HC Deb 08 February 1973 vol 850 cc622-5
3. Mr. Douglas

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the publicity arrangements relating to the border poll.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

Returning officers have a statutory obligation to give notice of the poll and publish the locations of polling stations. In addition, a substantial programme of explanatory publicity has been undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office Information Service, designed to ensure that the electorate in Northern Ireland is fully aware of the arrangements for the poll and particularly the extended facilities for postal voting.

Advertisements about the poll have been placed in daily and weekly newspapers throughout Northern Ireland and, to cater for qualified voters living outside Northern Ireland, in a number of British national newspapers. Information has also been transmitted on BBC and Ulster Television.

Mr. Douglas

I thank the Minister for that reply. In the light of yesterday's events, will he consider placing an appendage to any advertisement, indicating that Her Majesty's Government view the poll as an opportunity for democratic decisions to take place in Northern Ireland—although some of us might have misgivings about the exact nature of it—and that these democratic decisions are an opportunity for all of Ulster to pronounce on their allegiance to the United Kingdom and, therefore, are contrary to the events that took place yesterday, where "mobocracy" ruled rather than democracy?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I naturally join with the hon. Gentleman in his condemnation of the affairs of yesterday. Nothing that happened yesterday will alter the course of events concerning this question.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Does not the Minister agree that the poll will not help community relations in Northern Ireland, and even at this late stage will he not consider reversing the previous decision that it should be held?

Mr. van Straubenzee

No, Sir. The matter has been amply discussed and debated by the House, and a decision has been arrived at.

5. Rev. Ian Paisley

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are the terms of reference of the project into the border poll which he has agreed with Queen's University; and how many will be employed in the project team.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The terms of reference are to record events leading up to the poll, to survey the administrative arrangements for conducting it, and to analyse the outcome, with particular reference to the reduced number of polling places and the general availability of postal voting facilities. The research team will consist of about 50 people.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Minister tell the House whether the object of the project is to ascertain whether it is pos- sible in future to run elections with this limited number of polling stations? Is he aware that in many areas there is resentment that the team will be visiting polling booths when the poll is taking place? Will he not agree that such a team visiting polling booths in this country would lead to a certain amount of resentment? How many of the 50 team members will take an oath of secrecy on the day of the referendum and will have the opportunity of watching people cast their votes?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I gladly make it absolutely clear that all members of the team will take appropriate oaths of secrecy. They will be treated in this respect precisely like the observers whom my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will appoint. Of course, one, but only one, of the results of the survey may be to provide hard facts on the use of a limited number of polling stations. But in general terms the survey will assist my right hon. Friend in making that report to the House which he has undertaken to give.

Mr. McNamara

Does the Minister recall that the intention of the poll was to provide one result covering all six counties? Will he confirm that it is not the team's intention to analyse the voting in such a way as to discover which way different districts vote? Will he confirm that it will not be the intention of Her Majesty's administration in Northern Ireland to seek, either through this team or in any other way, to discover how different districts poll? I think that they should, but in view of the undertakings——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is Question Time.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am happy to make clear that nothing in this research project will identify how individuals or groups of people have cast their votes.

Mr. McMaster

Is the Minister aware that many people in Northern Ireland welcome the appointment of independent observers to see that the poll is properly and fairly conducted?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for the comment. It will be of considerable assistance to all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Fernyhough

Will the Minister given an assurance that in selecting the members of the team no reference was made to their political or religious affiliations?

Mr. van Straubenzee

The Secretary of State is not responsible in this respect. It is an academic matter and the selection of the academics is therefore a matter for the distinguished professor who is in charge of the team. I have no reason to suppose that the considerations mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman were in his mind.