Reporting the Divide: Lessons for any Future Referendum 

By: David McCann

Constitutional debates can often sneak up on us in ways we least expect. Looking back over the last decade in UK politics, the referenda in Scotland and on membership of the European Union came about unexpectedly, with a surprise electoral majority for the SNP in 2011and a surprise Conservative majority in 2015. Whether you agree with it or not, preparing for the potential of constitutional change is of paramount concern, or rather, it should be for the governments and the wider actors involved.

Looking at the Brexit process, it now seems bizarre that such a big decision was made with such little consideration that we might indeed vote to leave the European Union. My report for the Constitution Society, Reporting the Divideaims to ensure that whatever the future for Northern Ireland is, the same mistakes are not repeated, and that we recognise how significant a lens local media is for those seeking to understand some new dimensions of this debate.

Before we get to hold any referendum in the future, the role of the media needs to be part of any discussion, and consideration needs to be given to the size and nature of resources that the local media has to scrutinise and to promote accurate information for voters. Reporting the Divide: The Media and the Constitutional Debate in Northern Ireland looks to places such as New Zealand for some answers. In New Zeeland, for example, grants were put in place to support public interest journalism from 2021-2023. Ahead of a future referendum, both governments (that is the UK and the Republic) should give consideration to a similar policy to support local media during a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. This scheme would support hiring more journalists and fact-checkers to ensure the current media set-up is more robust in combatting disinformation and poor-quality information.

Northern Ireland is fortunate in many respects. It has debated its constitutional future for decades in a hotly contested political environment. Yet it was Scotland that went first with a referendum on the issue of independence on the back of the SNP’s unexpected landslide. Then, the entire United Kingdom voted on the European Union two years later. Northern Ireland can and should learn from the mistakes made in both of those contests. The lack of attention given to important issues and the profiling of politicians and commentators over civic groups and experts led to a narrowing of the debate in previous referenda. The consequences of this during the EU referendum were that important issues around the land border on the island of Ireland did not form a prominent enough part of the referendum coverage. This meant that not enough scrutiny was placed on the arguments being put forward by the various campaigns on such a consequential issue. In Scotland, the narrow profile of those platformed during referendum coverage contributed to a lack of trust in the process and outcome. Failing to learn from these mistakes could lead to similar situations in Northern Ireland’s future, a scenario we must strive to avoid.

Beyond this recommendation, the report marks out pathways for further research. A substantial aspect of the report was the interview of eight prominent figures within the Northern Irish media. Across these interviews, these individuals reflected on the sometimes negative role that social media can play in creating a “crisis narrative” and promoting echo chambers. This perception is vindicated by the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly Election survey, which found that less than 1 per cent of people in Northern Ireland post a political opinion daily. Yet social media can at times be the dominant generator of stories within Northern Irish constitutional debate. The interviewees highlighted the importance of asking questions about how representative this discourse therefore is. Consequently, an additional recommendation of my report is that further research into the impact of social media on this debate is urgently required. 

Media regulation is another critical aspect of a potential border poll which requires consideration. Unlike other referenda in the UK, a border poll on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland would necessarily need to be conducted in two different jurisdictions. It is also worth noting that many of the broadcasting networks in Northern Ireland are available on an all-island basis. This must be considered, and my report highlights the necessity that any rules relating to media governance must be jointly negotiated and enacted by the UK and Republic of Ireland governments. The rules governing how any referendum on Northern Ireland’s future should be conducted, and how that referendum is covered, must be applied consistently across the island. 

Researching and writing Reporting the Divide has highlighted to me how much the quality of this debate matters. Ensuring that the arguments of campaigners are properly scrutinised and that the best available information is presented to the public is critical for generating confidence in a process. This is not just about the media, but about the public’s trust in the political process. It is our duty to ensure that this trust is upheld and strengthened.

Why, though, should the UK and Irish governments take any of this into account? Why should we be thinking about further research into these issues?

If we ever get to a referendum on Northern Ireland’s place inside the UK or as part of a united Ireland, we should learn from the mistakes other jurisdictions have made on similar issues. The questioning of democratic norms is now worldwide and growing alarmingly. It would not be reasonable to believe that the island of Ireland is immune from this. Love or loathe it, the Fourth Estate is critical in improving political discourse and ensuring confidence in the political process.

As we navigate the future of our democracy, we must consider how to strengthen this vital pillar – the media. Reporting the Divide serves as a crucial starting point for this discussion, highlighting the essential role of the media in shaping critical debates about our future. It calls for further examination and support of the media, emphasising that their role is not just important, but indispensable in ensuring a robust and informed political discourse for the future.

David McCann. 

Dr David McCann is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Society. He holds a PhD in relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland from 1959-72 from Ulster University. He has worked as a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Ulster University and as Deputy Editor of Northern Ireland’s biggest current affairs website, Slugger O’Toole. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.