‘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.  Continue reading

The narrative of devolution twenty years on

gtwuaP6C (1)Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the first Scottish Parliament elections. In this post, David Torrance looks back at how political parties in Scotland have fought to control the narrative of devolution and examines how that ‘story’ has evolved over the past two decades.

Pollsters and sociologists have long understood the power of political storytelling. James Carville, who engineered Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory, believed that an effective narrative was ‘the key to everything’, while the NATO strategist Mark Laity has described how a narrative with historical overtones can influence decision- making more than logical argument.

This is not, however, a contemporary political phenomenon, but rather something as old as spin and fake news. As others reflect on the twentieth anniversary of devolution in Scotland, it’s worth looking at the role narrative – or rather political ownership of narrative – played in the run-up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999, and indeed thereafter.

Broadly speaking, the ‘story’ of devolution in Scotland was owned, at first, by the Scottish Labour Party from the 1980s until the early 2000s, before the Scottish National Party (SNP) assumed control in the mid-2000s. More recently, ownership has become more competitive, with the Scottish Conservative Party belatedly expressing comfort with devolution and challenging the SNP’s claim to ‘stand up for Scotland’.

As I’ve argued in an earlier essay, this narrative marketplace has much deeper roots, for since the late nineteenth century every major political party in Scotland has told a ‘story’ of an autonomous Scotland while claiming to defend that autonomy from internal and external threats. Initially it was the Liberals with ‘Home Rule’, then the old Scottish Unionist Party, which presented itself –most ostentatiously between the early 1930s and mid 1950sas the main ‘guardian’ of a distinct Scottish national identity, while extending what was known as ‘administrative devolution’ within the United Kingdom.

Later, this political story passed to Scottish Labour in augmented form, at its most salient after the 1987 general election when the party resolved various internal debates to emerge as the main champion of a devolved Scottish Assembly/Parliament. A necessary corollary was delegitimising the Scottish Conservative Party’s claim to guardianship of Scottish identity, thus the charge that the governments of Margaret Thatcher were ‘anti-Scottish’ and hostile to distinctively Scottish institutions.

There were echoes of the earlier Unionist approach. Not only did Scottish Labour draw upon its considerable reserves of political symbolism, but it pushed the SNP’s competing nationalism (‘independence in Europe’) to the periphery of political discourse, all the while pursuing its own electoral strategy north of the border with the tacit approval of the UK Labour Party, classic features of what the sociologist Michael Billig called ‘banal nationalism’ and Jim Bulpitt’s description of territorial management in the United Kingdom.

Although the SNP attempted to challenge Labour’s ownership of the devolution agenda – Alex Salmond used to claim the party couldn’t ‘deliver a pizza let alone a parliament’ – Donald Dewar, Scottish Secretary after 1997 and Scotland’s inaugural First Minister in 1999, understood well the power of political storytelling. His memorable speech at the Scottish Parliament’s official opening on 1 July 1999 invoked:
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