The 1973 Border Poll

On the 8th March 1973, the British government held a referendum in the north in which it asked voters to indicate their preference between two statements: “Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?” and “Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?” To date it is the only formal referendum that has asked voters to choose between these specific options.

The order for the vote, under the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act of 1972, was published on 24th January 1973. It included a provision for only a single counting centre so that results could not be analysed at a constituency level. The number of polling booths to be used for the election was reduced from 900 to around 380. Specific provision was made for postal voting that meant that anyone who was on the 1973 electoral register (for Stormont) was eligible to get a postal vote from an address in the UK only (essentially meaning that anyone who had fled over the border could not use an address in the south).

The poll, which had been vaguely promised when Stormont was prorogued and direct rule introduced (in March 1972), was almost immediately dismissed as a pointless exercise. Even British Labour party MPs had been critical of the reduction in polling stations and suppression of constituency level results. The announcement had followed a Green Paper from William Whitelaw on ‘The Future of Northern Ireland‘, which was to be followed by a White Paper (but not until after the poll). Membership of the EEC and its opportunities for cross-border co-operation were also part of the public debate at the time Whitelaw announced the Border Poll would take place.

As the poll was announced, the Nationalist Party and Republican Labour confirmed that they would be calling for a boycott of the Border Poll. The SDLP followed suit in late January, also calling on voters to register for postal votes to ensure they weren’t impersonated at a polling station. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had followed suit by 30th January criticising the simplified questions being asked in the poll. It also pointed out the position being taken by the Alliance Party in supporting the poll, questioning the wisdom of it falling into the same camp as the Unionists and Ulster Vanguard, although it expected Alliance to do “…much soul searching, leading ultimately to abstentions…” (see The Irish Times, 31st January 1973). Whatever soul searching Alliance did, it openly campaigned for the UK option in the poll. Political parties in the south were also dismissive of the poll. The IRA studiously ignored the Border Poll, with little mention in Republican News.

Like the Alliance, the NI Labour Party openly supported the UK option in the Border Poll, but were taken aback in a meeting with the British Labour Party in mid-February when they were criticised by some for not supporting a united Ireland. In the week before polling, as the extent of the boycott became evident in the numbers of applications for postal votes, the debate shifted on to how a result should be interpreted. Given the lack of official status of any referendum result, the poll became largely an exercise in measuring the unionist vote. In the days before voting, the nationalist MP Frank McManus noted that when a similar poll had been held in Malta, the result was dismissed as the turnout was below 50% (see Irish Times, 6th March 1973). In the same days, Brian Faulkner and other unionists were indicating that they would be disappointed if less than 550,000, or under 50% of the total electorate did not vote for the UK option. John Taylor had suggested on television that they needed to get 100% of Protestants and 20% of Catholics to vote for the UK option to demonstrate support for the union (that would be roughly 725,000 votes).

Given the electorate of 1,030,000, that 550,000 target wasn’t overly ambitious. The parties campaigning for votes for the UK option, the likes of the Unionist Party, Ulster Vanguard, NI Labour had got around 567,500 votes in the 1970 elections to Westminster (when there was 5,000 less on the electoral register). Alliance, which hadn’t contested the election in 1970, were to receive between 66,000 and 98,000 votes in two further elections in 1973 (in both cases overall turnout was lower than it had been in 1970). The paradox for unionists lay in the quasi-democratic nature of the UK where a referendum had not actual standing, and, that the number of actual voters could now be conflated with support for the union, meaning even a sizeable win for the UK option, if below 50% of the electorate, could actually be represented as rejection of the union.

Republican News cartoon, 3rd March 1973.

Just as counting of ballots was undertaken at one centre only, there wasn’t even official reporting of turnout in each constituency. So only some anecdotal references give  hints of the turnout. The day after the vote, The Irish Times suggested that it was believed that 1% of Catholics had voted in Derry and reported that unionists believed that overall turnout among Protestants was at 90%. Given that many people questioned the activity of unionist observers inside the polling stations (in some cases it was claimed they even were openly ‘assisting’ election staff), that figure may reflect detailed knowledge of who was marked as having voted on the electoral registers. The Strabane Chronicle of 17th March 1973 reported that; “In Omagh, several hundred Unionist voters went to the polling booth for the predominantly Catholic West ward, or about one-fifth of those entitled to vote on that day. About 40% of the population had postal votes. There was a very large turnout however at the booths for the other two wards in the town, the mainly Protestant South and North wards. In several areas, namely in the Carrickmore and Aghyaran areas and at some booths in the Strabane district, the turn-out of voters, was in single figures.” The high proportion of postal votes was reflected elsewhere, such as Fermanagh, where a huge number had reportedly applied for postal votes. In both cases, this was presumably to prevent impersonation.

The formal result was that 591,820 voted for the UK option, while 6,463 voted for the United Ireland option. Politically, the number of voters who came out for the unionists later in 1973 didn’t exceed 450,000. The likes of Alliance and NI Labour combined in the later elections in 1973 got between 66,000 and 98,000 votes. The success metrics suggested by likes of Faulkener before the poll appear to have been met only by Alliance and NI Labour supporters bolstering the  mainstream unionist vote. The result didn’t come near John Taylor’s suggestion of 725,000 votes.

Bob Cooper  (Alliance) claimed the result justified Alliance’s stand, and insisted that  substantial number of Catholics had come out and voted for the UK option. In the 1971 census figures, though, the 591,820 would equate to about 91% of the non-Catholic population. While it is obviously too simplistic to insist that voting and the boycott were observed solely along religious lines, it does make Cooper’s justification appear implausibly weak. Ironically, the main outcome of Alliance and NI Labour support for the UK option in the Border Poll was in providing sufficient additional votes to allow Faulkner and the unionists to claim a victory of sorts.

Republican News (17th March 1973) was particularly scathing of both after the Border Poll, referring to them as the “…flag-waverers of the Alliance Party and NI Labour.” It also reported, “Mixed-Up Kids. Once upon a time we had the Unionists. Now we have the Alliance Unionists, Labour Unionists, Democratic-Unionists, Faulkner-Unionists, LAW-Unionists, Vanguard-Unionists, NUM-Unionists.”

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