23 June 2016 is a date etched deep in my memory; a day when the UK opted to retreat in on itself by unilaterally hauling up the drawbridge to our European neighbours. The background to that decision was of course a monumental plebiscite on our future within the European Union. The electorate were voting on whether or not to depart from a club of which we had been members for in excess of four decades. The decision has had and will have radical consequences for the UK politically, socially and economically. We have all observed with incredulity the wrangling and interminable political fist fights over the subsequent divorce proceedings between the UK and the EU. We have painfully learnt that changing the constitutional arrangements are not all that straightforward. It seems here on the island of Ireland that this is an alternate, unrealistic reality of which we are on the periphery. Of course, we could very quickly find that the events of Brexit could be easily transposed into our own constitutional debates here.
When a referendum is held, ordinarily the government of the day seeks to plan and prepare the country for the monumental debate that the referendum will entail. Of course, here in the UK, the complete opposite transpired. Rather than carefully and delicately considering a potential timeframe for a referendum and planning for all possible outcomes, David Cameron plucked a date out of thin air and set the country blindly on a course which he couldn’t alter or change. The result was a rushed renegotiation, a tight campaign and little or no detailed discourse about a very important issue.
The same issues have the potential to plague a vote on Irish re-unification. Unless governments across these islands engage around the issue of a referendum and plan for all plausible outcomes, we risk doing a Cameron and blindly leaping into the dark. It is vital that any time-frame for a referendum is borne out of careful, and not careless, consideration. Furthermore, there must be detailed discourse on both the status quo and re-unification. It is the essence of high-quality, immersive debate that the right questions are posed and the proper, fulsome answers are sought.
The Brexit referendum was an exemplification of how political debate can create blindness. The referendum was a battleground of simplistic, populist slogans and false, misleading pledges. There was no endeavour on the part of either campaign to engage constructively with the issues at play or seek to acquire an understanding of the opposition’s perspective. Had this been done, there may well have been a greater consensus over the basis on which to proceed in the event of a Remain or Leave vote.
Any future referendum campaign over the constitutional future of Northern Ireland must be marked and defined by a detailed, constructive engagement over the issues at play and not simply a mere repudiation of the other’s arguments as being unworthy of countenance. Particularly on an issue of such sensitivity and contention, there must be efforts made on both sides of the debate to ensure that a consensus-based outcome can be forged.
One of the fundamental errors of the 2016 EU vote was a failure by the political establishment to set a high threshold of support for a change in the UK’s constitutional relationship with the EU. The UK had been a member of the club for more than 40 years and had constructed its legal, political, economic and social systems largely around EU precedent and convention. The process of extrication from these structures was always going to be a fraught and difficult one. As such, it was crucial that a substantial majority of the British people assented to this in order to give democratic and legal legitimacy. In the event, the margin of victory for Leave in the referendum was just 4%, 52-48. In effect, just over half of the UK population desired to leave the EU but equally just under half wanted to remain. It would have made the process of divorce from the EU a smoother one had the country been less polarised over the decision.
On this basis, it is essential that the threshold for Irish re-unification in any future referendum is not merely 50 + 1 but is something that puts the legitimacy of any vote for Irish unity beyond doubt. A minimum of 60% in my opinion would be necessary to validate such an outcome. It is fraught and parlous for Northern Ireland’s fragile peace to potentially risk a scenario where it is 51-49 in favour of a united Ireland; you only risk inflaming tensions between unionists and nationalists. Everyone almost universally agrees that that would not herald any good for anyone.
I was a keen supporter of the People’s Vote movement for a confirmatory referendum on the final Brexit deal v Remain. I believed that it was important for democracy to enable people to change their mind on Brexit if the reality did not satisfy their expectations. It would have been complete folly to foist a Brexit deal with no backing from a majority of the electorate upon the country when the consequences would have been long-lasting. In response to those who bemoan and decry at this, I say that it is better to be safe than sorry on an issue of national importance.
In the same way, I believe that in the interests of everyone, any arrangement or package negotiated between the NI Executive and the British and Irish Governments should be ratified by the people of Northern Ireland in a confirmatory ballot. The fundamental, salient principle is that after the electorate see in the flesh the reality of what a united Ireland will look like, they can determine whether this is compatible with the basis on which they voted for a re-unification. Some would declare that this would be a subversion of democracy. However, it is simply ludicrous and incomprehensible to suggest that democracy could be undermined by additional, supplementary democracy. It is only fair and proper to ensure that any unchangeable arrangement is rubber stamped by the people whom it will affect for generations and beyond.
One of the enduring failures of the EU referendum was the foolish exclusion of young people from the voting process. There are previous examples of how young people were permitted to vote in referenda and elections such as in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. 16 and 17 year olds are going to give the franchise in the Welsh Senedd elections from 2021. Whenever the decisions taken in such referenda and elections will affect younger voters to the greatest degree, it is only proper that these voters should have a direct say on these decisions. Particularly whenever the EU referendum result was always going to have a seismic effect on young people, it is this very demographic that should have had a voice over this critical issue.
In any future plebiscite on Irish re-unification, in particular young people must be provided with a voice on an issue of fundamental importance that will define the futures of all generations for decades to come. Some may argue that young people lack sufficient cognisance of political issues such as Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Yet this is simply untrue and absurd to insinuate. Young people are some of the most politically active people in our society and are eager to expand their knowledge about political issues alongside engaging in substantive political discourse. On an issue as crucial as our constitutional status as a country, every elector must have an equal entitlement to participate in that referendum, irrespective of their age.
From inclusion of all elements of our electorate to a potential confirmatory referenda, all of these issues are of equal importance and significance. However, ultimately, what matters most is that everyone respects each other in any future referendum campaign. Irrespective of the differences in views, let our discussion and debate on this most emotive of issues not descend into vitriol and bile. Most importantly, let it not distract from or blight our attempts to create a tolerant, cohesive, inclusive and progressive society.
Peter Wilson is a 16-year-old student studying A Levels in Politics, History and Sociology at Belfast Metropolitan College. He is a politics enthusiast with a particular interest in NI politics. He also likes to commentate and blog on politics.