The Good Friday Agreement says a united Ireland must happen through a referendum, but if Brexit has taught us any lesson, it should be that a referendum can be a poor way to make major decisions.
Without all the necessary information about exactly how reunification would be implemented, a referendum would be risky. In the case of Brexit, holding a referendum before a deal had been reached meant that voters were unaware of the difficulties of the Irish border issue and often imagined a deal that secured all of the benefits of leaving the EU without any of the drawbacks. The referendum also showed that the backing of a simple majority is not a conclusive enough mandate for extreme constitutional change. People will vote on the basis of popular, eye-catching slogans and stories, even if they are not necessarily true. This leaves referenda vulnerable to misinformation campaigns, which could have catastrophic effects in the case of an Irish question. In a United Ireland referendum, voters would imagine their preferred version of a United Ireland rather than the reality and would fail to consider the difficulties of transition. Given the history of Northern Ireland, this could create much greater chaos than Brexit.
Lessons can be learned from the Brexit referendum and applied to a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future. Rather than voting first and then negotiating a deal, the British and Irish governments, alongside Northern Irish representatives from each community, could work out a full transitional arrangement that would be put in place in the event of a united Ireland. This can then be published before citizens vote, allowing them to see exactly what they are voting for. In addition, while many may be upset if a narrow majority votes in favour of a united Ireland, this would still be preferable to ignoring the views of the majority entirely. And as the question is mainly an emotional issue for many people on both sides of the debate, the dangers of misinformation are not as strong as they were over Brexit.
[P1] The Brexit referendum showed that many problems arise from referenda over complex subjects [P2] A successful united Ireland referendum would be even more contentious and would therefore lead to even more problems
Rejecting the premises
[Rejecting P1] The Brexit referendum's problems were self-contained and don't apply to other referenda