There is much discussion in Northern Ireland – and in the Republic – on the conditions for a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, or become part of a united Ireland. I’ve been fairly clear in my own mind about this for a number of years. I wrote in 2014 that an Assembly election in which Nationalist parties exceed Unionist parties in either votes or seats, or two non-Assembly elections in a row where that happens, would surely be sufficient grounds for the Secretary of State to call a Border Poll.
I’m also fairly clear – and wrote about this in the Irish Times in 2019 – that for the pro-United Ireland side to win such a referendum requires three things to happen: 1) Brexit working out badly; 2) Unionists continuing to talk only to their own core voters and not to the centre ground; 3) Nationalists coming up with a better offer, especially on health services. The first two of these conditions are close to being fulfilled at present; the third, however, is also necessary and we are not there yet.
But there has been much less examination of where such votes have happened previously. Self-determination referendums and plebiscites are not exactly rare in world history. But it’s pretty unusual for the options to be restricted to a choice of which already existing state you want to be part of. Much more often, voters are choosing between independence, on the one hand, and rule by someone else, on the other. I was myself involved in the two most recent independence referendums to have succeeded, in Montenegro in 2006 and in South Sudan in 2011.
Referendums have their advantages and their flaws, and I’m not really going to go into the merits here, just present the historical detail. I’ll note that (of course) they are a pretty blunt instrument, offering little nuance or reassurance for minorities, and that not every one of these historical votes could really be described as having taken place under free and fair circumstances.
Historically I find the following internationally recognised precedents for a popular vote where the electorate were asked about future sovereignty, and independence was not one of the options. There are (arguably) twenty-one of them. In eight cases, voters chose to remain in the country they were currently ruled by. In ten cases, voters chose a change of sovereignty, though in three of those nine cases the will of the voters was not in fact implemented and they stayed where they were. And in the remaining three cases, the territory was split between the two states who wanted to rule it.
1527: Burgundy. The scholar Mats Qvortrup cites this as a very early example of a plebiscite. Under the 1526 Treaty of Madrid, Burgundy was to have been ceded by France to Spain; but King Francis I of France organised a vote of male property owners in Burgundy, who rejected the Treaty, and Burgundy remained French.
1860: Nice and Savoy. Between 1849 and 1870 there were a dozen referendums on self-determination in Italy, as states voted (usually by huge and dubious margins) to join with the new kingdom, effectively merging with Piedmont in the process known as the Risorgimento. Most of those votes do not count for present purposes, as the choice was between continued independence and Italian rule. However, there is one exception: the price for French support of the Risorgimento, under the Treaty of Turin, was the annexation of the town of Nice and province of Savoy, which had until then been under Piedmontese rule. Two referendums in 1860 ratified the transfer.
1868 and 1916, Danish West Indies; 1877, Saint-Barthelemy. A couple of interesting cases in the Caribbean, where on three occasions, islanders voted on which external power they wanted to be ruled by – the Danish West Indies choosing whether to be ruled by Denmark or the United States, and Saint-Barthelemy choosing whether to shift from Swedish to French rule. In all three cases, the referendum was in favour of change, but the US Senate rejected the annexation of the Danish West Indies in 1870, changing its mind almost half a century later; they are now the U.S. Virgin Islands.
1919-22, post-War Europe. The end of the first world war brought a number of new states into being, none of which chose to ratify their independence by referendum. However, there were a number of cases of border adjustments being made by holding a vote in the disputed territories. Only a minority of these votes resulted in a transfer of sovereignty. Two of them were frustrated, both in 1919, when the Vorarlberg province of Austria voted to join Switzerland, and the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland voted to join Sweden, but in both cases, the result was not internationally recognised and they were compelled to remain under Austrian and Finnish rule respectively.
In 1920, there were five such referendums, three of which resulted in votes to stick with the country they had previously been ruled by. So, in February 1920, the northern part of the German province of Schleswig voted to become part of Denmark – the only successful transfer of sovereignty from a single referendum. But a month later, in March 1920, central Schleswig voted to remain in Germany, and the planned vote for southern Schleswig was cancelled. Later that year, the formerly German towns of Eupen and Malmedy voted to join Belgium in a very dodgy process where there was no secret ballot; East Prussia voted to stay in Germany rather than join Poland; the southern zone of Carinthia voted to stay with Austria rather than join the new state of Yugoslavia. In 1921, the district of Sopron voted to stay in Hungary rather than join Austria.
The biggest and messiest of these referendums was the last, held in Upper Silesia in March 1921, in a situation of violence and vote-rigging from both sides. The vote was 60% for Germany and 40% for Poland; the territory in the end was divided, with both sides getting about half of the population, Germany getting more of the land and Poland more of the heavy industry. (It should be added that intimidation and violence were standard features of these referendums.)
1935, Saarland. In a hangover from the First World War, the Saar Basin Territory (now the Saarland), which had been under international rule through the League of Nations, was given a choice between the status quo, joining Germany, or joining France. The German option won more than 90% of the vote, with the status quo a very distant second. So few voters chose France that I hesitate to include it on this list. It’s a rare case of a referendum with more than two options, not that it made much difference in the end.
1947, India/Pakistan. I find only five more internationally recognised referendums in the last hundred years where voters chose between different countries, without independence being on the table. Two of them were parts of the Indian independence process in 1947, with both the North West Frontier Province and the District of Sylhet voting to join Pakistan rather than India. Sylhet was divided, with a small part of it staying in India and the rest now in Bangladesh.
1961, British Cameroons. There have been a number of referenda and plebiscites in Africa, but in almost every case independence has been one of the options on the ballot (including, as mentioned, Southern Sudan, now South Sudan, in 2011). The only exception that I have found was the former territory of the British Cameroons in 1961, in which the population were given the choice between joining the former French colony of Cameroon to the east, or Nigeria to the west. In 1959 they had already voted on whether or not to join Nigeria, and chose not, or at least not yet. In 1961, the Muslim north voted to join Nigeria, and the Christian south to join Cameroon, and that was what in the end happened.
1967 (and 2002), Gibraltar. The 1967 referendum on Gibraltar’s sovereignty clearly satisfies my criteria for inclusion on this list. It was the result of a talks process between Spain and the United Kingdom, and voters were given a choice between integration with Spain or continued British rule. They chose British rule by an overwhelming majority. In 2002 the government of Gibraltar held another referendum, but I don’t think this counts for my purposes: it was a declarative (and again overwhelming) rejection of unpublished proposals for shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain, without any positive option being on the ballot.
1973, Northern Ireland. It is almost fifty years since voters anywhere in the world were given the choice of which country to be part of, without independence being one of the options, and the last such vote was the March 1973 Border Poll in Northern Ireland. On a 59% turnout, 99% of voters supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, and only 1% voted for Irish unification. I find it interesting that 50-60,000 votes for the Union were cast by people who did not then vote for pro-Union parties in the local council and Assembly elections a few months later.
Next time, the result will certainly be closer.