With calls for a border poll in the air, how did we get to this position?
Ireland was partitioned in 1920 when the 1920 Government of Ireland Act was passed by the British parliament. This effectively introduced double Home Rule with a parliament in Belfast for the 6 counties and a parliament in Dublin for the 26. Only the Northern Ireland Home Rule took effect - that of the South was superseded by events we are all aware of.
Link: Government of Ireland Act 1920 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 (section 11) gave the Northern Ireland Parliament one month to decide on whether to be part of the Irish Free State.
11. Until the expiration of one month from the passing of the Act of Parliament for the ratification of this instrument, the powers of the Parliament and the Government of the Irish Free State shall not be exercisable as respects Northern Ireland, and the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, shall, so far as they relate to Northern Ireland remain of full force and effect, and no election shall be held for the return of members to serve in the Parliament of the Irish Free State for constituencies in Northern Ireland, unless a resolution is passed by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in favour of the holding of such elections before the end of the said month.
Interesting to note that the decision on partition was taken entirely within Ireland by Irish people - the double parliamentary votes are replicated almost exactly by the double referendums envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement of 1997.
The Dáil approved the Treaty by 64 votes to 57 on 7 January 1923 and the Northern Ireland parliament voted to opt out on the 7th December 1922.
Dáil Debates on the Treaty: Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922
Northern Ireland debate: The Stormont Papers - View Volumes
Text of Anglo Irish Treaty: Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Series: Anglo-Irish Treaty: Text of.
The 1949 Ireland Act, passed by the UK Parliament after the declaration of a Republic by the Irish government, included the following section, reaffirming that it was the Parliament of Northern Ireland that had the right to decide on Irish unity:-
s. 1(2) – Declared that all of Northern Ireland would continue as part of the United Kingdom, and would remain within the Commonwealth, unless the Parliament of Northern Ireland consented otherwise.
Link: Ireland Act 1949 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
on On 8th March 1973, a referendum was held in the 6 counties. The referendum was boycotted by nationalists and the result was a 99% vote in favour of Northern Ireland remaining within the UK on a 57% turnout. The Northern Ireland parliament was suspended on 30th March 1972 and Direct Rule from London introduced.
Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The 1973 Northern Ireland Constitution act (which became law on 18 July 1973) abolished the old Northern Ireland parliament. The guarantee that the Northern Ireland parliament could decide on Irish unity was replaced by the following guarantee:-
It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of Her Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom, and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part of it cease to be part of Her Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1 to this Act.
Link: Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The 1997 Good Friday agreement endorsed the use of the referendum as a means of deciding on whether Northern Ireland should leave the UK and unite with the Republic.
(i) recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland;
The GFA also included a requirement that a referendum in the 6 counties be organised if it appeared likely that there would be a majority in favour of a united Ireland.
2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
The current calls for a Border poll are certainly unjustified under the Good Friday Agreement - these is quite clearly no likelihood of a majority vote for a united Ireland in the 6 counties at the moment. Possibly the two governments should clarify the conditions which would lead to a referendum. Perhaps the following conditions could be considered:
a) nationalist parties winning more vote or seats at an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly
b) a vote in favour of a referendum by a majority of MLAs at Stormont
It is interesting to speculate on how different things would be today if a referendum was not required and if Stormont still retained the power to vote for a united Ireland. In theory, the fact that the constitutional position of the 6 counties is to be determined by referendum should allow for the development of "normal" politics in the North - but there is not much sign of that happening.