The Northern Ireland Constitution (1974)
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
Government Reports and Acts
The Northern Ireland Constitution
Published in London by,
ISBN 0 10 156750 2
Crown copyright material has been reproduced under licence from the
Controller of Her Majesty's Stationary Office.
1. About one-and-a-half million people live in Northern Ireland.
History produced a divided community and has led it to have divided
views about its form of government. The whole community has not
yet found a way of living and working together. Northern Ireland
is a part of the United Kingdom and Parliament has the ultimate
responsibility for its future. By the efforts of the people themselves,
and with the help and encouragement of the nation as a whole,
Northern Ireland has made in recent years significant economic
advances. But the bright prospects this created for future economic
progress have been clouded by political instability and violence.
In the past five years over 1,000 people-men, women and children;
soldiers, policemen and civilians-have died by violent means.
There has been great, continuous and widespread suffering and
2. In that same period, Northern Ireland has experienced four different patterns of government:-
(b) "direct rule" under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972, with the Government of Northern Ireland suspended and its Parliament prorogued, executive powers exercised by a Secretary of State and laws made by Order in Council, from March 1972 to January 1 1974;
(c) a new system of devolution of powers to an Assembly and Executive under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, from January to May 1974; and, since then
(d) discharge of functions of that Executive under the Constitution Act by Northern Ireland Office Ministers, with the Assembly prorogued.
4. Expenditure in Northern Ireland has increased significantly
in recent years and has required an increased subvention from
the Westminster Exchequer over and above Northern Ireland's share
of taxation. In 1969-70 this subvention (excluding loans) amounted
to about 16 per cent of Northern Ireland's public expenditure
and in 1973-74 to about 36 per cent.
5. The achievement of peace and political stability in Northern
Ireland requires a major contribution by the people of Northern
Ireland themselves. When the fear and instability of these wasted
years is ended the Army will be relieved of its present role.
44. Since the fall of the Executive, the Secretary of State for
Northern Ireland has had extensive discussions with political
leaders, with leaders from many other walks of life, and with
representatives from a number of groups and interests. It is
clear from these discussions that many people would welcome the
chance of seeing whether they could resolve the problems of Northern
Ireland themselves. The people of Northern Ireland must play
a crucial part in determining their own future. No political
structure can endure without their support and no just and stable
society can be created without their full participation. Political
structures should not be confused with political relationships.
If the Northern Ireland community can reach a broad consensus
of agreement any one of a number of possible patterns of government
might well be workable. If agreement is not reached, the troubles
iii Northern Ireland will not only remain but could intensify.
No-one will be able to turn this defeat into a victory. That
45. It is only part of the reality which must also include recognition of a number of facts:-
(b) any pattern of government must be acceptable to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole and to Parliament at Westminster. Citizenship confers not only rights and privileges but also obligations;
(c) Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, shares a common land frontier and a special relationship with another country, the Republic of Ireland. Any political arrangements must recognise and provide for this special relationship. There is an Irish dimension.
47. The temporary arrangements for the government of Northern
Ireland outlined in paragraphs 31 to 33 above offer no permanent
solution. The Government believes it would now be right, as a
first stage in further consideration of Northern Ireland's future,
to provide a forum in which elected representatives of the people
of Northern Ireland may have the widest possible discussions with
the aim of determining what measure of agreement can be reached
among themselves. No possible solution need be excluded from
such discussions but any proposed solution must recognise the
realities outlined above. Moreover, a majority does not have
the right to impose its will in all circumstances; nor does a
minority have any absolute right to veto. For its part, the Government
must weigh respect for majorities and protection for minorities.
48. The Government continues to believe that the best and most desirable basis for political progress in Northern Ireland would be the establishment of local institutions enjoying broadly-based support throughout the community. It has always been recognised that there is no means to impose such a system upon Northern Ireland if substantial sections of its population are determined to oppose it. Indeed, the final paragraph of the White Paper of March 1973 (Cmnd. 5259) included these words:
50. Against this background the Government proposes to introduce
legislation for the election of a Constitutional Convention, to
consider what provisions for the government of Northern Ireland
would be likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout
the community there.
51. The legislation will provide for the Convention to be based
upon the constituencies and the methods of election prescribed
by the Northern Ireland Assembly Act 1973. It will accordingly
consist of 78 members, elected on a multi-member basis from the
12 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland by the Single
Transferable Vote system.
52. The Convention will be required to make a report or reports
on its conclusions which will be laid before Parliament. It will
be dissolved on the date of laying its final report, or six months
from the date of its first meeting, whichever is the earlier;
but the dissolution may be postponed or further postponed by order
subject to parliamentary control for periods not exceeding three
months at a time. Provision will also be made for re-convening
the Convention within six months of its dissolution, if it appears
desirable that any matter should be considered or further considered.
53. The Government proposes that there should be an independent
Chairman of the Convention, a person of high standing and impartiality
from Northern Ireland. He will not be a member of the Convention.
The appointment will be made by Her Majesty the Queen. Provision
will be made for him to have any necessary supporting staff, who
would also be available to assist any group or groups of members
of the Convention if this were so desired. It will, of course,
be open to any member or group in the Convention to obtain other
advice from any quarter they wish.
54. The intention is that the Convention will be entirely a forum
for elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Government will play no part in its proceedings but will,
of course, be willing to make available factual information and
to assist the Convention in any way which is likely to bring its
deliberations to a successful conclusion.
55. In the event of the Convention producing recommendations which
command majority and widespread support from its members, the
Government will give the most serious consideration to them.
In any event, it may prove to be desirable for the Government
to test directly the opinion of the Northern Ireland electorate
on their attitude to particular or to alternative proposals before
any course is recommended to Parliament. The proposed legislation
will therefore make provision for the Secretary of State to direct
the holding of a referendum or referenda on questions arising
out of the work of the Convention.
56. In short, the Government proposes that the following steps should be taken in order to allow the fullest discussion of the future:-
(b) a consultative Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention to be elected, to consider what provisions for the government of Northern Ireland would be likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there;
(c) the Convention to have an independent Chairman and 78 members
elected under the Single Transferable Vote procedure;
(d) the Government to lay the Convention's Report before Parliament and also the results of any referendum.
57. It has become clear during recent discussions in Northern
Ireland that many people will welcome an opportunity of this kind.
This belief has been strengthened by a new awareness in the Protestant
and Catholic working class of their real interests and by their
wish to play a real part in political activity. It is clear that
adequate time for preparation is needed. Indeed, in recent months,
various groups within the Northern Ireland community have shown
an increased desire to participate in the political processes
and a growing belief that they can best find for themselves political
relationships which will be acceptable to them. The Government
believes it essential that participation in these processes should
take place not only between like-minded groups, but equally between
groups which hold apparently strongly opposed views. Some time
is required for political groupings to emerge and develop, to
engage in discussion with other parties and interests, and to
clarify but not foreclose their positions. The Government considers
that this process of discussion and consultation is a necessary
preliminary to the holding of the election of members to the Constitutional
Convention. It would not, therefore, propose to hold an immediate
or early election and would aim to give about four weeks' notice
of an election. In the meantime, Her Majesty's Government would
hope that the process of discussion and consultation leading to
an election to the Convention would develop on as wide a basis
58. Her Majesty's Government believes that these proposals offer
a new opportunity to all the people of Northern Ireland to contribute
directly, and in their own way, to the solution of their own problems.
The need is for a joint and stable society. It can be achieved
by the people of Northern Ireland with their awareness of the
realities of the situation. Failure will bring defeat to all.
Success will bring the only real victory.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
Last modified :