Peter Geoghegan looks back at another referendum when nationalist opinion was ignored by Westminster – with the vote producing a far from clear and decisive result
“DO YOU want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?” Doubtless it’s the kind of phrasing David Cameron had in mind when he demanded a “fair, clear and decisive question” on Scottish independence earlier this week. But the Tory leader would do well to reflect on the last time Westminster ignored nationalist opposition to put such a formulation to the vote in a referendum on the constitutional future of a member of the United Kingdom – in Northern Ireland, in 1973.
The so-called Border Poll, conducted across Northern Ireland on 8 March, 1973, certainly asked a clear question: should the North stay in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. And it produced a decisive result. On a respectable-looking 58 per cent turnout, a whopping 98.92 per cent voted to retain the status quo.
But on Cameron’s fairness criterion, the Border Poll was altogether less clear and decisive. That January, as sectarian violence raged across Northern Ireland, the eminently sensible SDLP leader Gerry Fitt called on his (predominantly moderate) supporters “to ignore completely the referendum and reject this extremely irresponsible decision by the British government”. The Catholic/nationalist population boycotted the vote en masse, while the Irish Republican Army vowed to disrupt the ballot. In the end, one soldier was killed in the days leading up to the referendum and a paltry 6,463 supported a united Ireland.
Scotland today is not, thankfully, Northern Ireland four decades ago, but the perils of London interference in a plebiscite on sovereignty should not be lost on Westminster panjandrums. Scottish Nationalists are a long way from issuing a boycott for a referendum many have spent a lifetime campaigning for, but continued dictating of terms by a Conservative prime minister with scant mandate north of the Border could change that.
Somewhat surprisingly, there has been precious little consideration of what, if any, effect all this talk of independence in Scotland might have across the Irish Sea. Given its strong cultural and historical ties with Ireland, and particularly Ulster and indeed unionism, any move by Scotland away from the United Kingdom could provoke something of an existentialist crisis among Northern Irish unionists, and even nationalists.
Northern Ireland’s constitutional future is, in many respects, still unsettled. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, is essentially a constitutional holding position, enshrining the aspirations of nationalists and unionists, while binding both to the wishes of the majority. With the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger and Northern Ireland’s own economic travails, the future of the Irish wing of the Union appears secure – but it is built on relatively soft sands.
The results of last year’s census aren’t expected until the summer, but other indicators suggest that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing more quickly than the Protestant. Conventional wisdom posits that such a rise will lead to increased support for nationalism and, eventually, Irish reunification.
According to the 2001 census, just over 53 per cent of the Northern Ireland populace hails from a Protestant background, 44 per cent from a Catholic background, with the remainder of a non-religious background, or other Christian and non-Christian faiths. However, figures obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister suggest that these demographics might be shifting. In 2009-10, Queen’s University in Belfast had 8,710 Northern Ireland resident students from a Catholic background, compared with 6,740 from a Protestant faith. The contrast was even more extreme in the University of Ulster, which had 11,070 Catholics and 7,020 Protestants spread across its four campuses.
As reported in the Irish Times recently, this trend is equally pronounced in second-level education, where factors such as leaving Northern Ireland to attend university in Britain do not come into play. Data released by Northern Ireland’s department of education, showed that, in 2010-11, there were 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics in the North’s schools.
Birth rates are a hoary subject in Northern Ireland. When Republicans dropped their boycott of the census at the end of the Troubles, the question of whether nationalists might breed their way to a united Ireland became a hot topic, replete with tired stereotypes about the size of Catholic families. The run-up to the 2001 census featured a wealth of over-heated headlines: “Catholic Boom: Census shows Protestants will be minority in ten years”; “Nationalists will become majority’’; “Unionists filled with foreboding at loss of influence”.
Then, when the eventual figures revealed a smaller than envisaged Catholic population, it became a matter of “Census blow to republican hopes” and “United Ireland disappointed”.
In reality, the sectarian headcount has been a less useful heuristic for voting intentions than many assume: significant numbers of Protestants and, more commonly, Catholics have voted for nationalist and unionist parties respectively. The latest findings from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, released last summer, show the latter tendency strengthening – 52 per cent of Catholics polled were in favour of remaining in the UK; only 4 per cent of Protestants supported union with the Republic of Ireland. In total, a large majority, 73 per cent, backed the union with Britain.
Indeed in June, the first minister, Peter Robinson – who was so vehemently opposed to power-sharing with Catholics in 1986 that he led 500 loyalists to invade the village of Clontibret in the Irish Republic in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement – set out a vision for transforming those erstwhile naysayers, the Democratic Unionist Party, into a cross-community force.
“My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else,” Robinson wrote, noting that “support for a united Ireland has dropped to an all-time low of some 16 per cent”.
Looked at from Castle Buildings at Stormont, the Union seems in rude health. Buttressed slightly from the economic ill-winds blowing a gale across the border and reliant on Exchequer support to the tune of some £6 billion per annum, Northern Ireland – and many Northern Irish Catholics – have a significant investment in the British state. In the leafy suburbs, middle-class mixing is slowly breaking down many of the old sectarian barriers, disrupting the Orange-Green dichotomy that has dominated mindsets for generations.
It would take a seismic event to alter Northern Ireland’s constitutional status… say, Scottish independence. The independence debate has already put the prospect of a break-up of the UK on the table in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. If Scots were to go it alone, Northern Ireland would find itself culturally and geographically isolated inside a truncated Union with a decidedly uncertain future.
Scotland and Ireland will always be close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km. A pan-Celtic union, encompassing independent Scotland and both sides of the Irish border, has some form: the ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched all the way from Skye to Antrim during the 6th and 7th centuries, reaching its apogee at the great monastic settlement of Iona.
A new Dalriada is a fantastical, prospect, but in the event of Scottish independence the status quo in Northern Ireland is unlikely to suffice, for both endogenous and exogenous reasons. It’s hard to imagine an increasingly confident Catholic population retaining long-term support for a Union reduced to just England and Wales (and equally difficult to conceive of any huge desire on London’s part to retain control in Belfast).
The result of the 1973 Northern Ireland referendum was a foregone conclusion. Now the clamour for Scottish independence could have unintended consequences for political life on both sides of the Irish Sea. One thing is certain: next time the future of the Union is put to a vote, the outcome won’t be anywhere near as clear-cut as it was almost 40 years ago.