On the 27th of October the QUB Students’ Union will be holding two referenda regarding the Students’ Union’s stance on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. One referendum will question “Should Ireland be a united and independent country?” with a Yes/No answer while the other will ask “This Students’ Union is a shared space that is inclusive for all students and should therefore have a neutral stance on the constitutional position of NI. [Do you agree?]” with a Yes/No answer. If a turnout of over 10% of eligible voters vote in either petition, the decision must be honoured by the Students’ Union, while a turnout of under 10% means it will only be taken as a recommendation. It is unclear as of the time of writing what will happen in the case that there is a majority in favour of neutrality with a turnout above 10% and also a turnout above 10% on the stance the Students’ Union will take.
Young Greens NI would like to urge students to take this as an opportunity to think critically and examine the country we live in and how it is run, and to look at the alternatives both inside the UK and in a United Ireland. This question is one that has hinged upon identity for many years, but the recent Scottish referendum brought up many more questions that should be discussed and researched before committing to either side of a constitutional debate. Some of those questions have already been answered in the case of Northern Ireland joining with the Republic of Ireland, such as the currency, but others haven’t been answered – whether Stormont will continue to function as a devolved assembly and whether education, healthcare and transport would remain devolved, and whether the people of Northern Ireland will be able to agree to be part of a United Ireland but not accept Ireland’s current constitution. There are also questions about the possibility of remaining inside the UK, with issues such as the future of the Barnett Formula from which Northern Ireland benefits, possibilities of balancing devolution so that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are granted equal decision-making abilities and the possibility of reform in Stormont would still be important to consider.
The referenda on the 27th of October can certainly give students a reason to consider these options in a way that they haven’t before, and we welcome that involvement of young people in making decisions about their country. However, the second referendum raises the issue that, given that this is on what stance the SU should take and not a legitimate border poll, there needs to be an option in which the SU remains neutral and gives a space for people who support both sides to come together with no intimidation or alienation. While we agree that many students know which way they would vote in a border poll, we would encourage students to consider whether they think it is appropriate or necessary for the SU to take this stance, as the SU exists to unite students as part of a wider university community rather than exclude students who disagree with the official stance. We also encourage international students to engage in the discussion, to both offer their own experiences from their home countries and to learn more about Northern Ireland’s current political system – sometimes it takes an outside view to see the best solutions to a problem.
Finally, Young Greens would urge students to get involved in political discussion and criticism of all kinds in Northern Ireland. Consider what you can do to help change Northern Ireland as it stands today, look at the issues that are often hidden by divisive politics and ask difficult questions even of people and parties you agree with. We are happy to see democracy being used and hope that all students will consider the issues being raised thoroughly and use their vote or abstain as they feel is appropriate.