Northern Ireland (Border Poll)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1972.

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The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson , Bradford West

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a further statement on the timing and implementation of the plebiscite in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Lawrence Orr Mr Lawrence Orr , South Down

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects to announce the date of the Northern Ireland border poll.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

Last Thursday the Border Poll Act received the Royal Assent. When I moved the Second Reading I said that, subject to the approval of the House and of Parliament, the poll would be held as early in the New Year as the legislative processes, and the requirements of organisation and printing, will allow".[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1972; Vol. 846, c. 1092.] I have now received firm advice from those responsible for the conduct of the poll—the under sheriffs and the electoral registration officers—that because of the detailed and complex arrangements which must be made for the poll, they could not guarantee its efficient conduct before February, the month in which the new electoral register is to be published.

The Electoral Advisory Committee has given me firm advice that, in view of the movements of population which have taken place since the old register was prepared, so important a poll should be conducted on the up-to-date register, which will be available not later than 16th February. If the poll were held on the new register, the earliest practicable date would be 8th March, bearing in mind the need to extend the facilities for postal voting because the number of polling stations may have to be restricted for security reasons.

After careful examination of all the administrative considerations and the advice tendered to me by the under sheriffs, the registration officers and the EAC I have decided that Thursday 8th March will be the designated day for the poll. A draft order providing that the poll will be on that date is being laid today.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson , Bradford West

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that statement and thank him for the very detailed answer he has given? In particular, I applaud the timing and the fact that the new register will be employed. The poll will take place when the nights are shorter and when the security situation is therefore a little easier. May we have an assurance that the intervening time will be used to the maximum to undertake an effective counter-terrorist campaign, particularly now that the IRA is using rocket-launchers? We are acutely aware that these weapons, which have been used to great effect against military targets, could be used to affect the plebiscite. Will the Secretary of State also ensure that the White Paper is published after the plebiscite, as it could complicate the issue?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

The campaign by the security forces against terrorism must be pursued unremittingly whatever political movements or actions are taking place, and it will be. As for the timing, I believe this to be the earliest practicable date in view of all the considerations which must be taken into account. The security arrangements for the poll are very important. The House will agree that the poll must be seen to be efficiently conducted, and also that it is important to make sure of the correct timing. I can give no commitment about publication of the White Paper. My discussions with the parties concerned, with individuals, and with organisations are still continuing, and the Government will publish the White Paper when they have come to the right conclusions.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Is the Secretary of State aware that while we have great doubts about the scope of the border poll we welcome the date announced, particularly because it conforms with the view that we put during the Second Reading of the Bill and in Committee, and for practical electoral reasons, including the need to use the latest register. I should point out that we read the news in the newspapers this morning. Does the Secretary of State recall that we suggested that if the poll was conducted in March it would make it easier for the White Paper on the future of Northern Ireland to come first? We hope that our views will accord on that when it is published.

I have two questions on the border. What publicity will be given, and by whom, to the people of Northern Ireland explaining the procedure for and the questions in the poll? Can the Secretary of State assure us that on 8th March and in the days before there will be adequate and extra security arrangements to protect the voters and the polling booths? We understand that that will be the case.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I, too, read in the newspapers this morning that the poll was to be conducted in March. I do not think that I read that it would be on 8th March. Of course, maximum publicity will be given to the poll and to the arrangements for it, because the Government are naturally most anxious to ensure that all those who are entitled to vote should be given every opportunity to do so—and that applies to the security arrangements as well. As I have made clear, the Government have undertaken no commitment as to the date of publication of the White Paper. I have learned in dealing with the affairs of Northern Ireland that the fewer commitments one makes the better, and I am making no commitment about this.

Photo of Mr Stanley McMaster Mr Stanley McMaster , Belfast East

The decision to hold a late poll in March will be welcomed generally in Northern Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to provide adequate security, as certain Republicans have said that they will boycott the poll? Will there be sufficient troops to prevent intimidation? May I add my voice to the representations made about the White Paper? If it is published before the poll this will only confuse the issue.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about the date of the poll. Although he described it as a late poll, I firmly believe that this is the earliest practicable date in the New Year which could have been selected, bearing in mind particularly the new register.

I have made clear already where we stand about security. Of course we shall do everything we can to provide proper security for the poll. I note what my hon. Friend said about the White Paper but I have nothing to add to what I have already made clear on that point.

Photo of Mr Dick Douglas Mr Dick Douglas , Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire

The Secretary of State is faced with a very difficult decision. Has he considered closing licensed premises on the day of the poll?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I should say that I am always prepared to consider closing licensed premises, but I have not considered it yet. I will consider the matter. I shall also consider the hours of polling on the day. The Government are determined to ensure that the poll is conducted under the best possible auspices and is seen to be done efficiently in the eyes of the world. That we shall ensure.