Derry law professor Colin Harvey believes the Irish and British governments should start preparing for referendums on Irish unity in 2023.
He made the remarks in an address to members of the Franco-British Lawyers Society Colloquium in Belfast.
“The island is on a path towards concurrent referendums on whether people would prefer a united Ireland (and thus EU membership) or wish to retain the Union with Britain.
“This is acknowledged within the internal constitutional legal orders of both states, underpinned by international law, and recognition is implied by the EU in its endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.
“Making use of the arrangements to test the principle of consent/right to self-determination – at the appropriate time and with proper preparation – should provoke no one. Planning has commenced; governments will catch up,” he said.
Delivering a paper entitled, ‘Navigating Brexit - Icebergs Ahead? UK, Irish, French and EU Perspectives’ Professor Harvey said the UK-wide vote to leave the EU in the referendum of 2016 had opened up a new constitutional vista.
He said: “To stretch the conference theme to breaking point, perhaps Brexit is the iceberg that will sink the UK in its current form.
“The entitlement to hold a view on whether that outcome is a good or bad thing is hard wired into our supposed ‘new beginning’ here. The key is that constitutional conversations are guided by the values of the GFA, and that new configurations follow informed dialogue, respectful debate and proper planning.”
Professor Harvey believes that two unity polls - one in the North, one in the South - could realistically be held on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement referendums in 1998.
“For the purposes of clarity, certainty, planning and preparation, I have suggested a date to be agreed by both governments, within the framework of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference: May 22, 2023 (which would be within the lifetime of the next Parliament – if it runs its ‘full course’ – a big if in the current context). A Monday is not ideal. But sufficient time to allow for the required levels of preparation.
“Such an approach would end speculation about the criteria and required evidence that will trigger such a step – but will not end disagreement and challenge on, for example, the question to be asked and who will be eligible to vote. Both governments – through a new Joint Declaration and associated domestic law and policy changes – would set and implement the framework, following extensive, wide and deep consultation and engagement – including, but not limited to, political parties.
“Measures outlined would embrace a Citizens’ Assembly and a Minister for reunification in Ireland, with appropriate North-South inclusions and linkages to ensure informed and evidence-based dialogue.
“The matter should not simply be left to the Secretary of State and the flexibility to engage in the way noted is, arguably, already there in the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and in the way they have been judicially interpreted to date.”