Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973
The Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum of 1973 (also known as the Border Poll) was a referendum held in Northern Ireland on 8 March 1973 on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join with the Republic of Ireland to form a united Ireland. It was the first time that a major referendum had been held in a region of the United Kingdom.
The Unionist parties supported the 'UK' option, as did the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. However, the Alliance Party was also critical of the poll. While it supported the holding of periodic plebiscites on the constitutional link with Great Britain, the party felt that to avoid the border poll becoming a "sectarian head count", it should ask other relevant questions such as whether the people supported the UK's White Paper on Northern Ireland.
On 23 January 1973, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) called on its members "to ignore completely the referendum and reject this extremely irresponsible decision by the British Government". Gerry Fitt, leader of the SDLP, said he had organised a boycott to stop an escalation in violence.
The civil authorities were prepared for violence on polling day. They had put in place mobile polling stations which could be rushed into use if there was bomb damage to scheduled poll buildings. Two days before the referendum a British soldier, Guardsman Anton Brown of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards was shot dead in Belfast as the army searched for weapons and explosives which could be used to disrupt the upcoming referendum.
The electorate were asked to indicate:
- "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?"
- Electorate: 1,030,084 (in 1973)
- Total votes: 604,256 (58.66% of Electorate)
- Valid votes: 598,283 (99.01% of Total votes)
- Spoiled votes: 5,973 (0.99% of Total votes)
- Non-voters: 425,828 (41.34% of Electorate)
The vote resulted in an overwhelming majority of those who voted stating they wished to remain in the UK. The nationalist boycott contributed to a turnout of only 58.7% of the electorate. In addition to taking a majority of votes cast, the UK option received the support of 57.5% of the total electorate. According to the BBC, less than 1% of the Catholic population turned out to vote.
The Government of the United Kingdom took no action on receipt of the referendum result, as the result was in favour of the status quo (Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK). It was followed by an Assembly election on 28 June 1973.
Brian Faulkner, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland claimed the result left "no doubt in any one's mind what the wishes of Ulster's people are. Despite an attempted boycott by some, almost 600,000 electors voted for the maintenance of the union with Great Britain." He also claimed that the poll showed that a "quarter of the [N.I.] Catholic population who voted... voted for the maintenance of the union" and that the result was a "blow .... against IRA [Provisional Irish Republican Army] mythology".
- The Times, 16 January 1973
- "BBC ON THIS DAY | 9 | 1973: Northern Ireland votes for union". BBC News. 9 March 1973. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
- The Times, 6 March 1973
- Exact wording of the two questions, as set out by The Times, March 5, 1973
- Whyte, Nicholas. "The Referendums of 1973 and 1975". Retrieved 27 January 2012.
- The Times, 12 March 1973