The uncertainty created by the 2016 Brexit Referendum in the UK, has led to a significant and widespread public debate on the future of the island of Ireland, including the possibility of border polls on the question of Northern Ireland leaving the UK and creating a united Ireland. There are strongly held views on all sides of the debate on the future constitutional arrangements, but it is evident that the public need to have access to credible and impartial information across the entire range of implications presented by all the possible future governance arrangement for the island need in-depth, impartial analysis of the key issues at stake and the opportunity to reflect calmly on them well in advance of any major decisions.
Dublin City University’s Institute for International Conflict Resolution in establishing this new programme of research will provide rigorous, non-partisan research and analysis on the key issues which are likely to at the heart of a public debate around future ‘border polls’ on the future constitutional arrangements for the island. Some of the key debates we wish to focus on at this time include, but are not limited, to:
- Governance: In the event that there was a decision to create some form of all-island polity, how would the government and governance arrangements be configured? Would Northern Ireland remain a distinct devolved region? Would systems of power-sharing be maintained in the region of Northern Ireland or introduced on an all-island basis? How can the consequences of these choices be judged? What can comparative analysis of other cases tell us? How might public opinion be best gauged?
- Public Policy: A significant proportion of the recent public debate has focused on a comparison on social policy in the two jurisdictions on the island focusing in particular on health, pensions and education, but also issues such as gender equality. How can we compare policy outcomes, and analyse the costs and impacts of greater cooperation or convergence in order to extend the best aspects of the current two separate systems?
- The Economies: Northern Ireland, in particular Belfast, at the time of partition was the most developed economic region on the island. Today the region’s performance is consistently among the weakest in the UK, with a small private sector and high levels of poverty. What are the key barriers to the attraction of high-quality economic development, including Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland, from the perspective of potential investors and those involved in promoting FDI? What are the implications of greater scale in the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor and /or the issues for spatial policy in the North West and elsewhere? How would constitutional change impact on these questions?
- Britishness and links with Britain if Northern Ireland left the UK: For those in Northern Ireland for whom British identity is an important aspect of their self-identity, how might new constitutional arrangements protect and sustain that identity? Within the Northern Ireland region, what lessons can be learned from the continuing high levels of social segregation and community tension in many parts of Northern Ireland, that could inform policy in a future united Ireland? What aspects of political identities require a public policy response and what measures might be put in place?
- Public Opinion: One of the most striking impacts in Northern Ireland of the Brexit decision has been the shift in public opinion on the question of holding a border poll and on likely outcomes. All opinion polls before 2012, showed that even self-identifying Irish nationalists were divided on the wisdom of holding a border poll and approximately half of them would vote no if such a poll were held. Different opinion polls, using different methodologies and questions are now showing a much more complex range of opinions. Almost every poll has shown change but the scale of that change varies from poll to poll. In a significant number of polls self-identifying Irish nationalists are shown as overwhelmingly in favour on a border poll in a 5 to 10 year timescale and would overwhelmingly vote for a united Ireland even if a poll were held much sooner. Self-identifying unionists, as would be expected, have shown little change in their voting intentions, but some polls have indicated that many more of them now expect a border poll to be held and expect a united Ireland to be created at some stage in the future. There have also been indications of change in opinions among those who do not strongly (or at all) as either nationalist or unionist. This is a growing group, comprising perhaps 15% to 20% of Northern Ireland’s population, but is also internally diverse and is strongly supportive of EU membership. Their voting intentions in a potential border poll were always assumed to be weighed towards continuing UK membership. In the aftermath of Brexit, there is more internal division and voting intentions are more fluid – influenced by the nature of Brexit and other issues such as a future National Health Service. There is a real need for much more research on public opinion as it is the legal trigger for a border poll. We need to understand why different polls give us different results and we also need a lot more qualitative research to explore how different parts of Northern Ireland’s communities are approaching this debate.