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Consenting Adults: The Principle of Consent and Northern Ireland's Constitutional Future

  • Roger Mac Ginty (a1), Rick Wilford (a2), Lizanne Dowds (a3) and Gillian Robinson (a4)

‘If A Majority Of People In Northern Ireland Ever Voted To become part of a United Ireland what would you do?’ At first sight the question may seem plucked from the realms of constitutional fantasy. A united Ireland seems an unlikely prospect, at least in anything but the long term. Even proponents of unity predict a 15–20 year wait. Yet the 1998 Good Friday Agreement empowers the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own constitutional future. As a result questions on Northern Ireland's future constitutional status, and public reactions to possible changes in that status, are relevant to current political debate.

It is important to note that the principle of consent is not a new constitutional invention. It has had a long association with Northern Ireland. It is argued that the peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement have refocused attention on the long-standing consent principle. While consent was part of the constitutional furniture it was often overlooked during the Troubles.

This article re-examines consent in the light of the peace process. It draws on evidence from the 1998 and 1999/2000 Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, as well as a number of in-depth interviews with senior politicians and policy-makers involved in the peace process and the negotiations on a political settlement. First it considers the changing significance of the consent principle to Northern Ireland's constitutional status, arguing that the principle has assumed a renewed immediacy. Secondly, the article reports the findings of the two most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys in relation to constitutional preferences. While public attitudes towards a unitary Ireland or continued Union within the United Kingdom have been surveyed regularly, as far as the authors are aware no previous survey has asked whether people would accept or oppose constitutional change if it was supported by a majority of Northern Ireland's citizens. In other words, no survey has gauged the level of public acceptance of the consent principle. The key question is: would unionists be prepared to come quietly if a majority of Northern Ireland's citizens voted to accept a united Ireland?

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1 See, for example, ‘United Ireland in 15 years predicts Adams’, 13 February 1999 and ‘Ahern says dynamic towards Unity is Irresistible’, 23 November 1998, both from Irish Times.

2 The Agreement: Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, 10 April 1998, p. 2. Note, the Agreement is often called the ‘Belfast Agreement’ or the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

3 Cited in Brigid Hadfield, ‘The Northern Ireland Constitution’, in Hadfield, B. (ed.), Northern Ireland: Politics and Constitution, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1992, pp. 112 at p. 4.

4 O’Leary, Brendan and McGarry, John The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland, London, The Athlone Press, 1997, 2nd edn, p. 225.

5 Flackes, W. D. Northern Ireland: A Political Directory, London, BBC Books, 1980, pp. 47 –8.

6 The Irish government, though, did not amend articles 2 and 3 of its Constitution and a unionist-backed challenge to the articles was rejected by Dublin’s Supreme Court.

7 Author interview, 1 May 1998.

8 Downing Street Declaration, December 1993, <>, paragraph 2.

9 Ibid., para. 4.

10 Ibid., para. 5.

11 Author interview, 21 May 1997.

12 Framework for the Future, Belfast, HMSO, 1995, p. 25.

13 Ibid., p. 24.

14 See, ‘Foreword by the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. John Major MP’, ibid., p. iii.

15 ‘The Belfast Agreement, Sovereignty and the State of the Union’, Public Law, Winter 1998, pp. 599–616. See also, Geraldine Kennedy, ‘Belfast Accord alters North’s Place in the Union’, Irish Times, 8 May 1998.

16 The Democratic Unionist Party and United Kingdom Unionist Party left the multi-party talks in September 1997 on the eve of Sinn Féin’s entry. Both parties refused to share a platform with Sinn Féin on the grounds of its links with the IRA.

17 The Agreement, op. cit., p. 1.

18 See for example, Guelke, Adrian Northern Ireland: The International Perspective, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1988, p. 17.

19 Author interview, 10 October 1997. All of the interviews were carried out on the basis of anonymity.

20 Author interview, 30 September 1997.

21 Author interview with a senior member of the SDLP, 10 October 1997.

22 Author interview, 1 May 1998.

23 Ibid.

24 Author interview with a senior member of the UUP, 18 May 1998.

25 A key question is why did republicans and the Irish government make this change. For discussion of the changes within republicanism see: McIntyre, AnthonyModern Irish Republicanism: The Product of British State Strategies’, Irish Political Studies, 10 (1995), pp. 97121 and Mark Ryan, ‘From the Centre to the Margins: The Slow Death of Irish Republicanism’, in Chris Gilligan and Jon Tonge (eds), Peace or War? Understanding the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1997, pp. 72– 84.

26 Author interview with senior member of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), 26 March 1996.

27 Author interview with a senior member of the UDP, 28 April 1998.

28 Author interview, 26 March 1996.

29 Author interview, 27 April 1998.

30 Ibid.

31 Author interview, 31 July 1996.

32 The 1999/2000 political attitudes module was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (L327253045).

33 Whyte, John offers a critique of opinion polls in Northern Ireland in Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 48. His Appendix B (pp. 266– 7) lists opinion polls conducted 1973–88.

34 Orkin, Mark makes the point of surveys in divided societies being ‘political’ in ‘The Politics and Problematics of Survey Research: Political Attitude Studies during the Transition to Democracy in South Africa’, American Behavioral Scientist, 42:2 (10 1998), pp. 201–22 at p. 201.

35 See Malcolm Sutton, An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland, 1969–1993, Belfast, Beyond the Pale Publications, 1994, the full contents of which can be found at:

36 Tourangeau, Roger and Smith, TomAsking Sensitive Questions: The Impact of Data Collection Mode, Question Format and Question Context’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 60 (1996), pp. 275304 at p. 302.

37 On the issue of confidentiality in survey research see, Singer, Thurn, Eleanor and Miller, Dawn Von EstherConfidentiality Assurances and Response Rate: A Qualitative Review of Experimental Literature’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 59 (1995), pp. 6677.

38 See details of the Irish Times/MRBI poll in Irish Times, 18 June 1998.

39 Brian Feeney makes this point in ‘Moribund Merits of the Opinion Poll for North’, Irish News, 24 January 1996.

40 See ‘Wilson comments on poll carried out by universities’, statement on Northern Ireland Unionist Party website, 24 February 2000,

41 See, R. Wilford and R. Mac Ginty, ‘Drop in Support for Union’, Belfast Telegraph 22 February 2000.

42 Note that this question was asked of those who wanted the Union to remain intact.

43 The 1998 survey found that 24 per cent of Catholics expressed a little or a lot of sympathy with the reasons behind Republican violence.

44 Mitchell, Transcending an Ethnic Party System? The Impact of Consociational Governance on Electoral Dynamics and the Party System,’ in Wilford, >Rick Paul (ed.), Aspects of the Belfast Agreement, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 2848.

45 ‘Risks are high but our cause and objectives are greater’, Irish Times, 27 October 1997.

46 Author interview, 18 May 1998.

47 Author interview, 27 April 1998.

48 See ‘Unionists better off in United Ireland, says Adams’, Irish Examiner, 17 August 2000.

49 See, for example, the comments on a ‘count-down to a united Ireland’ by Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Good Morning Ulster’, 27 February 2001, or the SDLP’s Eddie McGrady’s ‘No future in politics lacking in principle’, Irish News, 3 April 2001.

50 See ‘Nationalists “undecided” on RUC reform’, 22 May 2000 and ‘Sinn Féin criticised over flag stance’, 2 June 2000, both from the BBC News Website.

51 ‘MPs back new f lag laws’, BBC News Website, 26 October 2000.

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Government and Opposition
  • ISSN: 0017-257X
  • EISSN: 1477-7053
  • URL: /core/journals/government-and-opposition
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