‘Taking the border out of politics’ – the Northern Ireland referendum of March 1973

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In 1973, the UK government organised the country’s first referendum, on the subject of whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK. Now, as Brexit and its potential consequences make another border poll look like an increasing possibility, David Torrance looks back on the poll, its background, and its later constitutional significance.

Introduction 

The first constitutional referendum in the history of the United Kingdom took place on 8 March 1973. It was held nearly four years after the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ – a sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in Northern Ireland. 

What became known as the ‘border poll’ (although it was also called a ‘referendum’ or ‘plebiscite’, no one could quite agree on terminology) emerged as a means by which to ‘take the border out of politics’, or so it was hoped. In discussions with the Government of Northern Ireland (NIG) on 22 March 1972, the UK government proposed transferring responsibility for law and order from Belfast to London, phasing out internment, and periodic plebiscites.

The last two were, in principle, acceptable to the NIG, but an erosion of its ‘transferred’ powers under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was not. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (Brian Faulkner) and his Cabinet later resigned, and on 30 March the Parliament of Northern Ireland – known as ‘Stormont’ – was prorogued and Direct Rule from Westminster introduced for the first time since 1921.

The referendum announcement

Speaking in the Commons on 24 March 1972, Prime Minister Edward Heath said:

We… propose in due course to invite Parliament to provide for a system of regular plebiscites in Northern Ireland about the Border, the first to be held as soon as practicable in the near future and others at intervals of a substantial period of years thereafter.

In effect, Heath was proposing to transfer the principle of ‘consent’ from the prorogued Parliament of Northern Ireland (enshrined in the Ireland Act 1949) to its people, ‘the Border’ representing a proxy for a much broader constitutional question. 

The Prime Minister hoped periodic plebiscites, ‘while leaving open the possibility of a change in the status of the Province if the majority so wish’, would provide ‘a greater measure of stability in the political life of Northern Ireland’. The Labour leader Harold Wilson expressed ‘doubt’ on this point, believing it could ‘be extremely dangerous to stir up passion on all sides’.

A Green Paper (The Future of Northern Ireland) published by the new Northern Ireland Office (NIO) followed in October 1972, paragraph 82 stating that the ‘wishes of the people of Northern Ireland on their relationship to the United Kingdom and to the Republic will be ascertained by a plebiscite early in the New Year’.

As this wording suggested, the UK government intended the referendum to take place in January 1973, before local government elections and publication of a widely-anticipated White Paper on the future governance of Northern Ireland. The referendum proposal – and subsequent legislation – proved contentious.

Debate in Parliament

The Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Bill received its second reading in the Commons on 21 November 1972. The Bill provided that the referendum would be conducted and funded as if it were a UK general election, and on the franchise used for Stormont elections. The Schedule also set out two questions, next to one of which voters would be invited to place a cross:

Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?

and

Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?

William Whitelaw, appointed by Heath as the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, explained that the Government’s aim ‘was to take the border out of the day-to-day political scene’:

There can be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom unless by the will of the majority. But equally, if the majority of the people in Northern Ireland were to opt for a united Ireland, no British Government would stand in the way.

Labour was not against a referendum in principle but wanted the White Paper published before it took place. Whitelaw, however, left ‘open the question whether publication of that White Paper or the border poll will come first’. 

Others dwelled on broader ramifications. The then Labour MP David Owen noted that referendums had been ‘resisted’ on membership of the Common Market and constitutional changes in Scotland and Wales but was now being proposed for ‘one particular part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland’:

It is not as if anybody were arguing that we are in any doubt about the result. We know the result. Therefore, we are not arguing for a plebiscite or a referendum for clarity; we are arguing for it for public relations, for demonstration purposes. This is profoundly dangerous.

DUP leader Ian Paisley said he did ‘not like plebiscites or referenda’ but was willing to make an exception, having earlier supported a Ten-Minute Rule Bill introduced by the Conservative MP John Biggs-Davison.

Kevin McNamara, a Labour MP and future Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary (1987–94), believed the proposed border poll possessed even greater significance:

We are introducing into our constitutional life the idea of a plebiscite or referendum whereby a part of the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are to say of themselves and by themselves, without reference to the remainder of the population whether they should remain within the United Kingdom, irrespective of whether the rest of the United Kingdom wishes them to be in it.

Debating Irish unity at the Oxford Union, meanwhile, Taoiseach Jack Lynch said such a plebiscite, ‘conducted on the basis of questions as stark as those which are proposed, can contribute nothing, is completely predictable, and can only widen the rift between the two communities’. At the same time, Lynch considered the recent Green Paper both ‘realistic and forward looking’.

The House of Lords considered the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Bill in December 1972 and it received Royal Assent on the 7th of that month. 

The Order

The Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act 1972 provided that the referendum date and regulations be fixed by Order, a form of secondary legislation subject to the negative resolution procedure. This was laid before parliament on 14 December and set the polling date as 8 March 1973, two months later than originally planned but, according to David Howell, Minister of State at the NIO, the ‘earliest practicable date’ given a new electoral register would come into force on 16 February. 

MPs debated the Order on 23 January 1973. Howell made it clear the referendum would be conducted under ‘Westminster rules’, albeit with certain deviations. While voting would take place in Northern Ireland’s (then) 12 constituencies, ballots would be counted in one place and a result declared for Northern Ireland as a whole. Polling was to take place between 8am and 8pm (rather than 7am–10pm), to ease recruitment of polling staff and enable most electors to ‘vote in daylight’. All voters – provided they were on the NI register and could provide a UK address – could vote by post (including non-convicted detainees and internees) and, finally, the Secretary of State was authorised to appoint MPs from both Westminster and Stormont as observers. 

Merlyn Rees, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, restated Labour’s desire for the White Paper to ‘precede’ the legislation, while the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Gerry Fitt warned that the referendum would cause ‘mischief and great danger in Northern Ireland’. He added: ‘I know that many moderate people in Northern Ireland will have to boycott it and advise those whom they represent to do the same, because we already know the result.’ 

Fitt’s SDLP, the Nationalist Party and the Republican Labour Party had opposed a referendum from the outset, arguing that the whole of Ireland ought to decide and thus urged their supporters not to vote (Sinn Féin was banned until 1974). The Ulster and Democratic Unionist Parties opposed plebiscites but supported a referendum on this occasion, while the Alliance and the Northern Ireland Labour Party (like the GB Labour Party) wanted the plebiscite linked to specific proposals.

As the authors of a government-commissioned research project on the referendum later observed, legislation had arranged ‘for the views of the people to be made known’, but whether ‘they would be willing to do so was another matter’.

The referendum campaign 

The NIO launched an extensive publicity campaign once the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Order was made on 24 January 1973, with adverts placed in both Northern Irish and mainland newspapers (including the Scotsman and Glasgow Herald).

Campaigning, however, was lacklustre. The questions were – in the retrospective view of political scientists R. J. Lawrence and Sydney Elliott –  ‘so lacking in ambiguity, as to leave little room for rhetoric and propaganda’. ‘Pro-union and anti-partition leaders knew that the prospect of changing each others’ attitudes was remote’, they added in a 1975 Command Paper, ‘and that the vast majority of voters had already made up their minds.’ 

Only in the week before polling did the referendum seem to ‘occupy the centre of public attention’, with pro-union parties fearing a low turnout ‘might result in less than 50% of the total electorate voting for the link with Britain’, an important psychological – if not statutory – threshold for Unionists. 

The border poll took place on 8 March 1973 in ‘fine weather’. A large force of soldiers and police were in place at 388 polling stations, carrying out security checks as unobtrusively as possible. Nevertheless, there were several violent incidents throughout the day, including eleven explosions. The Metropolitan Police were also on heightened alert lest London be targeted.  

After polls closed at 8pm, 1,700 ballot boxes were collected by the security forces and delivered to the heavily-guarded counting centre at Belfast’s Floral Hall, where the last box arrived at 3.30am. It was, judged Lawrence and Elliott, ‘the largest single operation of its kind in British electoral history’ with the ‘great weight of… evidence’ indicating ‘that it was generally fair and efficient’.

The referendum result

Out of 1,030,084 registered voters there was a turnout of 58.6%, 98.9% (or 591,820) of whom voted for Northern Ireland to ‘remain’ part of the UK, and 1.1% (6,423) voting for it ‘to be joined with’ the Republic of Ireland. Almost 6,000 votes (1%) were rejected as invalid, while 12.5% of those voting had done so by post.

The BBC reported that only 1% of Catholics had taken part, while Brian Faulkner claimed (first in a letter to The Times and subsequently in his memoirs) that ‘some 20 to 25 per cent of the Catholic community’, or ‘in excess of 71,000 Catholics’, had voted ‘for the British link in spite of the boycott campaign’.

Lawrence and Elliott were more judicious. ‘Several guesses and estimates were made about the extent of deliberate abstention, but this cannot be measured,’ they wrote in 1975. ‘We record the facts that pro-unionists were pleased with their turnout and that anti-partitionists were equally pleased with their boycott.’

Concluding analysis

The UK government finally published its White Paper 12 days after the referendum. Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals proposed a power-sharing Assembly and a cross-border Council of Ireland, while the subsequent Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 authorised the Secretary of State to hold further plebiscites at 10 year intervals. The Assembly, however, collapsed in May 1974 and the referendum provision was never used.

The 1973 border poll has received surprisingly scant attention from historians and political scientists, some accounts of the period ignoring it completely. Nevertheless, the referendum was – as the Labour MP Kevin McNamara judged in 1972 – constitutionally significant in that it established a precedent for voters in one part of the UK to express the desire to secede. For this reason, it was very much in the mind of those planning the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a plebiscite which presented a clear choice to voters following agreement between the Scottish and UK governments. 

As Professor James Mitchell has observed, the 1973 referendum ‘suggested that sovereignty rested with the people of Northern Ireland and not Parliament at Westminster’, a suggestion arguably reinforced with respect to Scotland more than 40 years later. 

Further reading

Northern Ireland Office (1972), The future of Northern Ireland: A paper for discussion, London: HMSO.

J. Lawrence and S. Elliott (1975), The Northern Ireland Border Poll 1973 (Cmnd 5875), London: HMSO.

B. Faulkner (1978), Memoirs of a Statesman, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

This post relates to the topic of a new Unit project, the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, led by Dr Alan Renwick, which will examine how any future referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland (often known as a ‘border poll’) would best be designed and conducted (see here for a blogpost introducing the project). The project has already produced a background paper by Unit Honorary Senior Research Associate and former civil servant Alan Whysall, who has also written for the blog on the subject (see here and here). 

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About the author

David Torrance is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in devolution, monarchy and the constitution.