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Insight paper

Constitutional change in Northern Ireland

This guest paper explores the constitutional history of Northern Ireland, and the challenges it faces today.

Lisa Claire Whitten
Stormont House
The Parliament Buildings on the Stormont Estate in Belfast, home to the Northern Ireland executive and assembly.

In Northern Ireland, mention of constitutional change normally means just one thing: United Kingdom versus United Ireland. The ‘constitutional question’ that this juxtaposition connotes – whether or not a majority of the people in Northern Ireland will ever opt to leave the UK in favour of (re)joining Ireland – is not, however, the focus of this paper.

While not seeking to discount or relegate the potential for constitutional change in Northern Ireland that would arise from a future ‘border poll’ referendum, the premise of this report – by guest author and Queen's University Belfast research fellow, Lisa Whitten, as part of the Institute for Government–Bennett Institute Review of the UK Constitution – is that it is not the only kind of constitutional change that is possible in or important for Northern Ireland.

To this end, this paper has three aims:

  1. to give a concise account of the constitutional history and particularities of Northern Ireland in the wider UK constitutional context
  2. to explore the most pressing governance challenges in Northern Ireland today that arise, directly and indirectly, from its unique constitutional arrangements
  3. to consider how those challenges could be mitigated and/or resolved through constitutional reforms that are short of, and without prejudice to, the possibility of that constitutional question being brought to the fore in a future border poll.

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