I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it today. I am deputy director of the constitution unit at University College London, which is a research centre focusing on how best to structure and operate democratic politics. I am chair of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. I am joined by three other members of the working group. We were due to be joined by Professor Brendan O'Leary from the University of Pennsylvania and Queen's University Belfast. Sadly, he was forced earlier today to drop out. He sends his apologies and great regrets for having to be absent.
In these opening remarks, I will quickly introduce three matters: why we created the working group, the nature of the working group and the group's interim conclusions. We created the working group because referendums on the unification question might happen. If they happen, it is important that they be conducted well, but they can only be conducted well if somebody thinks through what that would involve. Nobody has done that thinking fully yet. We wanted to help fill that gap. We did not create the working group because we thought that referendums are imminent. The evidence is that a majority in Northern Ireland would currently vote for maintaining the union and against unification, but nobody can know how opinion might evolve over time.
As to the nature of the working group, we are looking at how any future referendums on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would best be designed and conducted. We have no collective view on whether such votes would be desirable or what the outcome should be if referendums were to be held. The group is based at the constitution unit in University College London and comprises 12 experts from Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Queen's University Belfast, Ulster University, University of Pennsylvania and University College London. Our expertise spans political science, law, sociology and history.
Turning to the group's interim conclusions, I will outline a few of our key findings. As a starting point, we assume that any referendums would be conducted within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, so we start by setting out what that entails. As is well known, unification could not happen without a referendum vote in its favour in Northern Ireland, and we conclude that a referendum would be required in the South as well, either amending or replacing the Constitution. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a referendum if a majority for unification appears likely to him or her. A referendum in the South would not have to be on the same day. It could happen later, but the same proposal would have to be put to voters both North and South. The threshold in each referendum would be a simple majority of 50% plus one. If that threshold were met in both jurisdictions, unification would have to take place. The majority principle applies to the decision on sovereignty, but on other matters the 1998 agreement's wider ethos of seeking to proceed by consensus should be upheld as far as possible.
That is the 1998 agreement. However, there are many other matters that the agreement does not resolve, which our report examines in depth. I will state three broad conclusions that we reach on these. First, it would be highly unwise for referendums to be called without a clear plan for the referendums and other associated processes. These would be complex processes and if poorly designed could lead to problems. Such a plan would need to be agreed by the governments in close consultation with others. We do not say when planning should begin. That is a political matter and we recognise that it is very sensitive. However, a plan should be agreed by the time any referendum is called.
Second, there are several plausible configurations of referendums, North and South, with referendums coming relatively early in the process before the details of a united Ireland have been worked out or later, when a plan has been developed. We will be happy to go into further details, but for now I can say that there is no perfect approach. Each configuration has advantages and disadvantages.
Finally, the conduct rules for any referendums would be crucial. Existing campaign rules are badly out of date in the digital age in both the UK and Ireland and urgently need to be strengthened.
I hope those headlines give a flavour of the working group's analysis. So far, we produced an interim report, last November, presenting our draft conclusions. We are keen to hear the members' reflections and questions. We plan to release our final report later in 2021.