An interim report carried out by a group of academics has concluded that referendums on the future of the island of Ireland should be held only if there is a clear plan for what follows.
It also warns that the rules for referendum and election campaigns are “badly out of date” in both the UK and Ireland, and urgently need to be strengthened.
The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, established by the UCL Constitution Unit, was set up to examine how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland would stay in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland could best be designed and conducted.
It examines the legal rules for referendums north and south of the border and assesses different ways of designing such votes, based on criteria of procedural legitimacy, stability, simplicity, informed choice and inclusivity.
The report finds that unification could come about only through referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It says planning should start “in good time” before referendums and be led by the two governments, working closely with the full range of actors in Northern Ireland, across the island of Ireland, and the UK.
The framework for holding a referendum in Northern Ireland is set down in the Good Friday Agreement. It stipulates that a majority of 50% + 1 would be required to change the status quo.
The report says a referendum would have to be held in the South if the North voted in favour of unification, although the two referendums could be scheduled for the same day.
The experts say it would be for the Irish Government to develop proposals for the form of a united Ireland.
Either it could propose a model in advance of referendums, or it could propose a process through which a model would be worked out afterwards. It could not, however, propose any changes to the form of a united Ireland between any referendum in the North and one in the South.
The group, which stresses that it has no views on whether such referendums would be desirable or not, nor on the potential outcomes, is inviting further feedback by 21 January ahead of a final report next year.
It comprises 12 academic experts from six universities: Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Ulster University, University of Pennsylvania and University College London. It includes experts in law, politics, history and sociology.
Chair Dr Alan Renwick said that although the group did not think the referendums were imminent, the whole process needed to be thought through well in advance.
“The years of acrimony following the Brexit referendum illustrate the dangers of a vote called without adequate planning,” he said.
Professor Oran Doyle of Trinity College said there were no easy answers to the question of how any future referendums on the unification question would best be conducted, and all of the options had strengths and weaknesses.