No requirement to secure reconciliation ahead of Border poll, says campaign group

Ireland’s Future’s report outlines steps that could be taken towards vote, including establishment of new government departments

Timing helps, sometimes. The latest report from Ireland’s Future, a campaigning group that wants to see a referendum on a united Ireland held by 2030, was launched last week, but its contents were trailed heavily for a week before.

The arguments made in the report, titled Ireland 2030 – Proposals for the period between 2024 and 2030, received publicity, but they have been put into far sharper relief following the weekend release of internal Alliance Party polling.

That polling, carried out by University of Liverpool academic, Jon Tonge, found that 38 per cent of party members would choose to end the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain if asked in a referendum.

Some 27 per cent of Alliance Party members – which traditionally has been unionist-leaning with a soft “u”, even if it is officially neutral on the question of unity, would opt to maintain the union, with just 4 per cent saying that they would abstain.


The numbers are far shy of showing that Alliance members, if not their supporters, have now been convinced of the arguments about unification, but they are solid enough to show that there is a direction of travel, if nothing else.

In 2001, for example, the first-ever internal polling of Alliance members undertaken three years after the negotiation of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement found that just 16 per cent of them then favoured constitutional change.

The changing winds have been prompted mostly by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, which remains deeply unpopular with Alliance members, with 83 per cent of those polled believing that Brexit makes unity more likely.

In its document, Ireland’s Future argues that there is “an evidential basis” to back calling a Border poll during the course of 2030, though that remains a subjective judgment to be made by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State of the day.

Many will argue with Ireland’s Future’s judgment, but be that as it may its call that there should now be a focus on producing a Programme for a New Ireland to bring about “an informed choice based on reliable and credible evidence” will find support.

The report calls for a number of actions now.

Parties supportive of unity on both sides of the Border should include detailed pledges on what they would do in the short term, detailing options and timetables in coming election manifestos.

Following the next election, the government in power in Dublin should commit in its Programme for Government to prepare for constitutional change, including the measures needed across all arms of society.

“The strongest possible governmental signal must be sent that this is now a central pillar of public policy for Ireland. That means inclusion in election manifestos and the Programme for Government.”

This could mean the creation of a new government department to lead on preparations, though it accepted that there “are other ways of doing this”, but the method chosen would have to deliver “ambitious proposals”.

The next government in Dublin should produce a Green Paper within the first six months of office, adding that the government should by then already be committed to preparatory work for a Border poll and to have begun “the necessary conversations” with London.

However, the Shared Island initiative set up by Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin four years ago, and which has brought doubtful unionists on-board by careful, slow, but now accelerating steps, is clearly not favoured by Ireland’s Future, though it noted its “valuable work” to date.

“If the Shared Island initiative does continue, in any form, it must expand to alight with this new overarching governmental focus,” the 28-page report from the campaigning group declares.

An all-island Citizens’ Assembly must be created and properly backed and supported by money and resources such as university-produced research, it says, along with establishing an Oireachtas committee on constitutional change.

The template used to date for citizens’ assemblies will need to be altered, it said, adding that such a body must not become “elite-led” and fails to “neglect serious engagement with the people of the island of Ireland”.

In addition, all public bodies and civil society organisations “across the island must consider the implications of constitutional change for their strategic planning processes,” the report goes on.

Imagination and creativity will be needed to design the best possible mechanisms to support civic participation on an ongoing basis, but it goes on to add that “there are matters that will not be resolved before referendums takes place”.

The Irish Government will be required to lobby diplomatically for support for Irish unity in global halls of power, while the British and Irish governments should agree a binding declaration on how the run-up to the votes, and the referendums themselves should be held.

“The British Government is unlikely to enable a Border poll without a formal request from the Irish Government, reinforced by widespread international support. The Irish Government must therefore mobilise its international partnerships and networks.

“The strength and effectiveness of these diplomatic efforts were evident during the Brexit negotiations, and this must again be operationalised to ensure people are given a choice about their own future,” it went on.

Acknowledging that the Northern Ireland Secretary has “wide discretion” about the calling of a poll, the campaign group rejected the “notion of a unilateral and arbitrary approach by the British Government”.

Setting a 2030 date would offer a focused deadline for preparatory work to take place but provide “for sufficient flexibility over a twelve-month period”, if each government began necessary preparations immediately.

A woman drops her vote into the ballot box during the vote on the European Union's fiscal treaty referendum at a Polling Station in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday, May 31, 2012. The Irish vote on the European Union's latest treaty today, with polls indicating they will endorse measures designed to ease the euro region's debt crisis. Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

Even though the territorial claim in the original version of Articles 2 and 3 were given up by voters in the Republic after the Good Friday Agreement, it remains constitutionally “the firm will” of the Irish people to bring unity about, the group goes on.

This, says Ireland’s Future, means that the Irish Government and State are “obliged to work towards this outcome”, adding, “In that specific sense, Ireland is not neutral on the constitutional question.”

Support for the Good Friday Agreement has “waned” among unionists and loyalists since 1998, but the group argued that while it “wished to be sensitive” to such concerns all arguments about the constitutional future of the island “must comply with the agreement”.

“Taken together this means that only good faith arguments that are “Agreement-credible” stand any chance of influencing law, policy and practice and thus shaping the next stages,” the document goes on.

It goes on: “There must be no preconditions imposed that infringe what has been negotiated and agreed on the right of self-determination. The constitutional compromise of 1998 is fundamental.”

The 1998 agreement, Ireland’s Future argued trenchantly, “already provides a significant limitations on the exercise of the right of self-determination and neglecting this basic fact is a serious mistake.

“There is, for example, no requirement to achieve ‘reconciliation’ (however this concept is defined) in advance of a referendum being held and our view is that any such objective will only follow the transition to new constitutional arrangements on our shared island.

“Reunification is a reconciliation project,” it went on, “The right to self-determination belongs to the people of the island alone and must be freely and concurrently exercised without external impediment.

“While there is – quite rightly – considerable focus on the principle of consent, the significance of this all-island dimension is not sufficiently appreciated,” said the document which was released yesterday.

The outcome of referendums will decided by a 50 per cent, plus one result, it insisted, though it added that it remained “determined to secure decisive endorsement for our preferred outcome, north and south.”

Saying it was conscious of the need for “robust guarantees and assurances”, Ireland’s Future said it acknowledged “and fully accept how challenging constitutional change may be for many in Northern Ireland”.

Preparatory work for referendums and the rights to be offered in a united Ireland should be “completed in advance”, but “this should not, however, be an elaborate obstacle to securing a time frame for a referendum”.

“It may be, for example, that mechanisms will be necessary after the referendums to resolve matters fully that cannot be taken forward before the vote,” it went on, arguing that as much “advance clarification” as possible should be offered.

Saying that there is “a real risk” of the Irish Government “neglecting its constitutional obligations”, Ireland’s Future added, “history demonstrates where this leads and the tragic consequences of leaving matters of profound public interest” to others.

Dublin and London should agree the road ahead, it said, saying “it is not in keeping with the rights and obligations enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement for the British Government to proceed on an arbitrary and unilateral basis”.

While the Irish Government has an obligation to campaign for unity, the group said the Good Friday Agreement imposes constraints on the British Government requiring to maintain “a rigorous impartiality”.

Calling for detailed planning, it said: “The notion that this should be triggered in an arbitrary and unilateral manner by the British Government – without extensive preparation, planning and political/civic groundwork – should be firmly rejected.”