The UK/Ireland Border and the Stability of Peace and Security in Northern Ireland: Evidence from two Deliberative Democracy Exercises

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Hist, Anthrop, Philos & Politics


Peace and stability in any society is dependent upon citizen acceptance of the legitimacy of political and legal arrangements, and particularly so in Northern Ireland where peaceful politics is a recent outcome of a long and difficult 'peace process'. Knowing the likely level and intensity of perceived illegitimacy (non-acceptability) of different possible border arrangements after the UK leaves the EU would provide policy makers with crucial evidence when evaluating the relative merits of different border options, particularly with respect to the criteria of political sustainability and likely impact on peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

With Northern Ireland's politicians engaged in political campaigning in an Assembly election and likely impending inter-party talks to re-establish a power sharing executive, it is arguably particularly important that there is a systematic reporting of the considered views of citizens on this crucial issue of the UK's exit from the EU.

We conduct two "deliberative democracy" exercises which allow Northern Ireland citizens the space and relevant information to consider the challenging issue of Brexit and the border. Once they have become informed about the issues and reflected upon them, we ask the citizens to put forward their own views.

We are focused on answering the following questions. How difficult would it be for Catholics/nationalists to accept a policed North/South border and what level of protest would they condone? How difficult would it be for Protestants/unionists to accept a policed East/West border and what level of protest would they condone?

We seek to provide policy makers with evidence-based answers to the these questions. This evidence will prove to be especially useful when policy makers are considering the likely implications of the post-Brexit border for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

We generate a report which summarises our key findings and presents our key evidence. We also produce a short animated film which gets across to the viewer in a dramatic, simple and exciting way our key findings.

We engage enthusiastically in submissions to the key committees, bodies and specific politicians who have responsibility for negotiating the UK exit from the EU. We contribute to their work by highlighting the likely implications, for peace and stability in Northern Ireland, of pursuing certain post-exit border scenarios.

Planned Impact

We describe below our two main impact aims and how we seek to achieve them.

1. Policy makers will rely on our evidence when making final decisions about the nature of the border after the UK leaves the EU

The dynamic nature of the Brexit negotiations means that there may be changes, as the process of negotiations progresses, in exactly which politicians and policy makers our project will prioritise in terms of influencing. However, our departure task is to immediately develop significant and positive relations with the following bodies:

Exiting the European Union Select Committee (EEUSC),
Joint Ministerial Committee: EU negotiations (JMC:EUN)
Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEE),

From these initial positive links with these bodies, we specify a timetable for written and oral submissions.

Our project is Belfast-based and we thus need a very significant, knowledgeable and highly experienced presence in London to maximally leverage access to the highest level policy makers. Hence, we seek to employ as consultants an organisation with specific experience of feeding into the policy making world the results of deliberative democracy exercises. Such an organisation would have existing highly developed contacts in Westminster and can utilise those contacts immediately to ensure rapid and appropriate access.

As an example of a possible consultant we have engaged in detailed discussions with the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). We seek to replicate the mechanisms it utilised to achieve successful impact in Westminster regarding the findings of the two "Democracy Matters: Citizens' Assemblies on English Devolution' the ERS conducted with its academic partners.

Our influence on policy makers in Northern Ireland can be achieved by utilising our very positive existing links with the Northern Ireland Assembly's Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series (KESS). Prof Garry has already delivered a policy briefing paper and presentation on deliberative democracy at KESS (9 March 2016) and also a policy briefing paper and presentation on the UK's exit from the EU (12 October 2016). The KESS organisers are extremely keen to further engage with this type of research and to use their links within the UK political system to channel policy briefing papers to relevant actors. We plan to synergise the efforts of KESS and the Electoral Reform Society.

2. The public will learn about what are the considered views of their fellow citizens on these questions

The Electoral Reform society website and media strategy, as used in the 'Democracy Matters: Citizens' Assemblies on English Devolution' is our model for this proposed project. We do not seek to 're-invent the wheel' in terms of maximally achieving public knowledge and understanding of our project. Rather we seek to utilise in a highly cost-effective way an already existing infrastructure and established and proven expertise. Hence, with immediate effect at the start of the project an analogous website will be created and populated by the Electoral Reform Society.

A core part of our plan to engage the public and the media (and also the policy community) in our findings is to generate an entertaining and dramatic illustration of our key findings in animation form. We follow the model of Garry (2016) who created a five minute animation of the results of his analysis of deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland:

The team also has enormous experience in conventional media engagement. As part of the developed ERS media strategy team members are well placed to rapidly engage in public dissemination.
Description As detailed in our report on our project website we found:
considerable opposition to a potential hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, particularly among Catholics
considerable opposition to a potential economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, although to a lesser extent than north-south but more equally among Catholics and Protestants
We found that different types of possible UK exits from the EU have an effect on level of public support for a United Ireland. Specifically, if the UK exits the EU including the Customs Union and Single Market this leads to significant increase in Catholic support for a United Ireland.
Exploitation Route Our report - see project website - was presented in person to the Irish Dept of Foreign Affairs, the UK Foreign Office and the EU's negotiating team to inform their deliberations regarding the UK-EU negotiations, particularly pertaining to Northern Ireland public opinion.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description This project focuses on the issues of Brexit and the border in the context of Northern Ireland. It engages citizens in two complementary deliberative democracy exercises, one based on 'internal' deliberation and the other based on 'external' deliberation. In early February we successfully convened the latter. A sample of 50 citizens were recruited from across Northern Ireland to attend a one-day deliberative event on Brexit and its potential consequences; 49 attended. The sample was broadly representative of the wider Northern Ireland population, reflecting diversity in terms of gender, social class, community background, age and Remain/Leave attitudes towards Brexit. Participants engaged in two deliberative sessions involving 'external' (face-to-face) discussion. In the first they received a balanced range of background information on the potential future configurations of the Irish border; they then discussed the issues arising in roundtable discussions led by a trained facilitator. The afternoon session took the same format, with the nature of the discussion focusing on the broader constitutional implications of Brexit, including whether or not a referendum on Irish unity was desirable. A report on the qualitative data arising from these discussions is currently in preparation. Complementing these qualitative findings will be quantitative survey data from a Large-N sample of the Northern Ireland population. This survey is currently in the field as part of Ipsos-Mori's monthly omnibus. The results of this survey will provide a snapshot of public opinion on some of the key issues arising from Brexit in the Northern Ireland context, while the qualitative findings from the deliberative event will provide a richer understanding of these attitudes and preferences. These quantitative findings will feed into the same report, principally aimed at policy-makers in London. The report will be formally launched in the coming months. The document and data will be published on our project website: A further deliberative democracy exercise involving 'internal' (individual thought-based) deliberation is at an advanced stage of planning. Data will be collected through a large-N survey experiment in the coming months. The project has had an impact both among policy-makers and within the media. The Principal Investigator, Professor John Garry, provided oral evidence to the House of Lords European Union Select Committee on 16 January 2018. He was also invited by the Foreign Office to present at a conference (31 January to 2 February 2018) bringing together a range of actors from academia, politics, business and civil society from across Europe to share their expertise and ideas on future bilateral relations. Professor Garry was able to share with the other participants some insights regarding how Brexit may affect UK-Irish relations, as well as bilateralism more generally. Further written evidence was submitted to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee as part of its inquiry on democracy in Northern Ireland; the submission noted the ongoing power vacuum in Northern Ireland in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the need (through this research project) for a systematic understanding of what the general public thinks about the pressing issue of Brexit. A research fellow on the project, James Pow, has been invited to speak at on the subject of deliberative minipublics and their potential policymaking applications at Belfast's Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics. A number of international media outlets have covered elements of the project to date, including Newsweek, The Sunday Telegraph, Channel 4 News, the Sydney Morning Herald, L'Opinion (in French), Ouest-France (in French), the New Statesman, the Scottish Herald and Bloomberg. Researchers involved in the project have written over 20 blog articles on issues relating to public opinion in Northern Ireland and the future of the Irish border. These have been published by the UK in a Changing Europe, Slugger O'Toole and the LSE Blog. A full list of articles and media output can be found on the project website: This project is still in progress. As the processes of data collection and analysis continue, we anticipate that the findings from our deliberative exercises, complemented with quantitative survey results, will have a significant impact in the policy-making community and in the UK media. We wrote a report on our 2018 studies (deliberative forum and quantitative survey) and these were presented by the team to relevant actors in the UK-EU 'Brexit' negotiations: the UK Foreign Office, the EU negotiating team and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. The report attracted very significant UK, Irish, and international media attention: for example, in the Times, Financial Times, Guardian, Irish Times and the team wrote an article summarising the findings for the US Huffington Post (see project website for full details).
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Policy & public services

Title BrexitNI data 
Description Survey of attitudes of NI population on Brexit issues. Plus data from a deliberative forum on Brexit issues in NI. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We assess public attitudes in Northern Ireland towards the potential hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a result of the UK's exit from the European Union. We investigate the relationship between border-related anxieties and support for a United Ireland. The study draws on specially designed qualitative and quantitative data, generated from a one-day citizens' assembly and a representative attitude survey. It identifies a group of conditional Catholics who support Irish unity, but only under 'hard exit' conditions.