Sir, – Oran Doyle (“Addressing the question of unity”, Books, September 3rd) supports simultaneous reunification referendums in the North and South. He also recommends that the referendums address two questions: the principle of reunification and the model of a united Ireland. On the latter point, he notes that the “terms of unification must be fixed before the referendum in the North” and that “voters at any unification referendum should be presented with a model of a united Ireland, worked out to the maximal extent possible”.
The idea that border polls are votes on the detailed model of a united Ireland was first broached by the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, of which Prof Doyle was a member. The working group’s interim report (November 2020) and final report (May 2021) identified a variant of the “model approach” as one of its three favoured referendum configurations. According to Prof Doyle, the model of a united Ireland that is on the referendum ballots will address, among other things, “issues of identity, constitutional structure, social and economic policy and public administration.”
The model approach has two glaring problems, which neither Prof Doyle nor the working group satisfactorily address. First, it violates the Belfast Agreement. The Belfast Agreement effectively says, and all its predecessor documents presume, that referendums are on the principle of reunification. There is not a hint anywhere that border polls are about detailed models. Second, the model approach bestows a comprehensive veto on the North – the national symbols of a united Ireland and its constitutional form, political structures and policy directions cannot be set without the agreement of the North. Prof Doyle and the working group conjure the model approach out of thin air. The Irish people, not a collection of academics, should decide whether to grant the North a powerful veto over the form and content of a united Ireland.
There are different ways to ensure that referendum voters are informed of the choice on offer – the Scottish example comes to mind – without violating the Belfast Agreement and usurping the people’s right to set the terms and conditions of their governance. – Yours, etc,
⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.