In March 1973, the British Government published its proposals for a new assembly (parliament). However, it was not to be given control over security or justice. There was also to be an executive (government). The British also insisted that two other conditions would have to be...
- the sharing of power between Catholics and Protestants
- the formal recognition of an ‘Irish Dimension’ – a role for the Republic of Ireland through the creation of a Council of Ireland.
Unionism was divided in its reaction to the plans. The extent of these splits became clear at the end of June when the results of the Assembly elections revealed that the number of UUUC (anti power-sharing) unionists elected was greater than the number of unionists elected who supported power-sharing.
In November, Whitelaw announced that the power-sharing Executive would contain eleven ministries, all of which would go to supporters of power-sharing. Brian Faulkner would head the executive, while Gerry Fitt would be his deputy.
The discussions about the Council of Ireland took place in December at Sunningdale in Berkshire. The meeting brought together the leading politicians from Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, there were no anti power-sharing politicians present: the Irish government and other local parties had argued that they would disrupt the negotiations. After several days of negotiations, agreement between the parties was finally secured. The Sunningdale Agreement contained the following elements:
- London agreed not to oppose Irish unification if a majority of the Northern Ireland population desired it.
- Dublin accepted that Irish unity could only ever be achieved peacefully and with the consent of the majority of the people of the North.
- A Council of Ministers with fourteen members was to be established to help with the development of North–South co-operation.
- A 60-member Consultative Assembly would be elected by the Dáil and the Assembly at some future date.
- Also at some future date, control over internal security issues would be returned to the Assembly at Stormont.
Problems for the Future
On the surface, the Agreement looked promising; the problem was that the unionist and nationalist representatives believed that they had agreed to something entirely different:
- The SDLP saw the Agreement as paving the way towards the creation of closer ties between North and South.
- Faulkner saw it as a mere token, which he had agreed to as a means of getting Dublin to accept the position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. In addition, republicans were lukewarm in their support, seeing the new system as proposing substantially less than what they sought.
The Executive took up office on 1 January 1974. Almost immediately, its future was plunged into doubt:
- On 4 January, a meeting of the OUP’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, voted to reject the Sunningdale Agreement. Faulkner resigned as party leader and was replaced by Harry West. As he retained the support of 19 of the 21 OUP Assembly members, Faulkner was able to remain as Chief Executive. However, it was clear that he had become isolated within unionism.
- On 28 February, a Westminster General Election took place. With 80 per cent of the unionist vote, eleven of the twelve Northern Ireland constituencies were won by the UUUC.
- On 14 May 1974, a general strike began. It was organised by the (UWC), a group of Protestant trade unionists who had gained substantial amounts of political and paramilitary support. The aim was to show the levels of unionist opposition to Sunningdale.
- Initially, support for the strike was limited, but UDA intimidation and improved coordination by the UWC ensured that, by the end of the week most of Northern Ireland came to a standstill. Industries had closed down, there were regular electricity blackouts, fuel supplies were strictly controlled and there were hundreds of roadblocks.
- The tension in the province was further heightened by the news on 17 May that car bombs, believed to have been planted by loyalists, in Dublin and Monaghan had claimed 27 lives (five more of the injured later died of their wounds).
- Labour’s Harold Wilson, the new British Prime Minister, was losing patience with the situation and appeared on television on 25 May to denounce the strike and call its organisers ‘spongers’. This speech infuriated unionists and, more than anything else,ensured that the strike continued.
- Although the British Government was not prepared to use the army to break the strike, it was prepared to use it to maintain fuel supplies. When the army was ordered in to take over fuel supplies, the UWC ordered a total shutdown.
- Seeing no obvious solution, and with the British and SDLP still refusing to negotiate with the UWC, Faulkner resigned as Chief Executive on 28 May. The other unionist members of the Executive resigned with him, thus ending power-sharing.
- Having achieved its goal, the UWC ended the strike on 29 May. The Assembly was suspended on 30 May and Direct Rule was re-introduced.
The Constitutional Convention
Britain’s next attempt at a political solution was the 1975 Constitutional Convention. This aimed to allow local politicians to suggest their own solution. The Convention collapsed in November 1975 without agreement. The unionist parties proposed a return to majority rule with some minority rights. This was rejected by both the British Government and the SDLP.
New Security Policies
At the same time, the government pursued policies of Ulsterisation and criminalisation. The former involved reducing the strength of the army in Northern Ireland while increasing the size of the RUC and UDR. The latter saw the end of special category status for those convicted of terrorist offences. Introduced in 1972, special category status had allowed those who claimed that they had broken the law for political reasons to live as prisoners of war. Its removal meant that those convicted after March 1976 would be treated in the same way as other criminals.
The Peace People
This period also witnessed the emergence of the Peace People. Led by Mairéad Corrigan and Betty Williams, the movement sought to use mass demonstrations to force an end to the Troubles. Although the efforts of the two leaders secured them the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, they were unable to change the thinking of those involved in the violence and the movement eventually faded.
The 1980 Hunger Strike
IRA prisoners detested the policy of criminalisation. Their initial reaction to the removal of special category status was to refuse to wear prison clothes, instead covering themselves with blankets. This blanket protest was followed in 1978 by the dirty protest, when prisoners smeared their cell walls with excrement. Public demonstrations in support of the protests met with little success. Even attacks on prison warders proved ineffective. Therefore, in late 1980, the IRA began a group hunger strike as a last method of achieving their demands. This was called off in December without anything having been achieved, although the prisoners believed that a deal had been made.
The 1981 Hunger strike
- On 1 March 1981 a second hunger strike began, led by Bobby Sands, the IRA inmates’ Officer Commanding. This time, prisoners joined the protest at intervals so as to maximise its impact.
- However, although the hunger strike gained huge publicity it did not change government policy. Therefore, when the MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone died, republicans put Sands up as a candidate. On the fortieth day of his strike, Sands, standing as an Anti-H Block candidate, was elected to Westminster.
- Despite huge amounts of international pressure on both sides, neither side would compromise, and on 5 May Sands died. The strike continued until 3 October 1981, by which time nine other prisoners had died. In the same period, 61 people died as a result of violence in reaction to the deaths inside the prison.
No concessions were made during the hunger strike. However, within a week of the strike’s end, James Prior, the new Secretary of State, announced that a number of the concessions that the prisoners had sought would be granted. These included:
- prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes
- the 50 per cent reduction in length of sentence lost by those involved in protests would be restored
- a greater number of prison visits would be permitted
- a greater degree of association among prisoners would be permitted
These concessions resulted in the protests in favour of special category status all but end in by late October 1981.
The hunger strikes had a number of consequences such as:
- Increased nationalist alienation from the state, resulting from what they saw as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s heavy-handed approach to the hunger strikers, whose demands they saw as reasonable
- the growth in support for the republican movement, which went hand in hand with increasing Catholic alienation from the state
- unionists – while glad that the Government had not given into the demands of the criminals on hunger strike – were increasingly voicing their anxieties at the seeming weaknesses of the province’s security provisions
- the Irish Government was pushing for the introduction of a new political initiative to end the Troubles.
The Rise of Sinn Fein
- Sands’ victory in Fermanagh-South Tyrone showed the republican movement that there was much to gain from involvement in politics. That Sands’ victory was not a fluke was proved when his election agent, Owen Carron, won the seat at the by-election following Sands’ death.
- The official endorsement of this policy came at the 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. At this party conference, the delegates approved the movement’s plan of contesting elections while also continuing to use extra-constitutional methods to achieve its aims. This became known as the ‘Armalite and Ballot Box’ strategy.
- The Government’s next attempted solution was ‘rolling devolution’ – an assembly, which would be given decision-making powers only if there was cross-community support for power-sharing.
- However, there was no real support for the initiative amongst the North’s parties (with the exception of Alliance). Indeed, no nationalists ever sat in the assembly and it was finally dissolved in June 1986.
- The results of the assembly elections clearly revealed the growth in support for Sinn Féin. Similarly, the party was winning seats in local council elections. Then, in the June 1983 Westminster General Election, the party’s President, Gerry Adams, defeated Gerry Fitt for the West Belfast seat. The British Government was growing increasingly concerned that Sinn Féin might even replace the SDLP as the main nationalist party in the province, a prospect that also worried the SDLP. The party, led since 1979 by John Hume, was now looking more and more to Dublin for support.
New Ireland Forum
That support was soon forthcoming. The New Ireland Forum was established by the Dublin Government in May 1983 to seek out possible solutions to the Northern Ireland problem. Attendance was limited to Ireland’s constitutional nationalist parties. Sinn Féin was excluded, as Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald demanded that all participants reject the use of violence for political ends. Also, although they were invited, unionists refused to attend.
The Forum published its report in May 1984. It offered three possible solutions:
- A united Ireland achieved by agreement and consent.
- A federal arrangement, with parliament for the North within a united Ireland.
- Joint authority with London and Dublin having equal responsibility for running Northern Ireland.
Unionists rejected the Forum Report outright, while Margaret Thatcher’s first public response came on 19 October, a week after an IRA attempt to kill her and senior ministers at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Brighton. The Prime Minister firmly rejected all of the Forum’s proposed solutions and, for a time, Anglo-Irish relationsdeteriorated again.
The Anglo Irish Agreement
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed on 15 November 1985. Historians have provided different reasons as to why it was signed:
- Constitutional nationalists in Ireland and the British Government feared Sinn Féin might become the principal nationalist party in the North. This would make the chances of agreement more difficult.
- Thatcher realised that unless she dealt with nationalist alienation in Northern Ireland she would not be able to improve the security situation.
- FitzGerald hoped that reduced nationalist alienation from the state and reform of the security forces in Northern Ireland would undermine the minority’s toleration of the IRA and support for Sinn Féin
The main terms of the Agreement were:
- Britain accepting that the Republic had a role to play in the government of the North
- the Republic accepting that a united Ireland was a long-term goal that would only happen with the agreement of a majority of the province’s population.
What was agreed
- an Intergovernmental Conference, headed by the Secretary of State and the Irish Foreign Minister. This would deal with issues such as security, legal matters, political questions and improving cross-border co-operation
- a permanent secretariat, based at Maryfield outside Belfast, made up of Northern and Southern civil servants to provide administrative support to the Conference.
- Devolution woulf only occur if there was agreement on the sharing of power
The agreement clearly recognised that the republic had a role to play in the governement of NI. At the same time Dublin accepted that a united Irelandf was a long term goal that would only happen with the agreement of a majority of Northern Ireland population
While the Agreement passed through both Westminster and the Dáil without any real problems, it met with a wide variety of reactions elsewhere:
- Unionists- Unionists were appalled by the Agreement. They felt that they had been abandoned by their own government and believed that they were now in a process that would eventually result in a united Ireland. Only the Alliance Party did not condemn the Agreement outright.
- Nationalists -The SDLP had been given more of a role in the creation of the Agreement than any other party in the North. It viewed the accord as an opportunity to create a better way of life for all those living in the province and welcomed the establishment of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat.
- Republicans-Sinn Féin condemned the Agreement, arguing that rather than bringing a united Ireland closer, it actually ‘copper-fastened’ partition, since, in the Agreement, the Irish government was recognising the existence of Northern Ireland.
Campaign of Opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreemen
Unionist politicians decided that the best way of opposing the Anglo-Irish Agreement was by a campaign of non-co-operation with the British Government. However, they were also keen to demonstrate, by strength of number, the depth and breadth of unionist opposition to what they termed the ‘Dublin Diktat’.
The campaign against the Agreement took a variety of forms:
- marches to the headquarters of the new Anglo-Irish Secretariat. On a number of occasions, the marches degenerated into violence
- a huge protest rally was held at Belfast’s City Hall on 23 November 1985, attended by an estimated 100,000 people
- all 15 unionist MPs resigned their seats at Westminster, but then stood for them again in the resulting by-elections. The aim was to show the strength of unionist opposition through the total number of votes the candidates received. In the elections, unionists gained a total of over 420,000 votes but lost one of their seats to the SDLP. Significantly, Sinn Féin’s share of the nationalist vote fell from nearly 42% to just over 35%. This suggested that one of the key aims of the architects of the Agreement – the destruction of Sinn Féin – might be achievable
- a unionist ‘Day of Action’ was arranged for 3 March 1986. Although much of the province was brought to a standstill using peaceful protest, in a number of places the protests meant violence
- the launching of a campaign of civil disobedience. It included measures such as the shunning of British ministers; the refusal to set rates in unionist-controlled councils and a boycott of Westminster.
Campaign of Opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreemen
At the same time, a more sinister response was becoming evident. Loyalist paramilitaries engaged in a campaign of violence and intimidation against the RUC, who were seen as essential to the success of the Agreement. In addition, in November 1986, Ulster Resistance, a paramilitary organisation whose aim was the destruction of the Agreement, was formed.
Results of the Campaign
By and large, however, these tactics failed to have any impact on the British Government’s determination to stick by the Agreement. The absence of fourteen MPs out of over 650 was not noticed at Westminster, and since local councils had little power as it was, the refusal to use this power made little or no difference. By September 1987, when the unionist leaders agreed to talk to British ministers again, it was clear that the campaign to destroy the Agreement had failed.