THE DUP is looking for a commitment from the British government that, “no preparations for Irish reunification should be made until a referendum on the issue had been held”.  This was reported on 22 May by Jude Webber, Ireland correspondent for the Financial Times, and her source was a former DUP special adviser. Three days later, Mark Carruthers (BBC The View) asked the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, “are conditions about a border poll part of the DUP’s negotiation with the government?” The question, and variants of the question, went unanswered.

Not so long ago, the standard unionist response to the united Ireland question was, “it will never happen”. Now, so it appears, the DUP is actively strategising around a border poll. This should come as no surprise because it is in line with the DUP’s consistent opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. Just as it seeks to rewrite the consent principle in the GFA, it will contest the steps that are to be taken towards Irish unity, including any planning for what that might look like. 

What has clearly changed is that unionists are now out-polled by republicans, nationalists and others, whether measured by first preference votes or the number of elected representatives. Pro-union commentators are openly describing “multiple electoral setbacks” as an existential crisis for unionism, with the Belfast Telegraph's Sam McBride, writing, “if unionism continues on its current trajectory, it will disappear as a serious political force”.
The success of pro-united Ireland parties is one of the factors that a Secretary of State might take into account when deciding on a border poll. According to a paper published in February 2019, the most important factors that need to be considered are: a nationalist majority in Assembly elections, opinion polls in favour of unity, evidence of demographic change, Irish citizens (eg passport holders) become a majority, and calls from the Irish government to hold a referendum. 

As was made clear by the High Court in January 2017, the Secretary of State has the power to arrange a border poll at any time but is only required to do so if it appears that a majority favour unity. The Court held that there is no obligation to set out a policy as to how the power to call for a referendum should be exercised. 
Law is one thing, politics another. Speaking at the Irish embassy in London last week, former Tory prime minister John Major said that laying out the terms for a border poll is a “credible demand” from republicans. He added, this should only happen following negotiations between the British and Irish governments.

It is a reasonable position for unionist politicians not to engage in discussions on the shape of a united Ireland prior to a border poll. But why raise preparations for unity with the British government at this time? Has the DUP got wind of Treasury officials beavering away on how to separate the North’s public finances from London? This is doubtful. Much more likely, the DUP wants to head off any planning on the British side that it thinks might lend credibility to both the feasibility and desirability of Irish unity. 
Besides, it is the primary responsibility of the Irish government to lead the process of discussion and definition of unity in advance of a border poll. Some within government, including the current Taoiseach, are opposed to border poll preparation. Nevertheless, as described in this column on other occasions, there is a great deal of work going on, developing and debating ideas for Ireland’s future in meetings, conferences and through social media. Journalists and academics are involved in researching and informing these debates, and some of the research is being supported by the Taoiseach’s office under the shared island initiative. But all this effort needs to be intensified and formalised around the unity objective. 
One way of focusing these efforts is through a Citizens’ Assembly (CA) as advocated by Sinn Féin, Ireland’s Future and other organisations. The idea was supported in a Seanad vote two years ago. 

It only takes votes of the Oireachtas to establish a CA and typically coalition governments agree to a number of CAs on particular topics as part of a programme of government. The government is obliged to consider CA reports but not necessarily to follow the recommendations. 
The idea of a CA is to get together a representative group of citizens who work their way through an agenda of issues over a series of weekends. They are addressed by experts, debate among themselves and vote on a range of questions. CAs are an exercise in what political scientists call “deliberative democracy”.
The latest CA report prompts a number of questions for how a CA on unity might be constituted. Even though the CA on Biodiversity Loss considered “the international, European, national, regional and local dimensions to the biodiversity emergency”, there is only one reference to the North in the entire report and it is to do with an invasive species of shrimp “moving south from Northern Ireland”. Judging by the maps that accompany the report, little or no effort was made to represent biodiversity on the island as a whole. Arguably, because the CA reports to the Irish state, the North is irrelevant. On the other hand, there is no harm, and much good, in sharing findings on the island as a whole through Strand 2 meetings or in other ways, especially given that birds, butterflies and even plants are no respecters of borders. 
Such a partitionist culture would obviously have to change in the case of a CA on unity which would need to be constituted on a 32-county basis. The current practice is that a CA has 100 members (99 + chair) and it may be necessary to hold a series of CAs given the range of issues involved. 
In his talk to a GFA 25th Anniversary event held at Cork University on 22 May, Professor Brendan O’Leary speaks of “the enormous amount of planning on multiple subjects” required before a referendum is held. But he focuses on a few big issues that need to be tackled, using “small scale citizens’ assemblies”, opinion polling and consultation, in order to achieve maximum support for unity across the political spectrum North and South. The idea is to develop a prospectus that can appeal to those in favour of unity, that will bring undecideds on board, and one that those opposed to unity can live with.

One of the big issues is whether the North retains an Assembly or there is an integrated parliament. A 32-county parliament would consist of about 240 TDs.  Around 65 of these would be representatives from constituencies in the North, somewhat less than the 90-seat Assembly. On the basis of current voting patterns, this would give unionist parties about 25 seats in the Dáil which is in the process of being enlarged from 160 TDs (possibly up to 181) because Bunreacht na hÉireann states that a deputy should serve a population of no more than 30,000 and no less than 20,000. Those 25 seats would make the unionist bloc (if it remained as such) a significant potential coalition partner. Sinn Féin would have about 60 seats but probably more, given how well the party is polling in the South at the moment and the likely impact of the newly-established Electoral Commission’s review of constituencies, due to be published at the end of August.

This is a very basic example but it is one of many that need to be discussed, tested and refined through deliberative assemblies. In order to symbolise a new beginning, perhaps the new Ireland parliament should be moved out of its current home – the converted lecture theatre in Leinster House – and be convened in a new purpose-built parliamentary complex, situated outside of Dublin.