Why the Northern Irish Border Poll of 1973 was both unimportant and profoundly important
The first direct vote on a matter usually reserved for a parliament had an indirect effect both on the course of Northern Irish history and on the subsequent use of referendums in the United Kingdom
This post is about the border poll that took place in Northern Ireland on 8 March 1973.
The choices in that poll were:
“Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?
“Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?”
By 591,820 votes to 6,423 votes, on a 56% turnout, the result of the poll was in favour of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom.
This result was not a surprise, given the electorate of Northern Ireland at the time.
And the low turnout was, in part, caused by a boycott of the exercise by the nationalist community.
This 1973 poll - or plebiscite or referendum, for the terminology varied - is not that well-known. Many histories of the period do not mention it.
When it is mentioned the poll is often regarded as a pointless exercise which did nothing to satisfy the unionists, and which certainly had no legitimacy for the nationalists.
And even at the time the poll was regarded as being fairly unimportant, almost trivial.
The poll was imposed by the United Kingdom government during a political and security crisis; the Northern Irish unionists had not asked for any such poll to take place; the nationalists did not campaign or vote; and, in any case, the result was a conclusion foregone.
The poll also had little-to-no direct impact on events: it did not seem to change anything that otherwise would have happened either in 1973 or the years that followed.
Soon the poll was pretty much forgotten about.
And none of the subsequent periodic polls in Northern Ireland which were then envisaged by the United Kingdom government took place.
As such, the poll can be seen as a minor detail, almost a footnote, to the story of Northern Ireland during “the Troubles”.
The 1973 poll was unimportant, at least in any direct sense.
But the poll can perhaps now be seen as profoundly important in its implications and consequences, for two reasons.
First, this poll was the first referendum under a dedicated Act of the parliament of the United Kingdom, and this meant that it was far easier for the other referendums that followed.
Before 1973, there had been local polls by local councils on local matters in the United Kingdom, held under general and permissive Acts of Parliament that enabled local councils to hold such local polls on local matters.
But this border poll was different - radically different.
It was the first time a matter which would normally be for the parliament in Westminster (or the then Northern Irish parliament at Stormont) was put to the people directly, despite heady notions of parliamentary supremacy or sovereignty, in any or all of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
As this Substack has previously set out, senior British politicians since late Victorian times had sometimes called for referendums, usually to help them out of knotty problems.
But this was the first referendum to actually take place on a matter usually reserved for parliament.
As such, this was the first actual exception to the hitherto hard doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.
Other exceptions would soon follow.
Following this first dedicated referendum there was then the referendum in 1975 on the United Kingdom remaining part of the then European Communities, and then referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution in 1979.
And those referendums, in turn, meant that by the late 1990s referendums were seen as a valid means for dealing with renewed calls for devolution.
In 1998 a referendum was seen as the obvious means for endorsing the Good Friday Agreement.
Also, from the early 1990s, referendums were frequently demanded in respect of the European Union, and one was finally granted in 2016.
There was even a referendum on electoral reform.
Referendums went from being a constitutional exception to being, at least for certain matters, a constitutional rule.
Yet without the Border Poll of 1973 the referendums of 1975 and 1979 and many of those thereafter may never have taken place.
Perhaps the vote on the Good Friday Agreement would have still occurred, but even then the precedent of 1973 was perhaps instrumental in it being recognised that it was for the people of Northern Ireland (and not their politicians) to make this key decision.
After 1973 the old doctrine of parliamentary supremacy became undermined in reality, if not in strict constitutional theory.
There were certain matters which it became parliament should refer to the people.
Second, not only was the border poll an exception to one fundamental principle, it was also an important practical assertion of what was to become another fundamental principle.
For the border poll of 1973 was the first application of what is now a fundamental principle which can be stated as follows: that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide whether Northern Ireland is to become part of a unified island of Ireland or to remain part of the United Kingdom.
And note the reference here to “the people” - and thereby the decision is not for the politicians of Northern Ireland or any representative body, such as a Northern Ireland parliament.
This is significant.
The principle - which was first canvassed by the United Kingdom government in the late 1960s - informed and shaped what has happened in Northern Ireland since 1973, via the Good Friday Agreement, to the present day.
And it is this fundamental principle that explains why it is probable there will be a further border poll in Northern Ireland in the next few years.
The 1973 Border Poll, however, came about almost by accident, as one of many novel improvisations in a difficult political situation.
Here we need to go back to the United Kingdom’s Ireland Act of 1949 that provided that in no event would Northern Ireland cease to be part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the parliament of Northern Ireland.
It was a matter for the parliament of Northern Ireland, and not the Northern Irish people directly.
See section 1(2):
But by 1973 there was no parliament of Northern Ireland.
The parliament of Northern Ireland had been suspended.
And so when the government of the United Kingdom, facing the escalation of the Troubles, decided that there should be some affirmation of Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom a decision was made that there should be a direct poll instead.
What had been, under the 1949 Act, a matter for the elected parliament of Northern Ireland was, at a stroke, made a matter for the people of Northern Ireland directly.
The 1949 Act had not said the consent of the people was needed or even should ever be sought on the place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. It was not an issue for any popular vote.
But in 1973 it was made a matter for the people of Northern Ireland directly, and it has been ever since.
See section 1 of this 1973 Act, which followed the border poll:
And then section 1 of the 1998 Act that gave effect to the Good Friday Agreement:
Never again would an Act of Parliament say the place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom was a decision to be taken on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
So in terms of the immediate politics of 1973 the border poll may not have been important, but the use of a referendum for such a question was profound in its implications and consequences.
This post now sets out more fully the story of the 1973 referendum.
And as we approach a probable new border poll in Northern Ireland, it is a story that is perhaps worth knowing.