Would a united Ireland require a new constitution?

A fifth of people in the South would opt to keep the Irish Constitution unchanged, compared with just one in 10 in the North

Last year the ARINS/Irish Times surveys focused on whether, in the event of a joint vote for unification in the Republic and Northern Ireland, people across the island would prefer an integrated Ireland, or a united Ireland in which devolved institutions would persist in the North under Irish sovereignty.

This year we decided to focus simply on Ireland’s existing Constitution. After all, debates on possible constitutional change would intensify if it looked likely that referendums would be held, and unification was plausibly imminent.

To simplify matters we identified three ways of addressing constitutional change and asked respondents, North and South, to select their preferred approach:

  • A referendum result favouring unification could prompt a completely fresh approach involving full constitutional replacement: a new constitution. A constitutional convention comprising elected representatives from across the island could deliberate and develop the text before popular ratification.
  • A second approach would favour keeping the existing Constitution of Ireland but amending it as necessary to make unification work better.
  • A third, quite conservative, reaction would be to argue that the existing Constitution of Ireland should not be changed, and should simply be applied, as is, over the whole island amid unification. Éamon de Valera designed it that way.

Some constitutional lawyers would take issue with the plausibility of this third option and argue that some minimal constitutional amendments would be necessary depending on which model of Irish unification were to be implemented.


For example, having a devolved executive in the North may require an amendment, whereas simply having a devolved legislature would not. Nonetheless, we included this third option in order to capture the most pro-status quo instincts of respondents.

A fifth of the public in the South (21 per cent) would opt to keep the Constitution of Ireland unchanged in the event of unity, compared with one in 10 in the North overall. The proportion is the same among Catholics and Protestants in the North. Three-tenths of southerners and Northern Catholics would favour retaining the existing Constitution but would amend it to facilitate unification, compared with just over a tenth of Northern Protestants (12 per cent).

There is a strikingly high, but unsurprising, proportion of Northern Protestants and “others” who indicate they “don’t know” (two-fifths). Out of the three substantive options in the event of Irish unification, the most popular choice in these groups would be to create a new constitution (39-45 per cent).

About one in three southerners (35 per cent) favour this option of a new constitution, somewhat lower than the 43 per cent of Northern Catholics who do so.

The overall pattern is for southerners to be more conservative on this subject. A majority (52 per cent) favour either keeping the Constitution as it is, or keeping it with suitable amendments, compared with 41 per cent of Northern Catholics and only 22 per cent of Northern Protestants and 18 per cent of Northern “others”.

Party support

When we break down these opinions by party supporters, we find that Fianna Fáil voters are the most conservative, the most committed to keeping the Constitution unchanged (26 per cent), and the least in favour (28 per cent) of a brand-new constitution.

Perhaps this result is to be expected given Fianna Fáil’s role in creating the Constitution of Ireland, ratified in 1937. By contrast, Fine Gael supporters are twice as likely to favour a new constitution (41 per cent) as keeping the existing one unchanged (21 per cent).

Sinn Féin supporters in the South are more conservative than Sinn Féin voters in the North. Southern Sinn Féin supporters are more in favour of keeping the Constitution unchanged (21 per cent) than their Northern counterparts (13 per cent). Similarly, 37 per cent of Southern Sinn Féin supporters would like a brand-new constitution, compared with 46 per cent of Northern Sinn Féin supporters.

The large proportion of “don’t know” responses from Northern Protestants, particularly among DUP supporters, may also pose a challenge for advocates of Irish unification

Supporters of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland are the most in favour of a new constitution (56 per cent) and the least in favour of simply keeping the existing one (3 per cent). Alliance supporters are more in favour of a fresh constitutional start (45 per cent) than either keeping or amending the existing constitution (5 and 30 per cent respectively).

The supporters of both main Northern unionist parties on balance favour a new constitution but contain many who do not have a clear view, particularly Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) respondents, of whom a slight majority selected “don’t know” (51 per cent).

These findings pose interesting challenges for advocates of Irish unification. Should they explicitly advocate a brand-new constitution in the event of unification? Doing so would be largely in line with Northern preferences, but Southerners, and particularly Fianna Fáil supporters, would need to be persuaded.

The large proportion of “don’t know” responses from Northern Protestants, particularly among DUP supporters, may also pose a challenge for advocates of Irish unification. In theory these respondents could be open to persuasion but replying “don’t know” may signify that many of these respondents do not wish to think about how they would “fit” into the constitution of a united Ireland.

Where people stand on the scope of constitutional change is likely to become much clearer if and when a future government of Ireland elaborates a detailed model of a united Ireland before future referendums.

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