CAIN Web Service

The Northern Ireland Constitution (1974)

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
Government Reports and Acts

Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The Northern Ireland Constitution
Presented to Parliament
by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
by Command of Her Majesty,
July 1974

Published in London by,

ISBN 0 10 156750 2
Cmnd. 5675

Copyright notice:

Crown copyright material has been reproduced under licence from the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationary Office.
End-Users may access the Material and download it onto electronic, magnetic, optical or similar storage media provided that such activities are for private research, study or in-house use only.
End-Users must not copy, distribute, sell or publish the material.



Part 1


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 destruction.

2. In that same period, Northern Ireland has experienced four different patterns of government:-

    (a) devolution of powers to the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, up to March 1972;

    (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.

3. The main impact of this violence and political instability has been upon the people of Northern Ireland themselves, but the United Kingdom as a whole has also had burdens to bear. Recognising the "ultimate responsibility for the protection of those who live in Northern Ireland" to which the Downing Street Declaration of August 1969 referred, successive Governments have committed large numbers of troops to keep the peace, involving them in a policing as well as a strictly military role. In August 1969 there were only 2,500 stationed in Northern Ireland. This figure rose to 22,500 by the end of July 1972 and has never been fewer than 14,500 since that time. From August 1969 to the end of June 1974, 216 soldiers of the Regular Army and 44 of the locally-recruited Ulster Defence Regiment have been killed on duty, as well as 46 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and 8 of the RUC Reserve.

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.

Part 7


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 is reality.

45. It is only part of the reality which must also include recognition of a number of facts:-

    (a) history has caused divisions within the Northern Ireland community. Events of the past few years have amply demonstrated that no part of that community can, let alone should, be coerced into accepting the others' view. Events have also shown that a consensus can be obtained on the basis of serving the interests of the whole community. There must be some form of power-sharing and partnership because no political system will survive, or be supported, unless there is widespread acceptance of it within the community. There must be participation by the whole community;

    (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.

46. it would be premature at this stage to say that the approach embodied in the Constitution Act 1973 is untenable. Indeed, much of the content of that Act is not a matter for dispute. What is apparent is that there is little prospect of forming from the present Northern Ireland Assembly another Executive which meets the terms of that Act.

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:

    "These, then, are the Government's proposals to Parliament, to the country, and above all to the people of Northern Ireland themselves for a way forward out of the present violence and instability. At every point, they require the co-operation of these people themselves if they are to have any prospect of success. They can be frustrated if interests in Northern Ireland refuse to allow them to be tried or if any section of the community is determined to impose its will on another."
49. Local institutions in Northern Ireland cannot be established on a basis unacceptable to broad sections of opinion there; equally they cannot be established on a basis unacceptable to the United Kingdom as a whole or to Parliament as representing it. Any system which results in the permanent exclusion from any real and substantial influence in public affairs of a whole section of the community is inherently unstable and would be unacceptable to Her Majesty's Government.

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:-

    (a) temporary arrangements to be made for the government of Northern Ireland;

    (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.

This course offers the people of Northern Ireland every opportunity to take the lead in shaping their own future in accordance with the realities described earlier.

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 as possible.

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.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :