sunday Timesin recent years. One had support for Irish unity at 45.4% and the other had it at 42.3%. There is clearly very substantial support and it is a credible polling company that is respected politically. In the past few local or European elections, and specifically elections for Westminster or the Northern Ireland Assembly, there was not a unionist majority of MLAs or MPs elected. There is no electoral or polling evidence that would justify any lengthy delay in a secretary of state's deliberations. This again points to the problem of only a secretary of state, as part of an avowedly unionist British Government, making this decision with no wider consultation about criteria.
I ask the witnesses to take us through the approach that would lead to a second referendum on Scottish independence. Will they speak about the process that led to the first one and what they anticipate will be the process leading to a second referendum, including how that will inform us on how to proceed in Ireland?
Ms Michelle Gildernew:
I welcome the participants and it is great to have this discussion this evening. They urged caution earlier and spoke about not having a citizens' assembly too early when there is not willingness from all participants. We have seen in the recent past the unwillingness from political unionism to engage but that is not to say that civic unionism would not want to be part of this conversation. The work done by groups like Ireland's Future in bringing forward and enabling that unionist voice to be heard within the debate has been useful and helpful. Do the witnesses have a view that if political unionism believed it could stall this process, the vetoing of the citizens' assembly would be a vehicle for it to do so?
Dr. Alan Renwick:
A point was made about the question of the votes occurring simultaneously North and South. Dr. Tannam might speak to some of the other points. Dr. Kenny set out earlier our thinking that in law, concurrence is not the same as simultaneity, so in law there is no requirement for the votes to be on the same day. We do not take a strong view on whether they should be on the same day and we float various possibilities.
We highlight a couple of reasons for thinking it might be preferable to consider holding the vote in the North first and the South a little later. If the vote in the North goes against unification, it would save the holding of a referendum in the South that would be a bit of a null vote, in effect. If the North voted against the idea, unification would not happen. A second consideration is that if we think there is a requirement for the votes to be simultaneous and acknowledging that some have seen it as problematic that the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that it is for the secretary of state to call the vote, essentially a power is being given to a secretary of state in the UK Government to decide a referendum on a particular day in the Republic of Ireland. That might raise some questions or concerns.
Dr. Etain Tannam:
I thank the members for the questions. On the question of institutional engagement, our focus was very much within the Good Friday Agreement forms of co-operation, including intergovernmental processes. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is another institution under strand 3 that has not been used very widely. That was the focus and my colleagues might correct me if I am wrong but we did not give huge attention to other forms of institutional co-operation east-west or across borders in the context of a referendum.
That is apart from examining the citizens' assembly idea.
Second, on the issue of the citizens' assembly going ahead without unionist engagement but with civic unionist engagement and not being cautious because, as Ms Gildernew argued, this would more or less be a unionist veto, my colleagues will agree that we grapple with that issue a lot in terms of the balance. The interim report sets out the criteria for a referendum and inclusivity and stability are the two criteria that came to my mind the most. The balance is to be struck between being inclusive and having open debate, but also maintaining stability. Regardless of whether a group is a minority, we know that instability can occur if the timing is not correct or the processes are not done in such a way whereby there is a sense of a voice being given. I agree it is a conundrum but my understanding, and the feeling in the report, was that the timing of a citizens' assembly is crucial to maintain stability and also allow inclusivity.
We will take the answer to that question but I ask the Deputy to work with me on this. I suggest we take the Labour Party next, following which each party will have five minutes. That should get us to the end of the meeting in terms of time. I will ask a couple of questions also. If the Deputy wants the question answered now, that is fine.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
I am probably the only Scot on the call so perhaps I should answer the question about Scottish independence. Ahead of the 2014 referendum the UK Government recognised that with the SNP having won a majority in the Scottish Parliament on the basis of a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum, it was appropriate that there should be a referendum. It did not explicitly say that it acknowledged the right of self-determination of Scotland but, in effect, that appears to be what it was doing in that case. As the Deputy will know very well, the current UK Government takes a rather different view on that. It has not explicitly argued against the principle that Scotland has a right of self-determination but it has indicated that it will say "not yet". Boris Johnson has suggested that it might be appropriate to have a gap of 40 years between referendums.
The situation in Northern Ireland is different because of the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement is clear in stating a minimum gap of seven years between referendums, which is a minimum gap. It is not that there must be a referendum after seven years but, presumably, if a referendum were narrowly defeated and it appeared again that there was majority support for unification after seven years, the criterion would again be met and it would be necessary for the Secretary of State to call a referendum.
I thank all the witnesses for their presentations. I have only one point to ask a question on so I will probably not take up the ten minutes. It is along the lines of what a previous witness, Colum Eastwood, said and relates to the suitability of the mechanisms we currently have to hand to call a referendum. The executive summary states: "The form of consent in the South is not specified, but our conclusion is that a referendum would be needed." In the Republic there are two types of referendums allowed for in the Constitution. One refers to an amendment of the Constitution and another which would take place if the President received a joint petition from both Houses of the Oireachtas, that is, the Dáil and the Seanad. The petition would set out that a proposed Bill would be of such national importance that the will of the people of Ireland should be found out before it became law. This is slightly blue-sky thinking because I suppose we would have to have a referendum to change it but is Dr. Renwick of the opinion that these options are a satisfactory mechanism through which to hold a referendum in the South on Irish unity? Does the Oireachtas need to consider how we would fulfil that mandate? Dr. Renwick discussed the Secretary of State and the issues around how that referendum would be called in other jurisdictions. I am interested in the actual process of doing it. Do we have the facilities to do that in a way that would bring people with us? I am sorry for what may be a meandering question and ask Dr. Renwick to bear with me.
Dr. David Kenny:
I thank the Senator. We consider in the report the sort of referendum that should be held. Our conclusion is that at least some category of constitutional change is necessary anyway. It can be effected as a constitutional referendum if that were chosen. Outside of that, referendums would have to be a consultative or non-binding exercise. In the report we consider the possibility that there could be a binding non-constitutional referendum because of the particular provisions related to the Good Friday Agreement. However, the likelihood is that given that some constitutional change will be happening, and perhaps a great deal, and given that otherwise the mechanisms for an Irish constitutional change referendum will function, such as a 50% plus one majority required to pass it and so on, that would be a satisfactory mechanism for the most part.
It would be possible to legislate for another type of referendum to be held but it probably could not be binding in the same way as a constitutional referendum would be. It could not bind the Legislature to act in the same way so I believe there would be some issues with that.
I will ask a couple of questions before we start the rounds again. The rotation will be as we had at the start of the meeting. If it is fair I ask members to keep their contributions to five minutes. We will have Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, SDLP, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Independents, Aontú, Senator Frances Black, Sinn Féin again, the Labour Party and the Green Party.
I have only one question, which is more rhetorical. I accept and acknowledge the tremendous research and thought that has gone into this report. From a political perspective I know where I stand if and when a referendum is held. I will be voting "Yes". My problem is that all our debates here and all our inputs are based on the perceptions of nationalists, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland or Independents. What is missing is the unionist position on all of this. I accept that is in the Good Friday Agreement, and I am all for it, but unless we get the unionists to engage with this process and with the Good Friday Agreement as it stands and unless all of us iron out all the existing difficulties, the proposal for a referendum could lead to instability and deep resentment from one community towards another. In some respects the debate is missing the unionists' strong input on this issue. I do not expect the witnesses to comment on that because they are talking about the nuts and bolts of the referendum but my view is that there are increasing signs that some unionists, even moderate unionists, are looking the other way and that their willingness to engage, even under the Good Friday Agreement, is being affected. We need new leadership and a new view from the Irish Government, and the British Government also, to try to put this process into a clear space while allowing time for change and understanding. Do any of the witnesses have a view on that?
Dr. Etain Tannam:
I thank Dr. Renwick. That is a very good point. It relates to the question about a citizens' assembly. We have seen even moderate unionists, as the Chairman said, having very intense preferences.
It is where British-Irish co-operation has been essential in framing decisions and incentivising having a strategy. That kind of coherence has been missing for various reasons, including the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference meeting. I know that it is not popular with unionists. We do stress the necessity of that co-operation in creating more engagement, a kind of strategic approach and security umbrella. We are very aware of the issue. My personal research would be very much on the need for the British-Irish strength of that relationship to encourage unionist engagement.
At this stage seeing so many questions have been asked, this might be an opportunity to just reflect on some of the points raised.
I disagree with what the Chairman said and Senator Blaney regularly says around unionism not being engaged on this issue. We should not mistake the DUP as being the monolith of all unionism. The DUP might not be engaged on this issue at this point in time. It must be remembered, however, that it said many things would not happen. It would never be in government with Sinn Féin. There would never be a devolution of police and justice powers. We have heard never, never for a long time. That is not to say the DUP will not be saying it in the future.
We have seen civic unionism engage on platforms provided by organisations such as Ireland's Future and Féile an Phobail. We have seen energetic and enthusiastic discussions about this issue. We have seen even articles from people like Peter Robinson about the issue where he has referred to people not being referendum deniers.
The other issue we need to be careful with and conscious of is that, while this committee is important with a key role to play and at which I want unionist representation, we are not the forum for which we are advocating. We need to understand when that forum is created and that space is provided, of course, unionists and people from a civic unionist background will gravitate towards it because they have a key stake and role to play.
I wish our colleagues in the DUP were on this committee. We should not misunderstand their abstentionism from this committee as unionism's abstention from this debate. That is not an accurate reflection of what is happening. Going forward on this issue, we need to engage more with civic unionism and the people who are advocating around this issue. We need to help provide a platform for those who want to be part of the debate. We should not say that, because the DUP will not engage with this committee, therefore unionism will not engage with whatever mechanism or forum is established for this issue going forward.
It was said earlier that if we were to favour the holding of simultaneous referendums North and South on the same day, we would be allowing the British Secretary of State to set the agenda. If both Governments are at opposites and there is no agreement on putting that question to the people, then we are in a difficult place. We want to see that everybody will be comfortable with a referendum being held at that time. As a practising politician, I believe it would be ludicrous not to have the question put to the people on all of this island on the same day.
The two words "stability" and "inclusivity" were mentioned by Dr. Tannam, which is extremely important. She also made the point that leading up to a referendum, we need the Irish and British Governments to work more closely through the different institutional arrangements in place. The political architecture is there for this, along with more North-South co-operation.
I have often argued that a necessary component in preparing for a referendum would be maximising the existing potential of the Good Friday Agreement which has not been done at the present time. For the benefit of all the people on this island, using all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is an essential preparation for the holding of a referendum.
I concur with Dr. Tannam's sentiments. I also concur with Colum Eastwood's point about the Irish Government having a plan.
It must not be forgotten that all political sides and parties need to put their shoulder to the wheel, particularly in Northern Ireland. We are talking about preparing. The English Government is or is not going to prepare the ground and everything is going to be hunky-dory. This is much bigger and wider than that. We all need to play our part. There is an air that 50% plus 1 is good enough. It is not good enough. The Good Friday Agreement was passed by over 70% in Northern Ireland. We need to aim at that, even beyond that. That is attainable if we all approach this in the same way we approached the Good Friday Agreement.
Professor Colin Harvey has taken a report with the committee over two sessions. There was no reference to the unionist community. Going back to my first question, there is a minority in Northern Ireland who are not at the table. What process would give us a fair view of the unionist position on a united Ireland and moving forward on our shared future?
Professor Christopher McCrudden:
I am in Northern Ireland but the idea I can speak for unionism is laughable. I cannot. Members should not in any way think of me as a substitute for actually talking with unionists.
The point made by Senator Blaney is absolutely critical. Indeed, it has been made by several other speakers today. Of course there needs to be unionist engagement. The question he is putting is how to ensure it will happen. We had a little bit of a taste of it when we were genuinely and extensively engaging with unionist opinion in preparing this report. There was engagement with what might loosely be called civic unionism. It was an uphill struggle, however. We need to be clear about that.
From a unionist point of view, there is a sensible and strategic decision being made not to engage because there is nothing from the unionist point of view to be gained from it. One may like it or not but it is a strategic decision which is not unreasonable from the unionist point of view. It seems to me unlikely that unionists, certainly as a political group, are going to engage if there is going to be a referendum that will succeed in establishing unity. I am not sure why it might be in their interests to do that at the moment.
Theoretically, I see and agree with the point being made that any sensible community will want to anticipate potential development and try to structure it in a way that would be beneficial for it.
A sensible community is going to want to anticipate a potential development and try to structure it in a way that is going to be beneficial for them. At the moment, that does not seem a likely thing to happen so we come back to the question about planning and who is going to plan. One of the other themes of today's discussion is the need for engagement beyond governments as well as by governments. We know, in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement that there was a lot of proxy discussions going on in various different forums, discussions that took place that could not have happened between governments, at least formally. So there is an opportunity, it seems to me, for a much more expansive civic engagement where the discussions actually take place in communities, organisations and institutions right across the island, and, indeed, to be honest, between east and west as well because the absence of discussion in the rest of the United Kingdom is as worrying as the absence of unionist discussion. I say that because the opinion formers in the rest of the United Kingdom are going to be critical to this as well.
Coming back to a point made earlier by a Senator about the role of parliamentary institutions, yes, of course, but parliamentary institutions as well as every other institution that has an interest in this should be engaging at the moment. It seems to me that governments do not have to lead on this. The point that we made quite firmly in the report is that a lot of discussion has to take place well before governments are going to be formally involved or formally planning. That can happen today and does not need a government lead.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
I wish to make a further point in response to Senator Blaney. It is a point that relates to his first set of questions that we failed to answer. Senator Blaney asked us to flesh out what we had said about the alternative ways of running the referendums. We see two ways of doing so. Either one holds the referendums late in the process once a plan for a united Ireland has been developed or holds the referendum earlier in the process when one has an agreed process by which a united Ireland would be designed but on which that work has not been done yet.
The first of those options, having the referendum late in the process, is in one sense clearly preferable in that it allows voters to make more of an informed choice. It allows voters to know exactly what they are getting if they vote for a united Ireland. On the other hand, as Professor McCrudden suggested, we find it difficult to see a scenario in which at least political unionism would engage on a large scale in the process of developing those plans for a united Ireland before a referendum took place while it was still possible to stop unification, in their eyes. So that is, potentially, an advantage of having the alternative approach. Then one has a process for working out the form of a united Ireland. We see two ways in which one could do that. Either one has the referendum and then one has unification on an interim arrangement and then one has a detailed process of constitutional design, or one has a referendum and then a process of constitutional design before the transfer of sovereignty, which takes place later. These options become complex because in either scenario one would need to have some kind of interim version of a united Ireland, or one would need a default arrangement for a united Ireland if one fails to agree a new constitutional settlement. They are complex but are, potentially, a mechanism for getting greater unionist engagement in the process of designing a united Ireland.
Professor Christopher McCrudden:
There is another type of unionism that is going to be involved. During the run up to any further discussion about a referendum on unity, someone is going to have to discuss what a unionist offer would be in the referendum. Clearly, there is going to be a nationalist offer at some point of what a united Ireland would look like. Equally, and this is going back to the experience in Scotland that Dr. Renwick knows more about than anyone else on the call, at one point in the Scottish referendum there was a sustained attempt at constructing the unionist offer. I am sure that the same thing will happen in the context of a unity referendum in Ireland. There is certainly the opportunity, therefore, for unionist engagement, as it were, indirectly trying to formulate what a unionist offer would look like. I suspect that that sort of discussion may already be taking place indirectly and among unionism in the rest of the United Kingdom, apart from Ulster unionists. There are different ways to skin a cat.
Dr. Etain Tannam:
Yes, if there is time. What came up conclusively in our discussions, if not exclusively, and it came up from Mary C. Murphy last week as well was whether reconciliation can happen simultaneously, preceding or not at all. There are views that we cannot make judgments on in our report about that.
Professor McCrudden has said that if local people or groups on the ground want to go ahead then there is nothing stopping that and does not need governments. I would think again that the whole human framework, which may not be in the report, would be that the intergovernmental aspect would provide that. Engagement and reconciliation would be driven at that level. We could not answer that question but there is a core divide between those who say that reconciliation can happen and we should first bring everyone along or it cannot happen until a referendum is held.
Going through the figures, it was interesting to hear about participation. We are having a very lively discussion about this. We are being told this happens everywhere and everyday but I still do not-----
For those who would prefer a united Ireland this is a tremendous opportunity. In terms of democracy and nation building, and how groups are treated, a minority or otherwise, in developing new policies, new institutions-----
I do not know whether people could hear what the Deputy said. Apologies, I did not hear what she said, unfortunately, where I am. I know she always asks a very good question so if our guests can respond from what they understood, please.
I suggest that the Deputy texts her question to me and I will read it out. Do the representatives of the SDLP and Alliance Party wish to ask a question? If not, we will move on to representatives of the Independents and Aontú.
Ms Claire Hanna:
I will try to be brief because I know that Mr. Eastwood has spoken.
I thank the witnesses. Their project is really beneficial and is already producing good and thought-provoking results. Sometimes the practical questions are framed as being those typically asked by a party pooper, but in fact they are helping people to work through the details. It is like that old thing of it being one thing for a candidate to knock a person's door and ask them whether they are going to vote, but when the candidate asks them how they will get to the polling station, it causes them to think into the future, which is worth doing.
I do not have many specific questions on the mechanics, because it is the third meeting in three or four weeks where we have discussed the mechanics. The point has been well-made by other members in respect of the insufficient parallel engagement on the hearts and minds piece. I am also in agreement with others who say that Northern political unionism is probably not going to engage practically at this point. I disagree with that approach, in that I think that there is always something to be gained by engaging and shaping the future. However, it is a perfectly rational political decision on its part not to engage. I often say to people that if I was invited to take part in a convention on shaping the union in the 21st century, I would be lying if I said I would be first in the queue to attend.
I wish to pick up on the latest couple of points raised. Dr. Renwick raised the issue of political unionism not engaging. I am wondering to what extent the conversation that is happening more widely in the UK about the union is thinking about Northern Ireland. By that, I mean that the issue of the union is no longer really even in our hands. Gordon Brown is doing his report on a potential federal UK and Scottish independence is at least an each-way bet or is as likely as not to happen. It is very possible that thestatus quo is not even going to be on the table for much longer in respect of changes that are happening and-or should happen within the union. Do the witnesses have any sense or hint that Northern Irish unionism is engaging in that, or that some of that big thinking that is being done by people like Gordon Brown is considering how things could work in Northern Ireland? Do the witnesses feel that it has somewhat written off Northern Ireland or is just not engaging in the detail of how some sort of new, modernised, federal UK could better accommodate the diversity and the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland?
Dr. Alan Renwick:
Perhaps I will respond to Ms Hanna. It is not an issue that we cover in the report. My impression is that on the whole, when politicians in Great Britain are thinking about the union, they are not thinking terribly much about Northern Ireland. Primarily, they are thinking about how to keep Scotland in the union. Certainly, Gordon Brown, who is a unionist Scot, cares deeply about Scotland remaining in the UK. That is the conversation that is happening. I do not get the sense that there is terribly much thought going into Northern Ireland's future within the union. I do not know if any of my colleagues want to disagree with that or embellish it.
Dr. Stephen Farry:
Apologies for missing most of the meeting; I was otherwise engaged. I will not comment overly because I did not hear what was said previously. However, I wish to make two points.
First, I wish to commend all the academics who are with us today on their work. I have had the pleasure of engaging with them in the preparation of the report. It is a most worthy addition to the debate. Beyond that, I want to stress something to which Ms Hanna also alluded. Between last week's presentation by Professor Colin Harvey and Mr. Mark Bassett, BL, and this evening, we have largely scoped out the options at least in terms of the mechanics of how this can be taken forward. The choices have not necessarily been made as to exactly what options are pursued, but they are fairly well scoped out. The most important aspect now is for people to talk through the issues involved so that we have informed debate on the "what", not necessarily the "how" anything could be done, if that is where indeed people choose to go. Obviously, it is a fluid situation with very different perspectives.
Leading back towards our academic friends, I am conscious of the dilemma as to how they can get unionist engagement. I am very much of the opinion that if there ever is to be a Border poll, the proposition needs to be clearly articulated at the time of that poll and not left hanging. To do so would lead to a terrible state of affairs. That then begs the question as to how to get unionism engaged on the proposition of a question. There is a real onus or opportunity for academia and others to provide neutral forums for discussion of the issues, where there is no clear perceived biased outcome from those who are hosting the event. It is more likely that at least civic unionists will gradually join that conversation if they can see that is a safe and neutral space for those discussions to happen. I encourage UCL and others to consider how they can facilitate type of discussion, on a without-prejudice basis.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
We have sought to provide that kind of space through this project. We are very clear that we do not have a view on whether there should be a referendum or what the outcome should be if there is a referendum. We are certainly enthusiastic about continuing as participants in this conversation. I am sure that my colleagues would say that same.
Professor Christopher McCrudden:
As Dr. Farry knows from being in Belfast, Queen's University, along with UCL and Ulster University, has always tried to build a neutral atmosphere for exactly those kinds of discussions - and with some success. He will hardly get any disagreement with us on the necessity for academics to provide a helping hand at least in this kind of area. One of the strengths of Northern Irish academic life is the engagement that academics have had in very practical problem-solving as well as more esoteric discussions.
I believe there are approximately ten minutes remaining. Deputy Carroll MacNeill has written her question down, so I will read it. After that, Senator Black can make her contribution, then I will leave it up to the witnesses to summarise.
Deputy Carroll MacNeill's question concerns nation building and state building. Knowing what we know now after many failed and some successful examples of developing new polities around the world, incorporating minorities and other groups with representative disparities, how do we do that well? Our concern is that we are failing to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is well-implemented, and that in addition, these unity discussions getting louder and louder risk pushing that further away as a possible outcome.
Dr. Etain Tannam:
The discussion of unification is clearly relevant to the discussion of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Somewhere, something has gone wrong in terms of unionists not engaging. There is a sense that the word "alienation" is coming up a lot, which may have come up in the past. It is key that the Good Friday Agreement is seen to work for everyone and to work robustly.
I emphasised intergovernmental relations but all strands of it working together are key. We do not make that statement to make a distinction between me and the report, but our report is within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement. There is a strong connection between it being seen to work for everyone and engaging with any constitutional issues. I emphasise and echo the points made by some members of the committee.
Professor Christopher McCrudden:
I will just add a footnote to that. This is where I probably will be extremely unpopular with members of the committee, particularly those from the South. From the point of view of someone sitting in the North at least, there needs to be a real, serious discussion in the Republic about what changes the Republic is willing to contemplate were there to be unification. We all know there will have to be some kinds of changes. The question is what kinds of changes can be contemplated. Should the flag or the national anthem be changed? What is the status of Irish? We have already seen discussion on how far should there be guaranteed unionist representation in a new Irish Cabinet etc. All the kinds of issues that arose in the context of the Good Friday Agreement with regard to Northern Ireland will essentially have to be replicated in the southern context. Speaking as somebody who is sitting in the North and comes to the South quite often, that discussion seems to be very rudimentary at the moment in the Republic.
The question of how to organise that discussion in a way which will be respectful of the different traditions in the island really remains to be thought about much more seriously than it is at the moment. The Royal Irish Academy's Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South, ARINS, initiative, is a start in thinking about these things. Taking up Mr. Farry's point, there are academic forums in which these discussions can take place, but they remain pretty rudimentary at the moment.
I have a comment more than a question. I hear and understand the concerns about the lack of unionist voices, especially in this committee. I understand, politically, why that is, but I am also very aware that I have spoken to many unionists, particularly from civic society, who want to have this conversation. Mr. Ian Marshall was a Member of the last Seanad and is a wonderful spokesperson for unionism. I again nominated him for the Seanad election and he will, it is hoped, get elected.
I have spoken to many unionists. I remember attending the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast at which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, spoke, and a unionist sitting on a panel at that event said nobody had talked to him about what a new Ireland would look like even though he was open to the conversation. I know there are unionists, all from civic society, who want to come in and talk to this committee. Since I work in another area, I have worked with unionists from civic society in Belfast as part of my charity work. Unionists want to have a conversation. They want to know what health, education and housing will look like in a new Ireland. These are the questions they want to know about.
I know many of the voices the witnesses have talked about are from political unionism, but it would be great if we could bring in more unionists from civic society to talk about what it is like for them. Ian Marshall is one of those people. He is a wonderful man and I have heard him speak many times on behalf of the unionist voice. I wanted to make that comment. I agree we need to bring more unionist voices to our committee, in particular. However, maybe we could look at bringing in more unionists from civic society just to hear what their thinking is and, particularly, what their fears are. That is very important.
Dr. Alan Renwick:
We very much agree with Senator Black's sentiments. Indeed, when we have spoken to people from the unionist community, we have often heard it said that talk of unionism not engaging is rather offensive. A judgement is being made on unionists for not participating in a particular conversation defined by some parts of the community, whereas there are other forms of conversation in which, perhaps, many members of the unionist community would be very happy to participate.
It goes back to the point made by Senator Blaney and others in the course of this conversation that finding ways of having conversations about the constitutional future that are not necessarily teleological in supposing a particular outcome might assist in the process of bringing in all voices. In this particular project, we have focused on the process involved in referendums on the unification question and, in a sense, on a particular possible constitutional future for Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole. Clearly, there are other possible constitutional futures as well and in doing this project we have not sought to make any judgement among those different possible constitutional futures.
The key point we want to reiterate in this project is that the process involved in referendums on this question will be complex. There is no perfect process that does not create problems of some kind along the way. Understanding that process and thinking very clearly about how to do it in the best possible way that allows people to make an informed choice, allows an inclusive discussion and maintains stability is a fundamentally important thing. We are very grateful to the committee for engaging with us for two whole hours on exactly those questions. We look forward to continuing these conversations in the future.
I thank Dr. Renwick. It was a great pleasure to have him and his colleagues here. They answered questions fairly and openly. We made sure every party got a fair opportunity to address the issues. It is part of the ongoing and very important debate we are having on this island. I thank Dr. Renwick, Dr. Etain Tannam, Dr. David Kenny and Professor Christopher McCrudden for their time, effort, analysis, academic work and willingness to come in at this hour to hear and listen to us all. I now have to close the meeting but we will, we hope, have an opportunity to discuss their full report when it is published.