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'subject to subsection (3) below'.

The First Deputy Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 106, in page 1, line 15, at end add--


'(3) For the purposes of subsection (2) above, "majority" means a majority of 60 per cent. of those voting in such a poll.'.

Mr. Trimble: The issues touched on in amendments Nos. 104 and 106 are similar to those raised in the previous debate, so I shall try to be as brief as possible. Too much time has already been taken. The point has been made, and I want to underline it, that there is a contradiction between the terms of the agreement, which at so many points put an emphasis on

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consensus--in particular, building into the operation of the new institutions in Northern Ireland the weighted majorities and consent within both the nationalists and the Unionists--and a simple majority provision for a border poll on more important issues. It is right to draw attention to those matters. As was said in the previous debate, that has been the position for some time. The concept of a border poll has existed since 1972, and prior to that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland rested on the consent of the elected representatives. As was pointed out, that extended back to the Ireland Act 1949. Indeed, it goes back to the 1922 Irish Free State (Agreement) Act. To that extent, the Act of Union (Ireland) was modified in 1922, and since then we have been living with the possibility of fundamental constitutional change if the people of Northern Ireland, either through their elected representatives or in a poll, should so desire. While it has been the position since 1972-73 that the status could change if there were a vote, the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) made the apt point that up until now all those border polls have been non-binding. Indeed, until now, all the referendums that have been held in the United Kingdom have not been binding. Clause 1(2) will introduce an obligation on the Secretary of State to make proposals to Parliament to give effect to the results of a referendum. As the clause will place an obligation on the Secretary of State, and therefore make the referendum binding, I thought that it would be appropriate to examine the matter more closely. There is another reason for focusing on clause 1(2). On my reading of clause 1 and of schedule 1, polls held for the purpose of schedule 1 clearly would not be confined--as some Committee members have suggested--to the question whether Northern Ireland should be transferred to the Republic of Ireland. It is quite clear that--provided that the issue of leaving the United Kingdom is raised--any number of questions could be asked in a poll. Schedule 1 is quite clear on that point. An obligation would be placed on the Secretary of State only when the question arises of going into an all-Ireland state. I therefore thought that it would be appropriate to examine more closely the matter of "a majority".

9.15 pm

In the Assembly's operation, under the concept of cross-community support, we will use a weighted majority of 60 per cent. It is therefore appropriate also to raise the issue of such a majority in a poll. The effect of the amendments is such that only if there is a majority of 60 per cent. in favour of going into an all-Ireland state would there be an obligation on the Secretary of State to introduce proposals. If there were a majority of between 50 and 60 per cent., deciding what to do would be a matter of judgment and of the Government's and the Secretary of State's discretion. They might still wish to give effect to it; they might not.

The provision deals only with the matter of being under an obligation to come to the House and to effect the terms of border polls. In terms of British constitutional development, it is an unprecedented step. In clause 1(2), the Government are taking a further significant step in the development of the United Kingdom constitution, by making the results of a referendum binding on the Government.

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It is therefore appropriate to examine more closely the concept of majority, and to operate, by analogy with the agreement's other provisions, a 60 per cent. weighted majority.

Mr. Peter Robinson: My amendment No. 140 would have a similar impact to those tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I have worked out mathematically how, in the referendum--which was a poll of about 81 per cent. of the electorate--a simple majority under his amendments would have been about the same as under my amendment. There is therefore not a great mathematical difference in the outcome of our amendments.

The amendments tabled by me and by the right hon. Gentleman would further draw to the House's attention the issue that we debated when dealing with the previous group of amendments--that deciding a poll to go into a united Ireland on the basis of a simple majority would be a recipe for violence and disaster. Every member of the Committee can visualise and knows that that would be the outcome, yet the Bill contains provisions that--if such a majority were to be achieved at some stage in the future--would bring about that disaster .

My amendment would be better in two ways than those tabled by the right hon. Gentleman. First, my amendment is more consistent with the wording of the agreement, which states:


My amendment is very clear. It refers to a majority of those who are on the electoral register and not simply a majority of those who come out to vote. Indeed, one can visualise circumstances in which a majority in a referendum called for the purposes of making a determination on the issue could represent a significant minority of the people of Northern Ireland. In the circumstances that I outlined earlier, in which a simple majority would cause chaos and disaster, clearly a minority voting for a united Ireland--perhaps a majority of those who came out to vote, but a minority of the people of Northern Ireland--would clearly cause considerable violence in our community and would not produce a peaceful way forward.

The second reason why I believe that my amendment is better is that it is consistent with precedent. There is the precedent of the referendums in Scotland and Wales in which the Government recognised that it was not sufficient to have a simple majority deciding an important constitutional issue, so a majority of the electorate of Scotland and Wales was required to effect such a change.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is aware that, on this occasion, the Welsh referendum made no such stipulation and a decision was made by a simple majority of those who voted.

Mr. Robinson: Earlier today, we saw something of the outcome of that. However, in previous referendums in Scotland and Wales the proposition that I am putting forward was the position.

Dr. Godman: When the hon. Gentleman refers to Scotland, is he talking about the referendum in 1979,

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with its weighted majority provision? May I point out to him that that decision, because of the weighted majority, left great disaffection and resentment throughout Scotland? The last referendum on 11 September 1997 was an entirely different affair.

Mr. Robinson: The hon. Gentleman will accept that the result was entirely different, too. If a majority of those voting in Northern Ireland voted for a united Ireland, but they represented a minority of the electorate and the people of Northern Ireland, there would certainly be very bitter resentment.

Under the wording of the agreement, it is not inconsistent for the Government to accept my amendment. It refers to


As that is not defined in the terms of the agreement, it is open to the Government to define it. My amendment states:


    "For the avoidance of doubt, in subsection (1) . . . 'the majority of the people of Northern Ireland' means an absolute majority of all those people who, on the date on which a poll is held under this section, would be entitled to vote as electors at a local election in a district electoral area in Northern Ireland."

Mr. McNamara: I was in the House at the time of the vote on a weighted majority in the Scottish referendum. It was a Labour amendment to a Government Bill and was carried with the support of the Unionist Tory party. It was a decision of the House that the Government of the day, who no longer had a majority, had to accept. However, it would be quite wrong to suggest that the present Labour Government--or even the Labour Government at the time--had embraced the Cunningham amendment and forced it on the people of Scotland in the way that has been suggested. It was accepted only in order to give the people of Scotland at least an opportunity to voice their opinion.

Anyone who was in the House at the time will remember the bitterness that the amendment engendered, not only in Scotland but generally, about English Members seeking to impose certain conditions on the people of Scotland.

Dr. Godman rose--

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. We seem to be discussing the situation in Scotland too much. It is all right to mention it in passing, but we should keep within the terms of the amendment, which are narrower than that. Does the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) want to intervene?


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