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The recent politics of Europe have brought home to many of us the continuing vitality of fears related to social change: what is best described as the fear of cultural loss. Conservative politics across Europe, from Hungary to Spain, have fuelled a sense of the world having evolved in ways that are said to bring irreparable loss to nations, cultures and individuals. In many cases this sense of loss is located in various issues, but fears for British and Irish national and gendered identities consistently inform the theme .

In any account of cultures of loss, is how complex is the making of that sense of loss. If we take the Republic of Ireland as one of the many examples of a country which has, in the past fifty years, seen a transformation of its laws around gender and sexuality, we can see how a powerful literature has supported those changes at the same time as re-considering Irish history. In the works of Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Clare Keegan and Colm Toibin aspects of the past in Ireland are shown in all their evasions, deceits and punitive practices. Yet, what is also recalled is a powerful sense of ‘being Irish’, an identity forged out of the eight hundred years of struggle for independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That element in the individual sense of having a national identity can inform both sides of the ‘culture wars’ and demonstrates how diverse the construction of cultural loss may be.

Nostalgia has long been considered one of the major English narratives; a way of looking at the past which assumes fixed English identities and a ‘great’ historical past. In this sense its current re-iteration is nothing new and as always provided a place of sanctuary for societies as divided as those of Northern Ireland. But it is not a story which has always convinced everyone, even those often associated with that canonical English literature which may be read as an endorsement of the past. When the English novelist Evelyn Waugh was confronted with a comment about the consistently excellent behaviour of the ‘English gentleman’ he remarked that he himself had never noticed this. Yet this mythical persona has formed the basis of considerable fiction, invoking a world of accepted social cohesion.

That vision of the past, of the ‘good’ and munificent ruling class of England never of course existed. England, the United Kingdom and the Empire were ruled by the privileged for the privileged with occasional bursts of altruism and social improvement. Despite the best efforts of conservative historians such Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts to argue the case for the general improvement the British Empire brought to its inhabitants, the balance sheet of the past two hundred years of British history suggests a very different picture .

However, that picture remains deeply alluring for millions of British people especially those who fear attacks or critique of their identities. It is a history of white people (usually male people) strutting the world and exerting dominance over domestic and foreign populations. Should an enemy threaten then a saviour will emerge and the British will come together to fight off this enemy. The traction of the still potent example of Britain’s part in the Second World War remains and has been seen to remain in debates over Brexit a dominant strand in our nostalgia about ourselves. Despite the fact that the human and material resources of both the Soviet Union and the United States played the decisive roles in the Second World War ‘we’ won the war and with it a much-enhanced vision of our national culture. The war time rhetoric of ‘all being in this together’, as problematic as it was then, was used yet again by the Cameron government to justify vicious policies of spending cuts. .[1]

It is through this endless re-play of moments of historical unity and moral clarity that in the second decade of the twenty first century millions of British people feel that the world in which they now live has lost much that is valuable, a sense of loss which it is particularly acute for older generations who did not fight in the Second World War but whose parents did. Younger generations may have little recognition about ‘the war’ given that 1939-1945 were years belonging not just to their grand-parents but also to their great grand- parents. But what that generation has grown up with up is another fundamental transformation of the social world as great as that of the loss of the Empire and its accompanying sense of British global influence and power. Legislative changes across much of the world have endorsed both different kinds of sexual relations and access to forms of contraception and divorce. In these changes what has disappeared for many people is the sense of ownership over the personal relationships of others: the right for a community or a neighbourhood to condemn behaviour (be it homosexuality or the birth of children outside marriage) that does not accord with prevailing norms . Upholding the norms of previous generations, as the case of Northern Ireland suggests is as much a form of political allegiance as resistance to sexual liberalism. Examples of this kind of condemnation constitute too much of the world’s social history. Even when a figure such as Alan Turing played a decisive part in England’s development of radar in the Second World prevailing laws about homosexuality condemned Turing to vicious medical treatments.

On questions of current English views about both sexuality and our national history evidence suggests deep, although not overwhelming, generational differences. It is a pattern to be found across Europe where generations who have grown up since the 1960s and 1970s generally have more accepting views about different sexual choices and less commitment to grandiose, and highly sanitised versions, of English history. But before it is assumed that this entire generation, either in England or elsewhere, occupies a new tolerant space it is important to look more closely at what underlies these changes and what is a fissure, across much of Europe, between different social groups .

One of the first places to look for the origins of Right wing views the views which have supported Donald Trump in the US, Vox in Spain, Reform UK in the United Kingdom and National Rally in France is concern for the erosion of racial and ethnic difference. For example, in her study of the radically divergent lives of two women from Arkansas in the US (The Forgotten Girls) Monica Potts wrote of ‘dominant group status threat’. Essentially, poor white people in the US felt that the colour of their skin owed them a measure of security and comfort; white was, and should be, more privileged than black. Immigration in European countries contributed to the perception that the particular privileges that made up being English (or French or Spanish or American) were being eroded by these changes. ‘Being‘ (English or French et al) had implicitly meant being of a single race, heterosexual and convinced of a country’s ‘greatness’. The slogan much used by the Trump campaign of ‘Make America Great Again’ invoked a sense of loss as much as it assumed that loss could only be repaired by a return to the past.

The case of England is a further instance of this complication. Previous comments here might lead to the conclusion that all of English culture and history is a generally endorsed and taken-for-granted set of assumptions about the glorification of the Empire, Winston Churchill et al. For some in English politics that is certainly the case. But for others, England, and English culture also includes the establishment of the National Health Service and that endlessly radical and critical tradition in which the values and actions which are heralded as definitely ‘British’ have been consistently held to account. In such contexts the sense of ‘loss’ is not one for grandeur, patriarchy and a single, national racial identity but one which celebrates difference and equality. At least as importantly this view recognises the absurdity of assuming that the emergence of new rights (in personal relations as much as in citizenship) removes the rights of others. Yet the fantasy of the fear of the implications of those new rights remains a potent political force. It is also one which can serve to marginalise more pressing political issues: of material inequality, the increasingly urgent problems of climate change and challenges to hard-won legal and institutional rights. Across the globe, a challenge to the false, dangerous and mythical narrative of cultural loss is now of immediate importance.

Mary Evans, Professor Emeritus at LSE

[1] David Cameron’s Big Society Speech 19 July 2010 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/big-society-speech

But does the Alliance self-categorisation as “other” stack up? Critical theory tells us that Alliance is a unionist party. The critical approach would attest that by dodging the big constitutional questions and trying to “fix” Northern Ireland then Alliance is – by default – unionist. Alliance accepts the current broad constitutional status quo (Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom) but believes that Northern Ireland can be improved. Indeed, this liberal optimism – that human beings and institutions can be improved – without addressing fundamental issues of power, has attracted immense academic criticism of failed and misfiring attempts at peacebuilding. According to a critical theory standpoint, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland are problem-solving, or tinkering with minor technicalities while failing to address the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem, lest we forget, is that a good number of Northern Ireland’s population don’t want the state to exist. And a good number believe firmly that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

The Alliance position matters for two reasons. Firstly, the Party have been gaining votes over the past decade or so and – according to the May 2023 local government elections are Northern Ireland’s third largest party. Secondly, the trigger for calling for a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future rests on a determination made by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State on the likelihood of popular support for change. Whether a party regards itself as nationalist, unionist or other matters. Many analyses following the May 2023 local government elections split voting behaviour into the nationalist and unionist camps – leaving Alliance voters in the other category. For example, the BBC’s Darran Marshall Tweeted, on the basis of first preference votes, that ‘Nationalist parties won 40.5% of the vote. (SF, SDLP, Aontú)’ and ‘Unionists parties won 38.1% (DUP, UUP, TUV)’. In this view, nationalist parties gained more first preference votes than unionist parties. But what if Alliance was regarded as unionist? If Alliance can be regarded as unionist, then their 13.3% of first preference votes brings the unionist total up to 51.4% and so makes triggering a border poll even more unlikely.

To help interrogate whether Alliance deserve their self-proclaimed label as “other” it is worth looking at their political and cultural DNA. Historically, Alliance emerged from the New Ulster Movement, a late 1960s liberal unionist pressure group that sought to encourage the Unionist Party government to moderate. The Alliance Party’s own history describes the New Ulster Movement as “moderate” rather than “moderate unionist” yet the origins of the Movement were within unionism. Over the years, the Alliance Party has been consistent in its rejection of violence and desire to reform Northern Ireland. It has never had enthusiasm for significant constitutional change – preferring instead to maintain Northern Ireland’s position within the Union but on the basis on cross-community agreement. Former leader John Alderdice summed up the position as “Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom for as long as the people of the North wanted it.”

Alliance’s discomfort with the constitutional question is evident in their response to initiatives and questions that have sought to address the issue. The Party stayed away from the September 2022 “Ireland’s Future” meeting (a position it shared with unionist parties), calling it “a rally to endorse a united Ireland” and voted against a motion in Belfast City Council for a New Ireland Forum and citizen assemblies. Yet the Party has attended other Ireland’s Future events.

Culturally, a sense of Irishness in the Alliance Party seems muted. Party conference speeches by leaders and deputy leaders tend to mention UK politics. Not so much politics south of the border. Of Members of the Legislative Assembly who have their nationality listed on Wikipedia, all are listed as “Northern Irish” rather than “Irish” (with one as “Irish-Zimbabwean”). Only one of the seventeen Alliance MLAs has a degree from the Irish Republic. The Party’s one supranational elected representative sits in Westminster, and its sister party is the UK-based Liberal Democrats. There is no equivalent linkage with a party in the Republic of Ireland.

Of course, the urge to shove the Alliance Party into a category, especially a unionist or nationalist category, says so much about Northern Ireland and its binarized ways. The Alliance position of not wanting to be categorised as one or the other seems to come from a place of wanting to make Northern Ireland a better place. Yet is there a disingenuous element to this? The overall picture that emerges is that Alliance is a unionist party, but it seems afraid to say so. Its unionism is different from the defensive politics of the Democratic Unionists and Traditional Unionist voice. Instead, it seems more in keeping with its origins of the late 1960s – a liberal and moderate unionism that believes that Northern Ireland (within the United Kingdom) can be reformed. Increasing talk of a border poll might pose a challenge for the Alliance Party and its electoral rise. The binary nature of debates surrounding the poll (should there be one: yes or no; would you support a united Ireland: yes or no?) means that the Alliance position of navigating a way around constitutional questions may be difficult to maintain. Yet the Alliance position of soft unionism will be very useful to British governments. No British Prime Minister – Conservative or Labour – will want to be seen as the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (or Scotland). The Alliance position as “other” will help Secretaries of State kick that can down the road.

Roger Mac Ginty is Professor at the School of Government and International Affairs, and the Durham Global Security Institute, both at Durham University. He is founder of the Everyday Peace Indicators project and edits the journal Peacebuilding. His latest book, Everyday Peace: How so-called ordinary people can disrupt violent conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), won the Ernst-Otto Czempiel Award for best book on peace 2020-2022.

There is already flourishing intellectual discussion and expert analysis of future constitutional options and North-South relations, in ARINS research articles, in books and civil society ventures, and in this newspaper, with ongoing ‘shared island’ work by ESRI and NESC. This activity is vital: the complex machinery of referendum and unification needs to be understood and the economic impact analysed. Governments and officials need information at hand and models of change available if unification happens and if it doesn’t.

But this discussion has to have public buy-in. Even the best designed institutions won’t work if people are not engaged. Institutions are partially constituted by the beliefs and anticipations of those that work within and around them, and constitutions bed in only when they resonate with the beliefs, values and ideals of ordinary people. When governments and states don’t listen, everyday life becomes disconnected from politics, illegible to policy makers, and unmanageable for governments – that is a dangerous context for constitutional change.

What might radical inclusion look like? It isn’t just unionists who don’t want to talk about a possible united Ireland. There are multiple ‘others’ North and South whose priorities lie elsewhere: working class women, incomers, including European incomers concerned about securing their position in Northern Ireland after Brexit, gender activists, socialists, trades unionists, young people. Over half of the Northern population and close to that in the South have distanced themselves from classic nationalism and unionism. For them there are issues much more important than institutional design.

Our research over the past two years engaged with diverse groups of people in focus groups, interviews and ‘deliberative cafes’ – 3 hour meetings with coffee, food and lots of information. It included groups not usually asked about constitutional issues: disadvantaged youth, border women, migrants, North and South. It did not give them predefined constitutional choices but it encouraged them to talk about what was important to them: to define the agenda of constitutional deliberation and their issues of priority.

We came to five conclusions:

Alienation: The agenda and technical debate about constitutional options, very language of ‘Irish unity’ and ‘unification’ seriously turned off our participants. They emphasised the importance of getting the principles and big picture right before looking at formal institutional details.

Convergence: There was surprising convergence between unionists and nationalists, north and south. Women, migrants, lgbtqi+ and young people reached beyond sectional interests to try to define issues for ‘the general good’. They didn’t always agree, but there was enough convergence to allow real discussion about coordination North and South and what any constitutional change must do if it was to be worthwhile.

Change: They wanted to change the constitutional agenda, to begin with ‘bread and butter issues’, socio-economic rights rather than constitutional arrangements, and to change the language so that the agenda is driven by experience not theory or ideology. They wanted expertise, objective, and neutral information – but they also wanted policy that speaks to real life.

Democratic Accountability: They wanted real democratic engagement and accountability. Not just to be consulted and their input stuck in filing cabinets, but ongoing engagement so that local expertise can properly feed into decision-making.

Sequencing: Radical inclusion in constitutional discussion is most impactful ‘upstream’ in the process: now, at early stages of discussion when the parameters of change are being defined, it is a no-brainer. Politicians we talked to understand this.

But there is also scepticism. This research is often undertaken by women, and some see it as less serious than survey work. We have heard countless criticisms of small-scale, non-representative research that engages with people who may not even vote, and whose views therefore ‘don’t count’. The intellectual criticism is misplaced: this research uses fore-front intellectual tools in coding and conceptualisation, and there is considerable international interest in the findings. It is also politically wrong: radical inclusion is crucial for the success of constitutional change – so that governments have a good sense of public expectations and limits, and where the public is willing to go the extra mile.

The real problems are administrative. The research is disparate, hard to coordinate, not easily put in conceptual boxes and not easy to translate into policy. But the challenges are surmountable. At a two day conference at the Royal Irish Academy in June, 2022, feminist constitutionalists, deliberative experts, everyday peace-makers, cultural sociologists, human rights experts, grass roots women, policy makers and politicians discussed the issues. Some were initially sceptical about radical inclusion, and made strong arguments for clarity of constitutional choice and commitment to existing methods. But by the end, legal experts were unpuzzling how some of this participatory agenda could be reframed for large citizens’ assemblies, deliberative experts were thinking how coordination could take place, and politicians were thinking how they could feed research into political thinking.

Such participatory research has something important to say to survey designers, and to those organising large citizens’ assemblies but it is seldom taken up. The state and the island need a centre tasked to join up existing research and plan for more.

Joanne McEvoy is Senior Lecturer, U Aberdeen. Jennifer Todd is emeritus Professor, Geary Institute, UCD. The authors acknowledge funding from DFAT, IRC and Shared Island, ARINS, UCD, U Aberdeen, which facilitated their research and a recent conference. A longer article on this topic, cowritten with Dawn Walsh, is available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/850801.

At present, the blame is overwhelmingly directed at Brexit and the current British Government’s cynical and disastrous management of it. In the South the DUP is widely viewed as a wholly negative force and there is limited sympathy for unionism generally. Sinn Féin has, both in substance and in presentation, positioned itself as a more moderate actor, but many remain unimpressed by its historical revisionism and find its irredentist agenda premature and simplistic. So there is little Southern enthusiasm for or interest in immersion in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Tony Blair, British Prime Minister with Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach, at the signing of the Agreement1998

The problems the Agreement faces and has faced are rooted in political fundamentals. But could changes help put it on a more sustainable footing? The Irish Government, as a co-author and co-guarantor of the Agreement, has a strong interest in an effective and successful Assembly and Executive. The basic principles are clear: they must rest on broad cross-community support, must operate fairly and impartially, and must be fit to be serious partners in North/South institutions. These are among the non-negotiable building blocks of the Agreement. However, Irish Governments have kept away from the detail of how the Strand One institutions work. For reasons of constitutional principle and political practicality, they were not directly involved in the negotiation of this part of the Agreement, seen as the responsibility of the British Government and of the political parties. That has remained the situation through the various negotiations of the past decade. Dublin would be open to discussion of reform consistent with the Agreement’s fundamental principles and would welcome any agreed changes.

But it cannot be expected to advocate any specific measures. Such proposals would in any case need to be very carefully assessed. The changes made in the St Andrews Agreement solved a major political problem but, as we have seen, at a considerable longer-term cost and, more recently, with some unintended consequences for its main architects. There is also a fear that the present British Government could use a discussion of reform as cover for hasty and ill-considered tweaks aimed at short-term objectives.

Two basic questions need to be asked: what problems would reform be intended to solve? And would it solve them?

The first problem is accommodating those who do not wish to be categorised as either nationalist or unionist. Modern Irish nationalism, as formulated in the New Ireland Forum report of 1984 and thereafter, is based explicitly on a bicommunal approach. The report, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration, and the Good Friday Agreement itself are suffused with a recognition of the need to reconcile two traditions, two identities, two aspirations, two communities – thence the conceptual underpinning of the institutions and their operating rules.

Even in 1998, some critics, such as Robin Wilson, lamented the institutionalisation of division, as they saw it: the counterargument was that it was simply a recognition of the overwhelming reality of a divided society. The number of “others” was too small to be a factor in political calculation. Evidently that is now changing. The rise of the “neither nor” middle ground has been noted and widely celebrated in the south. But in hoping and wishing for a new politics we need to be careful not to exaggerate. Alliance’s performance was of course very impressive, but in terms of vote share less dramatic than it could have been; and a huge majority still voted for traditional nationalist and unionist parties.

It seems wrong in principle that Alliance cannot realistically aspire to holding the post of Deputy First Minister or that if by some chance it came first in an election the system of designation would become unworkable. But this is not now a practical problem and seems unlikely to become one for a considerable time. Other criticisms of the St Andrews mechanisms may be more relevant.

“Other” MLAs and their voters will not formally be fully equal for as long as cross-community agreement on key decisions is measured by the levels of unionist and nationalist support alone. A move to a system of weighted Assembly voting on such decisions would therefore be logical and welcome. This would be symbolically significant: but how much would it change practice? It is hard to see agreement being reached on a percentage threshold which would not in effect require support from majorities of unionists and nationalists, whether formally designated or not. This in turn would for present and almost certainly future purposes involve support from both the DUP and Sinn Féin. In principle a 65% threshold could see either of these parties being unable to block a proposal, but that would in practice surely place the smaller unionist or nationalist parties under enormous strain.

The petition of concern has undoubtedly been seriously abused in the past, but the scale of the problem has been diminishing, with neither of the big parties reaching the 30-vote threshold, and the NDNA requirement for at least two parties to support it.

The more fundamental question is whether if current circumstances, where unionists hold 43% of the Assembly’s 90 seats and nationalists 39%, are broadly maintained, the institutions could for long claim legitimacy and exercise authority against the wishes of a clear majority of one of the two blocs. The rise of others may have weakened the concept of bicommunalism, but it has not yet displaced it.

This leads to the related question of whether a single party should be able to block the formation of an Executive by refusing to nominate a First or Deputy First Minister (incidentally, changing the titles is one reform which ought to be easily achievable, even if at least for the moment accepting the deputy post does not seem to be as big a problem for the DUP as feared). The Taoiseach is only the most prominent Southern politician to say that no one party should have a veto. As we have seen repeatedly, however, parties which enjoy majority nationalist or unionist support do as a matter of political reality as well as legally have vetoes. And while this may be made starker by the St Andrews arrangements it is fully in line with the logic of the Agreement.

A return to the original Assembly election of a joint ticket based on cross-community consent would offer some room for manoeuvre, still more if there were a move to a weighted majority system to measure consent. It would in principle mean that one of the big two parties might choose to forgo the office of FM or DFM without the whole system grinding to a halt, or that it could be outvoted by a coalition including smaller parties from its own community. But while, if present circumstances were replicated, that in theory might happen if the UUP so decided, it is surely likely that its current approach is politically possible only because the rules make it legally impossible. Maybe I am too pessimistic, but I find it difficult to see how a smaller party could for long carry the weight of sustaining an Executive against the views of a clear majority of people in its own community. This would hypothetically also apply to the SDLP vis-à-vis Sinn Féin.

One area in which the Irish Government would have a direct interest in reform as part of an overall package would be the functioning of the North/South institutions. It should be harder for unionists to prevent meetings either by refusing to agree agendas or by not turning up. There should be more flexibility in developing areas of co-operation to take account of new challenges and priorities. The functioning of the East-West institutions could also be overhauled.

There are, therefore, possible reforms which could possibly help make the institutions work better and which could usefully be explored. But in a polity which despite the growth of a middle ground continues to be dominated by two large and equal blocs, expectations of how far institutional change can bypass more fundamental political division should be tempered.

Rory Montgomery

Rory Montgomery, host of the ARINS podcast, is a former Irish diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the EU, Ambassador to France and Second Secretary General at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs with particular responsibility for Brexit. He has been principal EU adviser to Enda Kenny and Simon Coveney and has worked extensively with Irish, Northern Irish, British and European politicians and officials. He was part of the Irish team which negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. He is also a Member of the Royal Irish Academy/University of Notre Dame Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South (ARINS) Project and an Honorary Professorat the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.

Image in text: Tony Blair, British Prime Minister with Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach, at the signing of the Agreement, 1998

Before the Brexit referendum, repeated opinion polls suggested that half or more of those who voted for Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, did not want to call an immediate referendum on Irish unity and if a referendum were called, they would vote against immediate change.[1] Less frequently identified in polling, are the middle ground voters who largely supported UK membership before Brexit, but who are now much more divided in their views. Indeed, on polling related to Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, centre ground voters are much closer in their views to nationalists, than unionists and their views on Irish unity are now clearly related to a desire to retain as close as link as possible to the European Union.

Illustrating the political shift that has taken place following the Brexit referendum, a December 2018 poll found that:

  • 35% of nationalists wanted a border poll to be held in 2019,
  • 79% wanted one within 5 years, and
  • 89% wanted a poll within 10 years.

In the same survey, 93% of nationalists said they would vote to leave the UK, and a further 5% of nationalists ‘probably would’, if the poll was held in 2019, in the context of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. [2]

A poll in September 2019, by Ashcroft Polling, confirmed these shifts in opinion in NI.[3] In that poll, 45% of respondents said they would vote to stay in the UK, and 46% said they would choose to leave and create a United Ireland – a lead of 51% to 49% for Irish unification when ‘don’t knows’ and those who say they would not vote are excluded. While within the margin of error, the political impact of even one reputable poll showing that Northern Ireland public opinion was so finely balanced marked a watershed.

A Sunday Times poll of January 2021 – carried out as part of a feature on the future of the UK union, showed a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of holding a poll on Irish unity and when asked how they would vote, 46.8% said to stay in the UK, 42.3% chose a united Ireland and 10.7% were unsure. In that poll a majority of those under 44 years of age supported Irish unity.

Moreover, among ‘constitutional neutrals’, that is those who did not vote for a nationalist or unionist party in any of the last 3 elections – 38% said they would vote for a United Ireland, 36% said they were unsure but would vote, and only 26% said they would vote to stay in the UK.[4]

Polls held during the EU-UK negotiations on Brexit, confirmed a strong linkage between the nature of the post-Brexit agreement and attitudes to a united Ireland. In a 2018 poll, 37% of ‘others’ in Northern Ireland wanted a border poll within 5 years, with 68% wanting this within 10 years. If there was no deal, 70% of such voters said they were certain or likely to vote for Irish unity, whereas if a hard Brexit did not proceed, this proportion dropped to 54%.[5]

Nonetheless there is still considerable variation in the results from different polling companies. Table one summarises the latest polls for NI (which have different methodologies and question wording).

Poll[6]

In favour of a United Ireland

Against a United Ireland

Don’t Know / Did not answer

Lucid Talk / BBC April 2021

43

49

8

Lucid Talk / Sunday Times Jan 2021

42

47

11

Liverpool Apr 2022

30

45

25

Liverpool Nov 2021

33

55

12

Liverpool 2019

29

53

18

NILP

34

48

18

Ashcroft Dec 2021

41

49

10

Ashcroft Sept 2019

46

45

9

While there is a good degree of consensus on the percentage support to stay in the UK, with 6 out of 8 polls in the 45% to 49% range, there are outliers in two of the Liverpool polls, which polled all respondents and not just voters or likely voters. With the exception of the two outlier results, the biggest variation is in the balance between definite supporters of unity – widely ranging from 29% to 46%, and don’t know / no reply ranging from 8% to 25%.

There are many reasons why polls might get different results, but one way to explore their accuracy is to look at how they estimated party support just before the most recent PR election (May 2022) – when voters did not have to vote tactically (tactical voting is more likely in a Westminster election). Using this approach, we see extensive variation in party support estimates.

The most evident feature of this comparison of polls is the relative accuracy of the Lucid Talk, Liverpool and Survation polls, and the enormous gaps between NILT and actual election results. Moreover, this large underestimation of Sinn Féin, in particular and an over estimation of Alliance, is a feature of NILT polls over the quarter century post GFA period, with some polls showing Sinn Féin support as low as 9%. The extent of NILT’s inaccuracy – showing the UUP more popular than the DUP, SF and SDLP with the same support and Alliance and Greens on 30.4%, instead of 15.4%, means that this series of polls should be used with extreme caution, if at all, to discuss political support or attitudes to constitutional change, either as a one off or over time and arguably be excluded from “poll of polls” aggregated results as they inaccurately skew the average.

The most recent Liverpool polls are similar to Lucid Talk in their estimates of support for Sinn Féin, the DUP, UUP and SDLP, but overestimate Alliance and Greens (20.9% in Liverpool, 17% in Lucid Talk, compared to an actual 15.4%).

2022

ELECTION RESULT

LUCID TALK

LIVERPOOL

SURVATION / ITV

NILT

DUP

21.33

20

20.2

20.2

15.2

UUP

11.17

14

13.5

10.9

16.5

TUV

7.6

9

6.4

6.5

*

loyalists

0.3

other Unionists

1.79

1.6

ALL pro-UK

42.19

43

41.7

37.6

31.7

SF

29.02

26

27

22.2

16.5

SDLP

9.07

10

10.3

13.3

16.5

other Nationalists

2.47

0.7

PBP

1.1

2

2.1

3.2

*

All pro-united Ireland

41.66

38

40.1

38.7

33

AP

13.53

14

14.6

14.1

24.1

GP

1.9

3

4.3

*

6.3

Centre total

15.43

17

18.9

14.1

30.4

Even if NILT is excluded, there is still a considerable variation between the three Liverpool polls, over the 2019 to 2022 period, and even between the latest Liverpool poll and Lucid Talk.

There are a few possible explanations for this variation.

Firstly, polling in post-conflict and deeply divided societies is challenging. People can be reluctant to express an opinion to strangers. Polls throughout the conflict under-represented SF and over-represented Alliance, for example. It is reasonable to assume that many respondents assumed that replying you ‘did not know’ or that you vote Alliance, or supporting middle ground policy options, were the safest responses.

Traditionally face-to-face, in-home, polling was seen as the ‘gold standard’ in attitude surveys and online surveys based on demographically representative panels were treated with more suspicion as people volunteered to be on the original database panel. However, people also choose whether to take part in a face-to-face survey and the debate on polling accuracy is changing, with many high-profile, reputable international polling companies now using representative online panels. In post-conflict societies, online methodologies seem to get fewer people refusing to reply to a question or answering that they ‘do not know’.

The Lucid Talk NI poll series uses an online methodology – increasingly common in polling internationally. It is not pure self-selection like a Twitter poll. People volunteer to be on a panel for a polling company, who will usually do commercial product surveys as well as political polls. Many companies offer discount vouchers to encourage people to register. The company will then send a survey to a selection of all those who have registered, which is representative of the population in terms of age, gender, class, location etc. The Managing Director of Lucid Talk has argued that this methodology produces a good representative sample, and can make larger sample sizes affordable. Almost 3,000 replies were analysed in their 2021 Sunday Times poll, compared to a sample size of 1,000 in most other surveys. Their approach also greatly reduces the number of people who answer “do not know” in response to sensitive questions. Lucid Talk argue that when you get very large percentages – into the 20%s – saying ‘do not know’, then it is not statistically reliable to simply assume they would either not vote or break down pro-rata, which is the common practice in polling when the ‘do not know’ category is much smaller.

The 2019 Liverpool poll was face-to-face, but their 2021 and 2022 polls were online. Yet while all three got similar results for those supporting a united Ireland, the level of support (29% to 33%) was much lower that Lucid Talk and Ashcroft polls (41% to 46%). The three Liverpool polls also produced quite different results on the pro-UK, versus don’t know. The percentage support against Irish unity in 2022 was very similar to Lucid Talk’s consistent results, but was lower than Liverpool had found in 2019 and 2021. What might explain these different outcomes?

Greater data is available on the 2019 Liverpool poll. Non-voters make up about one third of the sample. The survey asked people what the “long-term policy” for NI should be – and did not ask people if they would vote or how they would vote. It shows a higher percentage support for the UK (53%) and higher percentage ‘don’t knows’ / refused to answer (18%) than other polls.

Liverpool also included replies from the entire sample without asking people if they would actually vote. Turnout will certainly be high in a unity referendum, but it will not be 100%, and therefore what we need to survey is the opinions of likely voters in such a referendum and we need to ask them specifically how they would vote.

Less data has been published by Liverpool on the 2021 and 2022 surveys, as the polling company used, is not a member of the British professional association for polling companies, which require such publication. However, it seems that the sample has been purposively built around self-definition with approximately equal numbers of nationalists, unionists and ‘other / neither’. Self-definition has not been a stable category in other surveys and has changed very significantly from year to year with ‘others’ growing and then falling, in a manner which does not seem likely to reflect real social change in such short periods. If we look at voting behaviour, 15.5% of the public voted for parties without an explicit position on Irish unity versus the status quo in 2022, so creating a survey sample based on one third of ‘neither’, may under-represent supporters of a united Ireland.

The precise question wording is also important. The highest percentage support for a united Ireland is found when the question is a simple one of “how would you vote?”. If the question is framed more generally as to what the best policy would be (Liverpool 2019), or many options are offered, the support for unity seems to drop off.

Research in Scotland also suggests that the wording on the ballot paper / survey influences behaviour. There was a very extensive debate, managed by an independent electoral commission before the wording in Scotland was agreed by all parties – eventually they opted for the wording ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ This wording was seen as more neutral by experts, following test surveys and focus group research, than alternative suggestions which sought to frame the question as “leave” the UK versus “stay” in the UK.[7]

Follow-up research in Scotland, in the aftermath of Brexit suggests that the words “leave” and “remain” have now become very loaded and using those words in a survey, reduces support for Scottish independence, compared to polls with more neutral wording. Almost all of the survey questions in Northern Ireland have framed the question as ‘remain in the UK’ versus ‘leave’ (Lucid Talk/BBC; Liverpool 2019), or ‘stay’ in the UK v ‘leave’ (Liverpool 2021). The Liverpool 2022 survey with a more neutral wording, and with a straightforward phrase “I would vote for a united Ireland”. However it still used the agree / disagree style of question, rather than simply asking how the respondent would vote. This formula however produced their lowest level of opposition to a united Ireland, compared to Liverpool’s other surveys where other question wordings were used. On the other hand, while the change to a more neutral wording in Lucid talk/ Sunday Times poll, also showed lower support for the status quo, than the question wording ‘remain v. leave’, and more don’t knows, it was only a marginal difference compared to other Lucid Talk polls.

Given the relatively high proportion of people in some polls who reply that they do not know how they would vote in a referendum, the political context of the period when fieldwork is carried out also seems to have an impact. When it appeared that the EU and UK would not reach agreement on a withdrawal agreement and that therefore a hard border on the island of Ireland, was very likely, polling in 2018 and 2019, produced high response rates in surveys in support of voting for a united Ireland.[8] In contrast, a 2021 Liverpool University poll, held after the EU put forward new proposals on the Protocol, which looked as though they might resolve the EU-UK dispute, asked people “If there was a border poll tomorrow, would you vote for Northern Ireland to stay as part of the United Kingdom or for a United Ireland?” This poll showed marginally higher than average support for staying in the UK and lower figures for don’t know and for ‘a United Ireland’.[9]

The Brexit / Protocol debates may also offer some sort of proxy insight into potential attitudes to a united Ireland, as a means to re-join the EU. Broken down by party support, an EU-UK deal on Northern Ireland with checks in the Irish Sea was supported by 98% of supporters of the two major Irish nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, 89% of Alliance Party voters, 86% of Green Party voters, but only 27% of UUP voters, and 5% of DUP voters.

By self-defined community membership, this represented approximately 93% of self-defined Irish nationalists, 20% of self-defined unionists, and 71% of those who do not self-define as nationalist or unionist.[10] The centre ground on EU/Protocol issues was much closer to the nationalist position than the unionist view and as discussed above, during periods where a ‘no deal’ outcome in EU-UK negotiations seemed likely, support for Irish unity among the centre ground increased.

Polls almost all ask people how they would vote if a poll was held ‘tomorrow’, as polling companies argue that people do not know what they will think in the future. However, in the case of a united Ireland, while the status quo is known to people, what a future united Ireland might look like is not known at this time, and as a consequence only a small minority want a referendum to be held ‘now’, while clear majorities north and south favour holding a referendum in a 5-to-10 year timeframe – after appropriate research and debate. The impact of greater information and detail will only be seen in time.

What is clear is that more sophisticated polling is needed, both north and south. The existing polls in the Republic of Ireland all suggest that a referendum would be carried by a large majority, but as the Irish parliament will have to take a lead on defining both the process of public debate and the proposed nature of a united Ireland – polling on the detail of specific proposals, ranging from the health system, to pensions and potential devolution, after they have been publicly debated, would be useful. In NI, there is no clear majority for a united Ireland at this time, but opinion is more finely balanced than ever before and there is a significant bloc of voters who will only decide after more detail is available to them. At present, the majority of credible polls of likely voters, show the percentage support for remaining in the UK in the mid-to-high 40s, and therefore the currently undecided will determine the final outcome.

John Doyle, Director, Dublin City University Institute for International Conflict Resolution

[1] For example, BBC (2013). ‘Opinion poll indicates NI voters would reject Irish unity’, BBC, 5 February 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-21345997 ; For a background to polling in NI see Irwin, Colin (2002). The People’s Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Palgrave.

[5] Lucid Talk 2018. Tracker Polling in Northern Ireland, Winter 2018 see: https://www.lucidtalk.co.uk/single-post/2018/12/07/LT-NI-Tracker-Poll—Winter-2018 .

[7] Michael Keating and Nicola McEwan, “The Scottish Independence Debate”, pp. 1-26, in Michael Keating (ed.), Debating Scotland: issues of independence and Union in the 2014 referendum. Oxford University Press, 2017.

What happens when you merge two distinct legal, administrative and judicial systems with legacy concerns? The reunification of Germany is arguably the closest and most recent example of the systemic complexities faced should referenda on both sides of the Irish border allow for the processes of Irish unification to begin. In this ARINS podcast Tobias Lock and Aoife O’Donoghue discuss the lessons learned from German Unification and how we might best apply them.

The ARINS podcast goes live on the first Thursday of each month and episodes are available on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

You can read the article by Tobias Lock, as it appears in Irish Studies in International Affairs, at doi.org/10.1353/isia.2022.0010.

Tobias Lock, is Jean Monnet Chair in EU Law School of Law and Criminology Maynooth University.
Aoife O’Donoghue is Professor of Law, Queen’s University Belfast.

About the series

This podcast series provides evidence-based research and analysis on the most significant questions of policy and public debate facing the island of Ireland, north and south. Host Rory Montgomery, MRIA, talks to authors of articles on topics such as cross border health co-operation; the need to regulate social media in referendums, education, cultural affairs and constitutional questions and the imperative for good data and the need to carry out impartial research. New episodes are released on the first Thursday of every month and can be found on our SoundCloud channel or any podcast platform.

About the project

ARINS: Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South brings together experts to provide evidence-based research and analysis on the most significant questions of policy and public debate facing the island of Ireland, north and south. The project publishes, facilitates and disseminates research on the challenges and opportunities presented to the island in a post-Brexit context, with the intention of contributing to an informed public discourse. More information can be found at www.arinsproject.com.

ARINS is a joint project of The Royal Irish Academy, an all-island body, and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

Recent developments in constitutional theory have focused on participatory and deliberative constitutionalism. Popular participation in constitutional discussion is at once a normative commitment, a practical policy and a legal right. In episode 12 of the ARINS podcast, Joanne McEvoy and Fidelma Ashe explore the ways in which including and encouraging popular engagement can not only enrich constitutional discussion but critically can shape constitutional change.

The ARINS podcast goes live on the first Thursday of each month and episodes are available on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

You can read the article by Joanne McEvoy, Jennifer Todd and Dawn Walsh, as it appears in Irish Studies in International Affairs, at doi.org/10.1353/isia.2022.0008

Joanne McEvoy is Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Science at the University of Aberdeen.
Fidelma Ashe is Professor of Politics at the Ulster University.

About the series

This podcast series provides evidence-based research and analysis on the most significant questions of policy and public debate facing the island of Ireland, north and south. Host Rory Montgomery, MRIA, talks to authors of articles on topics such as cross border health co-operation; the need to regulate social media in referendums, education, cultural affairs and constitutional questions and the imperative for good data and the need to carry out impartial research. New episodes are released on the first Thursday of every month and can be found on our SoundCloud channel or any podcast platform.

About the project

ARINS: Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South brings together experts to provide evidence-based research and analysis on the most significant questions of policy and public debate facing the island of Ireland, north and south. The project publishes, facilitates and disseminates research on the challenges and opportunities presented to the island in a post-Brexit context, with the intention of contributing to an informed public discourse. More information can be found at www.arinsproject.com.

ARINS is a joint project of The Royal Irish Academy, an all-island body, and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

Sinn Féin won first place—both in first-preference votes (29%), and in seats won (27 of the 90 MLA positions in play, i.e., 30%). As reported across the world that is the first time any Irish nationalist party has headed the polls in region-wide elections in Northern Ireland, earning Sinn Féin the right to nominate the First Minister. In 1922 the Northern Ireland Parliament had voted to secede from the Irish Free State under Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday has therefore coincided with the reversal of its founding rationale. A novel political entity, forged to secure an Ulster unionist and Protestant demographic and electoral majority, no longer has either.

The Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP) came second in first-preference votes (21.3%), a significant loss compared with what it had won in 2017 (28.1%). But the DUP lost just three seats compared to 2017, winning 25 seats (25/90 = 27.8%). This disproportional outcome occurred because its candidates benefitted from lower-order vote-transfers from those who had backed the über-hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which had campaigned with “No Sea Border” beside its name on the ballot paper, and won 7.6% of the first-preference vote. The TUV won just one seat (1/90=1.1%), returning its party leader, because its candidates received very few transfers from those who had voted for other unionist parties’ candidates.

The Alliance Party came third in first-preference votes (13.5%), but it won 17 seats (17/90 = 18.8%). The party more than doubled its seat-share compared to 2017. It disproportionally benefitted from lower-order transfers from other parties. Its success was partly at the expense of the Green Party, which lost the two MLAs it had won in 2017. Alliance is formally neutral on the question of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or reunify with the rest of Ireland.

The headline-grabbing achievements of Sinn Féin and Alliance should not obscure the DUP’s robust performance in seats-won. Despite the battering the party took to its standing and prestige before the election it stopped the bleeding—at least for now.

Stability: Overall, the election results are suggestive of stability, and of incremental rather than major change, despite the transformational symbolism of Sinn Féin’s win. Stability is evident in four features of the election:

  • Sinn Féin won the same number of seats as it did in 2017 on a marginally improved first-preference vote total.
  • There was evidence that both Sinn Féin and the DUP continued to appeal to be, and to benefit from being seen as, the champions or tribunes of their respective blocs.
  • Northern Ireland continues to have two similarly sized nationalist and unionist blocs: 35-37 in seats, and 41-42% of the first-preference votes—after adding in votes for known nationalist and unionist micro-parties and candidates.
  • The others, the ‘non-aligned’ bloc, remain firmly behind the two major blocs, having 16.4 % of the first-preference votes, but they won 20% of the seats because of Alliance’s “seat-bonus”.

Incremental change, however, is reflected in three distinct features of the election:

  • Sinn Féin grew further at the expense of the SDLP within the nationalist bloc, which overall grew slightly compared to its first-preference vote total in 2017 (adding in the micro-nationalist and republican parties and candidates).
  • The DUP faced much greater competition on its right flank (from the TUV) and from its comparatively liberal rival, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
  • The ‘other bloc’ in the Assembly is now dominated by one party – Alliance. It has become the tribune of the others, and the champion of changing Northern Ireland’s consociational arrangements. Alliance’s success is also owed, at the margin, to its success in winning transfers from the soft nationalists and soft unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the UUP. Alliance is over-represented in the Assembly, and the other bloc also has more seats than its first-preference vote-share. Such data will form part of predictable replies to its complaint that the consociational system is stacked against cross-community parties.

Cross-bloc comparisons. There are different ways to classify the outcome by blocs. By seats won is one method. Table 1 below displays the expected designation-choice of parties or MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly. There are 37 unionist MLAs (25 DUP + 9 UUP + 1 TUV + Alex Easton in North Down and Claire Sugden in Londonderry East), 35 nationalists (27 Sinn Féin + 8 SDLP MLAs), and 18 others (17 Alliance + People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll in West Belfast). Expressed in percentages, the Assembly is 41.1% unionist, 38.9% nationalist, and 20% other.

Table 1. Outcome by blocs (expected designation)

MLAs

designate as

unionist

nationalist

other

seats won

37

35

18

seats won as %

41.1

38.9

20.0

A second method of bloc-comparison is to present all first-preference votes. Instead of taking expected designation in the Assembly as decisive in classifying a party or a candidate, observers may examine parties’ and independent candidates’ formal stance on the national question. In each the question to be answered is whether parties or candidates favour Irish reunification, maintaining the Union, or are they neutral, indifferent, prefer to postpone, or are simply uninterested in “the national question”—in which case they are ‘other.’ The results of our codings are in Table 2.

Table 2. Outcome by blocs (first-preference vote (FPV))

Candidates stood as

unionist

nationalist

other

party nominees

349,227

353,069

135,079

independents

14,546

4,288

6,494

total FPV by bloc

363773

357357

141,573

total FPV as %

42.2

41.4

16.4

A few words on party codings (see Table 3). Coding the UUP, the DUP, the TUV, and the PUP as unionist was easy: unionist is in their titles. We then added the Conservative Party of Northern Ireland and the Heritage Party to the unionist bloc. Classifying the SDLP, Sinn Féin, Aontú, and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) as nationalist was equally easy. These parties favour Irish reunification. But we also coded the 9, 798 first-preference votes for People Before Profit as nationalist. It is an all-island party, explicitly favours Irish reunification, and explicitly calls for “a border poll” (its words, not ours) in its manifesto. We made this coding decision knowing that in the past the party’s MLAs have chosen to designate in the Assembly as other. Our judgment is reinforced because, despite its formal cross-community appeal, the PBP’s electoral strength, such as it is, is confined to republican heartlands: its prime competition is with Sinn Féin. The other bloc was also relatively straightforward to code. Alliance and the Greens are the largest parties in this bloc: the former is neutral on the Union; the latter does not prioritize reunification, though it is an all-island party. The same applies to the micro-socialist entities: the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party, and the Cross Community Labour Alternative (CCLA).

Table 3. Party titles by bloc, rank-ordered by FPV

Rank in bloc by FPV

Unionist

nationalist

other

1

Democratic Unionist

Sinn Féin

Alliance

2

Ulster Unionist

Social Democratic and Labour

Green

3

Traditional Unionist Voice

Aontú

Workers

4

Progressive Unionist

People Before Profit

CCLA

5

Conservative

Irish Republican Socialist

Socialist

6

Heritage

Now some brief words on the coding of independents, where the trickiest questions were expected to arise; after all, they call themselves independents. O’Leary and Pow independently coded each independent candidate as nationalist or unionist or other, judging each of them by their election statements, if available, or by information on the world-wide web. Two unionist independents are uncontroversial: Easton (North Down) and Sugden (Londonderry east). We easily agreed that Hynds in Lagan Valley and Moran in South Antrim were independent unionists. We classified four independents as nationalists: Quigley, ex-SDLP, in Londonderry East, a former SDLP councillor who left the party over abortion, McCloskey in Foyle, who has firm republican convictions but is anti-abortion, Gallagher in west Tyrone who is palpably a republican, and DeSouza in Fermanagh and West Tyrone (a slightly more difficult decision). All the remaining independents were classified as other without equivocation on the part of either coder.

The gap between the top two blocs by party-candidates was 3,842 in favour of nationalists. In total, however, after coding and adding in the first-preference votes for independents, the unionist bloc had a net advantage of 6,416 votes (less than a percentage point). Unionist hegemony is over, the unionist plurality survives by a thread.

A power-sharing government: now, later, or not at all?

According to the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, as modified at St Andrews, the party that gets the most seats is entitled to nominate the First Minister in the power-sharing executive. Although the First and deputy First Minister are legally equal, if the DUP refuses to nominate a deputy First Minister executive formation cannot be completed.

If executive formation does proceed, then most of the rest of the executive will be filled by the d’Hondt rule: see table 4 below. The SDLP will not be entitled to any portfolios.

Table 4. The d’Hondt allocation of executive portfolios if government-formation occurs.

Party/

d’Hondt divisor

Sinn Féin

DUP

Alliance

UUP

SDLP

Seats

Ministries

Seats

Ministries

Seats

Ministries

Seats

Ministries

Seats

Ministries

1

27

(1)

25

(2)

17

(3)

9

(7)

8

2

13.5

(4)

12.5

(5)

8.5

4.5

3

9

(6) *

8.3.

d’Hondt ministries

3

2

1

1

Notes:

(i) The number in the Ministries column is the sequential order in which a party gets to pick a ministry from the portfolios available.

(ii) * Sinn Féin would nominate an MLA to fill the 6th portfolio in the executive because it has a higher first-preference vote-share than the UUP (that is how tie-breaks are resolved at any stage in the allocation).

According to current legislation, Northern Ireland has seven departments headed by a minister, to be filled by the d’Hondt rule. If all parties take the portfolios to which they are entitled, then, as the last row of table 4 shows, there will be three nationalist ministers, three unionist ministers (two DUP, one UUP), and one Alliance minister, allocated through d’Hondt. But, if we add the two First Ministers, and the Justice Minister, who is elected by cross-community consent and almost invariably an Alliance nominee, the final executive composition would be as follows: Sinn Féin 4, DUP 3, UUP 1, and Alliance 2 ministries. Differently put, there would be four nationalists, four unionists, and two others in the cabinet. The Alliance will have 2/10 portfolios, a proportion above both its first-preference vote share and its seat-share, so it can hardly complain that the system works against the party in this respect.

If the parties succeed in their eventual negotiations on government-formation, they might, of course, choose to agree to modify the number of ministers in the executive, but that would require legislation at Westminster, as the current number of ministerial departments is fixed by law, and we’re a long way from that possibility.

Matters of Protocol

The DUP’s message to the UK government, as well as to the electorate, has been that unless the Protocol is scrapped, or significantly amended, the DUP will prohibit the creation of an executive. It says: it’s either the Protocol or the executive but not both.

Although the Northern Ireland Assembly has no legislative power over the Protocol, the MLAs just elected would have a vote at the end of 2024 on whether to discontinue key elements of the Protocol. The Unionist parties are strongly opposed to the Protocol, but their combined seat share is significantly short of the Assembly majority needed to discontinue the relevant Protocol articles: just 37 MLAs out of 90.

The Johnson government simply cannot interpret the Assembly elections as indicating that a majority in Northern Ireland is against the Protocol. Exactly the contrary is the case. Judging by both first-preference votes and seats the majority that favours a functional Protocol has increased compared to the previous Assembly. And unionists are not of one mind on the Protocol: many in the UUP favour a more moderate approach, reform rather than abolition.

Possible referendum on Irish reunification?

Examining the combined seat share of nationalist parties is also important. It provides a very rough proxy of the extent of support for a united Ireland—though some Alliance voters, many Greens and most People Before Profit supporters would vote for Irish unification in the event of a referendum on the subject. While Sinn Féin retained its 27 seats, the SDLP had a poor election, declining from 12 to 8 seats, losing votes to both Sinn Féin and Aontú, a micro-nationalist party that is against abortion (the SDLP regards it as a matter of conscience for each MLA). The combined nationalist first-preference vote, at 41.4 % by our coding, is marginally behind the unionist vote-share. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is unlikely to be obliged to interpret the Assembly elections as indicating a groundswell of support for Irish unity. We are therefore not likely to see an imminent holding of a referendum on the question. That will be deferred until at least the next Assembly.

Another election?

It is quite possible that this May’s election will be looked back upon as the first Assembly election of 2022. Unless the UK government and the EU make an agreement on the running of the Protocol and the DUP declares itself content with that agreement, we may be headed toward prolonged negotiations to establish a functioning executive. The parties have six months to try to do so, at which point the UK government, according to current legislation, would call a fresh election. So as the parties open discussions to try to reach an agreement on executive formation, their negotiations will be conducted with half an eye to how party positions are likely to play with the electorate in six months’ time.

The DUP may feel obliged to maintain a hard-line position because they perceive their main electoral threat to be the staunchly anti-Protocol TUV, which enjoyed an increase in vote share in this election (though it only retained its one seat). If so, the electoral count centres may have to gear up for a late autumn return.

While Sinn Féin and Alliance leaders will be very happy, the DUP’s leadership has many questions to answer. One is most important to the party itself: the vote assessment. How confident is the DUP that if it forces another election within the next six months that it will do as well then as it has just done?

Reforms

There will be proposals aplenty to change the existing consociational design, as there have been ever since 1998. Some of these will be fanciful and violate both the letter and the ethos of the Good Friday Agreement. However, if the others had surpassed either the nationalist or the unionist blocs in support (either in votes or seats) there would have been a much stronger case for reconsidering and reforming the rules. The existing cross-community decision-rules weigh the votes of nationalist and unionist MLAs more than those of others.

What is true is that Alliance could conceivably have come second in seats won, but not have been entitled to nominate to the deputy First Minister position—though it would have been entitled to nominate the First Minister had it come first in seats. That problem could be solved by changing the rules so that the two first ministers are also allocated by the d’Hondt rule and by equalizing their titles (eliminating the ‘deputy’ designation). Such a rule change could be accompanied by another. The Justice Ministry should be filled in the normal way as other ministries, by the d’Hondt allocation rule. It is anomalous that a nationalist can become First Minister but effectively cannot be the minister in charge of the administration of justice. What clearly will continue to command reformist attention is the unilateral legal ability of the leading party of either major bloc to stop government formation.

John Garry is Professor of Political Behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast and leads The Democracy Unit at Queen’s University Belfast

Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, Honorary Professor of Political Science, Queen’s University Belfast, and Fulbright Fellow to Galway University 2021-22.

James Pow is Lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast

The authors are investigators on the ESRC funded Northern Ireland Assembly Election Study 2022

Policing has been complicated and contentious on both sides of the island of Ireland. The prospect of a united Ireland raises profound and even jarring questions with regards to policing, questions which will require a depth of consideration, analysis and consultation if the issue is ever to be addressed effectively. In this episode, Vicky Conway and Roger Mac Ginty examine how policing in a united Ireland might coordinate questions of governance, oversight and accountability.

The ARINS podcast goes live on the first Thursday of each month and episodes are available on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

You can read Vicky Conway’s paper, as it appears in Irish Studies in International Affairs, at doi.org/10.1353/isia.2022.0006.

Vicky Conway is Associate Professor of Law, Convenor of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at DCU Law School. Roger Mac Ginty is Professor of Defence, Development and Diplomacy in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University.

About the series

This podcast series provides evidence-based research and analysis on the most significant questions of policy and public debate facing the island of Ireland, north and south. Host Rory Montgomery, MRIA, talks to authors of articles on topics such as cross border health co-operation; the need to regulate social media in referendums, education, cultural affairs and constitutional questions and the imperative for good data and the need to carry out impartial research. New episodes are released on the first Thursday of every month and can be found on our SoundCloud channel or any podcast platform.

About the project

ARINS: Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South brings together experts to provide evidence-based research and analysis on the most significant questions of policy and public debate facing the island of Ireland, north and south. The project publishes, facilitates and disseminates research on the challenges and opportunities presented to the island in a post-Brexit context, with the intention of contributing to an informed public discourse. More information can be found at www.arinsproject.com.

ARINS is a joint project of The Royal Irish Academy, an all-island body, and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

Policing has been complicated and contentious on both sides of the island of Ireland. The prospect of a united Ireland raises profound and even jarring questions with regards to policing, questions which will require a depth of consideration, analysis and consultation if the issue is ever to be addressed effectively. The range of issues to be accounted for is vast, from symbols to powers, from language to training, but at the core are the immensely complicated issues of governance, oversight and accountability.

How we regulate for, control and respond to police activities is always a challenging question, balancing as we must the desire to have police that adequately respond to and investigate crime with the recognition of the scale of powers we give the police to infringe on our liberties. In both jurisdictions on the island this issue has caused intractable problems, leading to scandals, community distrust, miscarriages of justice, political resignations, commissions and wholesale efforts at police reform.

Thinking through this issue in the context of a potential all-island approach to policing, numerous additional issues emerge. Firstly, it is worth remembering the shared history of policing the island, and how it developed so differently to what we saw in Britain. There, oversight and local input was valued from the earliest years, but on the island of Ireland policing was about preventing uprising and maintaining order, without any consideration for community concerns. This has left a post-colonial legacy of highly politicised policing oversight with the commissioner still accountable to the minister in Ireland and a such changes only being made in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Secondly, not only are there different structures currently in place for this but there are reasons this would need to be worked through. An Garda Síochána performs the security function of the state, which has been cited politically as the reason why the commissioner must be accountable to the minister. Article 28 states that the executive functions shall be performed by or on the authority of the government, and Ministers for Justice have stated that state security is a function of the executive which cannot be delegated. Indeed, the Irish government holds a great deal of power over the commissioner, not only appointing and removing them, but even determining numbers of gardaí, stations and cars. Whereas in Northern Ireland, the idea of the Chief Constable, who is accountable to, appointed by and removed by the Policing Board, being so politicised would be difficult to tolerate. What political involvement there should be in policing is a substantial question to be resolved.

Thirdly, we see that in terms of governance of police powers different structures have different consequences. The Constitution of Ireland looms large over police powers for An Garda Síochána. The PSNI however work to the professional standards established by the College of Policing which are vastly more detailed, more public, are arguably more advanced and professional than those governing the gardaí. And yet the context is different: An Garda Síochána historically has much more positive and engaged relationships with local communities, although this is perhaps more questionable than has been acknowledged.

Resolution of how police governance, oversight and accountability should be achieved on the island, in the event of unification, will be highly contested and contestable. In the article on which this blog post is based I propose six potential approaches that could be considered. One is to maintain the current two services, with two separate oversight bodies (the Board and the Authority), answering to one minister for justice. This sees minimal interference but given the differences which currently exist would leave policing done differently on the same island, where surely equality of experience and accountability will be essential.

A second option is to maintain the two services, but have them answering to the same oversight body and minister. This may enable some harmonisation of policing, but the larger questions of security and political involvement will still loom. The forces could be merged, either with or without rebranding, though the compromises involved in that may be too great, too challenging. Finally the creation of either one new service, or multiple services could be considered. Multiple services, answerable to one policing oversight body, present an opportunity to achieve parity of experience and service, while also lifting the best of existing practice across the island to demand that of all police. It avoids some of the more locally contentious issues, such as names and symbols, while allowing locally agile police responses. De-nationalising policing could be an important step in moving beyond post-colonialism. To fully realise this particular ambition, it is argued that security will need to be separated from policing so that the accountability of the head of police can be fully depoliticised, and political interests fulfil their proper role in policing.

Whatever approach is adopted, a great deal of consultation and thought will be required. It is likely that a phased approach to the change will be required. The time is ripe to begin this discussion, to understand and appreciate the range of concerns as well as the opportunities, and to implement the structures that best address all that society needs from its police.

Read the full article, ‘Policing in a United Ireland: The Intractable Questions of Governance, Oversight and Accountability’, as it appears in our journal Irish Studies in International Affairs: ARINS.