Between two unions.The Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: School of Social Science


The project examines the inter-relationship between UK withdrawal from the European Union and constitutional change within the United Kingdom and Ireland. This constitutes a historically important event in its own right, and a real-time experiment in constitutional reinvention in a context with few rules and an unknown outcome.

The United Kingdom and the European Union both constitute unions, a constitutional form that is under-conceptualized. We start by taking it as means of reconciling unity with diversity, with political, economic and social dimensions. Unionism in the United Kingdom historically combined recognition of national diversity with refusal of political devolution. That has changed since the 1990s with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but the Union has not been redefined. Instead the core state has remained largely unaltered and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty retained. The question of England is largely unaddressed. Many fundamental issues about the constitution are unaddressed, there is little constitutional jurisprudence and conflicts are resolved pragmatically and by political means. The Republic of Ireland has been a separate state since 1949 but retains economic and social ties to the United Kingdom and in recent years has shared in the management of Northern Ireland.

Some observers have criticized this all as incoherent and unstable and called for a formal constitution and better definition of the territorial division of power. Others have valued and admired the constitutional flexibility of the UK.

The transformation of the UK from a unity to a multilevel state since the 1990s has been underpinned in important ways by membership of the EU; the two unions have been complementary. It has allowed a more permissive devolution settlement and introduced notions of shared sovereignty that provide the inspiration for forms of self-government short of secession. Like the UK, the EU lacks a clearly defined end goal and is open to multiple interpretations.

Brexit destabilizes the UK settlement and its relationship with Ireland, especially in view of the Remain votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Its implementation requires internal constitutional change. This could entail recentralization and a reassertion of central state sovereignty, the disintegration of the United Kingdom, or further devolution and asymmetry.

The project examines the way these issues will be worked out leading up to withdrawal and the UK General Election of 2020. It will examine the process of negotiation in real time. It will seek explanation by looking at the actors, their power resources and the claims and arguments deployed. It will examine the outcome, focusing on four dimensions: institutional relationships and changes in the powers of institutions; constitutional principles and the degree to which they are clarified and shared; the economic union, including rules for policing the UK single market and the distribution of public expenditure; social welfare and the variation of citizen entitlements across the islands, including mutual recognition and portability.

This represents an important case in its own right and the research will serve to inform policy makers and the general public. It also serves as a critical case in social sciences, exploring the ways in which what are often seen as defining features of the sovereign state have already been stretched in the UK case and the extent to which they can be stretched further. These include a shared doctrine of sovereignty; fixed borders; a core of social entitlements; a clearly-defined state centre; and clear principles and rules for resolving constitutional conflicts.

Planned Impact

The material and analysis produced in the project will have an impact on understanding and reform of constitutional structures across the islands. Specifically, we aim to inform public understanding of the issues; provide policy analysis and advice to decision-makers; enhance parliamentary understanding and scrutiny of the process; and promote international understanding.

There are four target groups. The first are policy-level officials in the UK Government, the Irish Government, devolved governments and the European Commission. Second are parliamentarians in the UK, Ireland and the European Parliament. Third are professional stakeholders and civil society, including business, trade unions and the voluntary sector. Fourth are the general public, with a specific emphasis on hard-to-reach groups.

We will build on existing work with governments at all levels in providing analysis and commentary on proposals through off-the-record seminars and written policy papers. We will give advance notice of relevant findings and invite feedback. These contacts are mostly at official level and we observe strict political neutrality; we are now respected as authoritative and have received no accusations of bias during the two referendum campaigns.

The team has a vast experience in giving evidence to parliamentary committees and acting as official advisors. We will continue this practice and accept advisory roles where appropriate.
We will work with stakeholder and civil society organizations, organizing events tailored to their interests and accepting invitations to their events and meetings, building on existing partnerships.
There will be a full programme of public meetings, building on successful experience during the Scottish and EU referendums. Some of these will be partnered with the national academies, others with local and community groups. We will develop a strategy to reach groups that have historically been outside the mainstream of political debate and who are less likely to vote. These public events will be organized around topical themes, tailored to the location and involve a participative element.

The team will build on their existing high profile in the print and broadcast media across the UK and Ireland and beyond. Contact with journalists will be nurtured and extended. We will exploit the CCC's successful digital media strategy, including the regular newsletter and social media presence.

In order to maintain contact with users and civil society, we will renew the advisory board of CCC to ensure representativity. It will operate on a virtual basis, with regular communication of findings, input of advice and consultation where appropriate with individual members.

We will, as before, maintain a record of contacts with governments, parliamentary activities and media work.


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