‘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?