Would a new office of vice-president help inclusivity in an united Ireland?

Irish Times/ARINS surveys asked respondents North and South to consider reform of the presidency to create more inclusivity in a united Ireland

If referendums were held, and a majority in the North and South voted for Irish unification, that would be likely to prompt consideration of how, if at all, to modify Ireland’s political institutions. The new united Ireland would contain a significant minority, in the North, who identify as British.

One possible proposal would be to change the way the Irish presidency is organised to be as inclusive as possible of British identifiers. Specifically, the current rules could be modified to require candidates running for president to have a running mate who would be appointed as vice-president. This running mate would have to be a British as well as an Irish citizen. (We deliberately left it unstated whether the vice-president would succeed the president in the event of death, resignation or removal from office in order to focus on the acceptability of a vice-president with dual affiliations).

In the Irish Times/ARINS surveys, North and South, we presented respondents with this idea to test their willingness to consider this reform. We asked them whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposal, or to indicate if they “would like to know more about this idea before coming to a view”.

Among Northern Protestants, 2½ times more people agreed with the proposal (36 per cent) than disagreed (15 per cent). By contrast, Southerners tended to disagree (32 per cent) rather than agree (22 per cent).


Almost half of both Southerners and Northern Protestants did not express a view, either saying “don’t know” or indicating that they wished to “know more”.

The responses of Northern “others” were almost identical to those of Northern Protestants. The balance of opinion among Northern Catholics favoured the proposal, though less strongly (37 per cent agreed and 24 per cent disagreed).

This proposal for a British- and Irish-identifying vice-president of Ireland is novel, and not fully elaborated, so it is perhaps not surprising that it attracted very high levels of undecideds and not-yet-decideds. Of those expressing a view, a clear North-South divide is evident, with relatively conservative Southerners contrasting with Northerners open to this possible innovation.

Selecting senators

Under Irish unification, another possible way to facilitate the voice of those in the North who identify as British would be to change the way that members of Seanad Éireann are selected.

We presented respondents with the suggestion that the president and new vice-president would take on the role currently held by the taoiseach of appointing 11 senators. These senators would, however, have to be “representative and inclusive of the whole island”.

On balance the public in the South is in favour of this idea – one third agree and one fifth disagree with it. Northern Protestants are more strongly in favour. Two fifths agree and slightly over one in 10 (12 per cent) disagree. Northern Catholics are the most supportive. Half agree and only 12 per cent disagree.

Again, given the novelty of this proposal, it is perhaps unsurprising that many respondents either say that that they would “like to know more about this idea before coming to a view” or that they “don’t know”. Such responses are highest among Southerners (47 per cent) and least prevalent among Northern Catholics (38 per cent).

Of those expressing a view, the pattern is clear: Southerners indicate less openness to change than Northern Catholics, Protestants or others, and all Northerners combined.

Sinn Féin, North and South

Analysis of party supporters’ responses to these proposals enables us to identify the extent to which Sinn Féin’s Northern and Southern supporters differ.

Southern Sinn Féin supporters tend to disagree (38 per cent) rather than agree (25 per cent) with the proposal for a British-identifying vice-president, while there is net support for the proposal among Northern Sinn Féin supporters (39 per cent agree; 30 per cent disagree).

Likewise, Sinn Féin supporters in the South are much less open to changing the process of selecting members of the Seanad than their Northern counterparts; in the South 36 per cent agree and 25 per cent disagree, while in the North 53 per cent agree and 14 per cent disagree.

Overall, Sinn Féin’s Southern supporters react more conservatively to proposals for institutional change.

These findings pose challenges for advocates of Irish unification. How, if at all, do they envisage changing current political institutions to accommodate people in the North who are sceptical of unification and identify as British?

Proposing changes such as those briefly sketched here will create the need to navigate the tension between a relatively conservative South and a more open North. Whether these tensions can be adroitly addressed may depend on what the currently undecided eventually think once they learn more about possible institutional changes.

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