‘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

Five key questions about a further Brexit referendum

alan.jfif (1)meg_russell_2000x2500.jpglisa.james.resized.staff.webpage.jpg (1)Proposals for another Brexit referendum will be at the heart of the election campaign and it is therefore important that the viability of politicians’ plans are thoroughly tested. Drawing on recent research, Alan Renwick, Meg Russell and Lisa James here set out five key questions. They suggest that Labour’s plans for a referendum within six months are challenging, though not necessarily impossible. A poll which pitted Boris Johnson’s deal against Remain would be simpler and quicker, avoiding additional negotiation time. This would also have the advantage of enhancing the referendum’s legitimacy among Brexit supporters. 

The parties are finalising their election manifestos, and several will propose a further referendum on Brexit. These policies will come under close scrutiny during the campaign. This post draws on and updates a detailed report published by the Constitution Unit last year. It sets out the possible routes to a further Brexit referendum, the key choices that would need to be made, and the possible consequences of those choices. It finds that a referendum between Boris Johnson’s deal and remaining in the EU would be both the simplest, and the quickest, option.

How would a referendum come about?

The major unknown – and unknowable – factor at this stage is the outcome of the general election. It is impossible to predict post-election parliamentary arithmetic with any confidence, but it will have a material effect on the probability and form of a referendum.

There are three main possibilities. The first is a Conservative majority, under which a referendum is very unlikely to take place. The second is a Conservative minority government, which might accept a confirmatory referendum as the price of passing its Withdrawal Agreement. The third is a Labour-led government: either a majority government, or a minority government supported by smaller pro-referendum parties. Under this scenario, the Labour leadership proposes to negotiate a new deal with the European Union, and to offer a referendum between their deal and Remain. Continue reading

Deal or no deal, the UK government needs a new strategy for the Union

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133Almost seven months after the EU and UK agreed to extend the Article 50 process, a new Brexit deal has been agreed. Akash Paun argues that whether the new deal passes parliament or not, the Brexit process so far has demonstrated that the UK government needs to change its strategy for maintaining the cohesion of the Union.

In his first public statement as prime minister, Boris Johnson made two constitutional pledges that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, he promised to strengthen the UK, which he described as ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag, who together are so much more than the sum of their parts.’ But in the same speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October ‘no ifs, no buts’ and, if necessary, no deal. Brexit has already strained relations between the UK and devolved governments. A no deal departure would make matters even worse, and would run directly counter to the PM’s ambitions to strengthen the Union.

The Scottish and Welsh governments strongly oppose leaving the EU without a deal. In a joint letter to the prime minister in July, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers argued that ‘it would be unconscionable for a UK government to contemplate a chaotic no deal exit and we urge you to reject this possibility clearly and unambiguously as soon as possible.’ The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have also explicitly voted against no deal. Continue reading

Northern Ireland and a border poll: hard truths

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Brexit issue continues to fuel speculation about the prospects of Irish unity following a border poll. Here Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, author of the Unit’s paper on the subject published in March, and a member of the working group bringing in colleagues from Belfast and Dublin that will look further at the implications of a poll, warns that there are serious dangers looming here for both parts of Ireland – as well as the British government and the wider UK.

The potential breakup of the UK is now spoken about more often than it has perhaps been since the 1920s, fed by the heated politics of Brexit and by evolutions in opinion revealed in polling in Northern Ireland (and Scotland). Some polling in England suggests a willingness to contemplate this, especially if it is the price of Brexit. The subject is sometimes raised rather matter-of-factly in discussion in Great Britain, on an apparent assumption that quick and clean breaks are possible. 

In the case of Ireland, at least, this is not so. There are a number of hard realities meaning that any process of Irish unity is likely to be drawn out, and at all stages capable of tipping over into heightened tensions, instability and conflict. And hence a serious preoccupation for the UK, as well as for Ireland. The situation requires handling with extreme care and sensitivity, and not least from London. But its conduct in the last few weeks has all tended to exacerbate the situation.

This blog sets out some of the realities and pitfalls – and why the latter are at present becoming more likely and more serious.

Northern Ireland has a right to leave the UK on the basis of the majority vote

Northern Ireland differs from other parts of the UK in that there is a principle already established in political agreements and in international law that it should leave the UK and become part of a United Ireland in certain circumstances – if a majority of its inhabitants voting in a poll, and the majority also in the rest of Ireland, is in favour. This is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and embodied also the parallel Treaty between the UK and Ireland.

And there is a mechanism to bring the principle to life: the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with parliamentary approval, must call a referendum (usually called in Northern Ireland a ‘border poll’) at any time it seems likely that a majority would favour Irish unity. 

Continue reading

Which MPs are responsible for failing to ‘get Brexit done’?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgToday Boris Johnson will give his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference, doubtless with a central argument about the need to ‘get Brexit done’. MPs have been blamed for the failure to achieve this. But which MPs precisely are responsible? Meg Russell argues that opposition parties cannot normally be expected to deliver government policy. Instead, government backbenchers usually have that role. It is resistance from Conservative backbenchers – including Johnson himself and others promoted to his Cabinet – to supporting Theresa May’s deal that provides the most obvious reason for Brexit not having been agreed.

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’. Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling against the government last week, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit. For example, Boris Johnson commented thatPoliticians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result. Sadly, many have since done all they can to abandon those promises and to overturn that democratic vote’. In contrast he pledged thatWe will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not’, adding that ‘That is what the Opposition want to do’. Far stronger words, characteristically, have been ascribed to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in blaming parliament for the Brexit impasse. Several papers have reported Cummings as suggesting that it was ‘not surprising’ that people are angry with MPs, as they have failed in their duty to get Brexit done. Given the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on what happened in the months before Johnson took office. His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018. Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, this deal was then put to an initial ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019. However, it was defeated by MPs by a whopping 432 to 202 votes. The Prime Minister subsequently brought the deal back for a second such attempt on 12 March. By this point various MPs had been brought round to supporting the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242. A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, of 29 March 2019. This was not a ‘meaningful vote’ under the terms of the Act, as Speaker John Bercow had hinted that such a move could be ruled out of order – on the basis that MPs cannot just repeatedly be asked to vote upon the same proposition – but it was again an in-principle vote on the deal. Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58. Hence a further 30 MPs would have needed to switch from opposing to supporting the deal in order for it to be clearly approved. Continue reading

Why Northern Ireland can’t afford a ‘do or die’ Brexit

nick.wright.jpgBoris Johnson is demanding that the Withdrawal Agreement is scrapped and renegotiated, and is insisting that he won’t meet EU leaders until they agree to this. The major source of contention is the backstop, which guarantees an open border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit, but ties the UK to the EU’s Customs Union. In a new Brexit Insights paper, Nicholas Wright assesses the politics of the backstop and ‘no deal’, and what all this means for Northern Ireland. 

During his leadership campaign, Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaged in an increasingly shrill rhetorical arms race with his rival, Jeremy Hunt, over who will be toughest with the EU in delivering Brexit. In particular, his ire was focused on the hated ‘Irish backstop’ which has come to symbolise all that Brexiters loathe about the Withdrawal Agreement. Indeed, Mr Johnson has promised to remove this element of the deal, declaring that if the EU will not renegotiate, then the UK will leave on 31 October, ‘deal or no deal’, suggesting that the costs of exiting in such circumstances will be ‘vanishingly inexpensive if you prepare’. Such claims fly in the face of reality and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is here that the consequences of Brexit and the trade-offs implicit in its delivery are most starkly revealed.

Since the beginning of the Brexit process, the UK government has been trying to reconcile the ‘Irish Trilemma’: UK departure from the EU’s single market and customs union; an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and no new trade or regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. You can have any two, but a combination of all three is impossible. This matters because the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and all that has resulted from it were predicated on the open and invisible border and shared regulatory space that come with EU membership. These have underpinned efforts in Northern Ireland to chart a new pathway, not least by reducing the prominence and difficulty of complex questions around identity. Doing so has not been easy, something demonstrated by the collapse of power-sharing and suspension of the Assembly in Stormont. The prospect of changes to border arrangements – and particularly anything necessitating the re-establishment of any border infrastructure – therefore risks further undermining a fragile equilibrium that reflects Northern Ireland’s ‘relative peace but minimum reconciliation’. Continue reading

Six constitutional questions raised by the election of the new Conservative leader

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIn less than one month, Conservative Party members will elect a new leader from a two-man shortlist. Under normal circumstances, what happens next would be obvious – Theresa May would resign and the winner would be called on by the Queen to form a government and take office as Prime Minister. However, with the Conservatives lacking a parliamentary majority and normal party loyalties skewed by Brexit, the current scenario is far from normal. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell identify six key constitutional questions that the Conservative leadership election raises for the winner, his party, the Palace and parliament.

With the Conservative Party leadership contest in full swing, the expectation is that Britain will soon have a new Prime Minister. But the process has opened up some significant constitutional controversies. This is the first time that party members will potentially directly elect a new Prime Minister, and this innovation is happening at a time not only of minority government, but with the governing party severely divided. Some senior Conservatives have signalled that they might go so far as to vote no confidence in a new leader who sought to deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, while some candidates in the race suggested a possibility of proroguing parliament to avoid MPs blocking a ‘no deal’. In this post we address six of the most burning constitutional questions raised by these controversies.

1. Will the new leader of the Conservative Party be appointed Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The key test is whether the Conservatives’ new leader is able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is how it is expressed in the key paragraphs of the Cabinet Manual:

2.8    If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

2.9    … In modern times the convention has been that the Sovereign should not be drawn into party politics, and if there is doubt it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process, and in particular the parties represented in Parliament, to seek to determine and communicate clearly to the Sovereign who is best placed to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. As the Crown’s principal adviser this responsibility falls especially on the incumbent Prime Minister …

2.18    Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor.

Clearly none of these paragraphs quite covers the present unusual circumstances: Prime Minister Theresa May is on course to resign as an individual (2.18), rather than on behalf of the government (2.8), but the governing party does not have an overall Commons majority. Two things however are clear in either case. First, that the new Prime Minister must be the person most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and second, that it is the responsibility of the politicians to determine who that person is, in order to protect the Queen from the political fray.

Whether the new Conservative Party leader can command parliamentary confidence is clearly in some doubt given comments from Conservative MPs that they may not be able to support the new government. The government only has a majority of three (including the DUP), so only a very few rebels is enough for it to lose its majority. The parliamentary arithmetic is not necessarily that simple, because some pro-Brexit Labour rebels could conceivably decide to support the government. But the number of Conservative rebels is potentially large enough. Continue reading