Interpreting the Good Friday Agreement’s Unity Clause
The most significant result that the Good Friday Agreement (also called the Belfast Agreement) has been the end of violence in the Irish island of Ireland. Twenty-five years after the Agreement entered into force, its implementation has seen mixed achievements. The power-sharing element in the accord has essentially been shattered due to Brexit, and many of the collaborative bodies created for the relationship between the UK and Northern Ireland have not been adequately implemented or have ceased to function.

One significant factor that led to the blockade within Northern Ireland is its uncertain constitutional constitution. On the one hand, the uncertainty stems from what is expected of people under the Good Friday Agreement, which allows citizens in Northern Ireland to choose British or Irish citizenship and establishes roles for Ireland and the UK in the governance of the region. However, the uncertainty has been exacerbated due to the negative impacts of Brexit on the political landscape in Northern Ireland. This article argues that enhancing the clarity of one of the more crucial clauses in the Agreement, the unit clause, may reduce uncertainty.

The Good Friday Agreement establishes an obligation that a referendum be held on the issue of a United Ireland if it appears likely that a majority be in favor. Particularly in Schedule 1 Paragraph 2, Article 1 states that:

“The Secretary of State, also known as the UK Minister in charge of Northern Ireland] shall exercise the power provided by paragraph 1 [to conduct a referendum or “border poll”] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

Certain aspects of this procedure are pretty straightforward. “Shall” means that the Secretary has to call polls on the border if they believe the majority of voters would vote in favor of the unification of Ireland. “A majority of those voting” signifies that it’s not required to have a majority of inhabitants of Northern Ireland to be in favor of the unification of Ireland for a vote to be held (in terms of the absolute majority must be at minimum 50% plus one-third of the people) however, it is only necessary that the simple majority of those who are taking part in the poll is likely to be in favor.

The method of determining whether a majority is present isn’t specified in the Agreement. However, possible scenarios for assessing this include independent polls regarding the issue, which are routinely conducted, or even political elections.

“Likely” is more ambiguous. Research studies have found that personal notions about “likely” as a percentage probability range from less than 50% to a 66% probability of an event occurring. Since the Good Friday Agreement specifies no percentage probability, we can conclusively conclude that a poll would require a call when the likelihood of a favorable vote was within this vague probability.

This conclusion, logically speaking, points to the main issue raised by Article 1. What criteria for determining the likelihood of a border poll’s success is to be determined, and the definition of the word “likely” is left entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, who is legally bound to conduct the border poll just “if it appears likely to him” that the majority of voters would support. This unexamined discretion is opposed to the concept that the Secretary acting as an impartial arbitrator, must hold a referendum when circumstances require it. This also increases the possibility of the Secretary performing untruth and not arranging the poll when it seems probable from all the available evidence that a majority will support the idea.

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