'The End of Stormont 1972-73', in, Making Sense of the Troubles, by David McKittrick and David McVea (2000)
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
The following chapter has been contributed by the authors David McKittrick and David McVea, with the permission of the publisher, The Blackstaff Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:
Making Sense of the
Orders to local bookshops or:
This publication is copyright David McKittrick and David McVea (2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Blackstaff Press and the authors. You may not edit, adapt,
or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
From the dustjacket:
Compellingly written and completely even-handed, this is by far the clearest account of what happened in the Northern Ireland conflict - and why.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland rolled grimly on for almost thirty years from the late 1960s until the onset of the current shaky peace process. In that time, the conflict never strayed far off the news schedules of the world’s media. Thousands of books, articles and theses were published, dissecting every possible aspect of the problem and making it the most researched civil conflict in history.
But behind the wall of information and opinion there is a straightforward and gripping story, demanding to be told in an accessible way. In Making Sense of the Troubles award-winning Ireland Correspondent for the Independent David McKittrick and historian David McVea at last tell that story - clearly, concisely and, above all, fairly.
The worst year of the troubles was 1972, its death toll of almost five hundred far exceeding that of any other year. Fourteen of those deaths occurred in Londonderry on 30 January, in what was to be remembered as one of the key events of the troubles, Bloody Sunday. What happened on that day was to drive even more men and youths into paramilitary groups. Thirteen people were killed and another thirteen were injured, one fatally, when soldiers of the Parachute Regiment and other units opened fire following a large illegal civil rights march in Londonderry city.
Both the Provisional and Official IRA denied that any of their units were involved. Soldiers claimed they came under intensive attack from gunmen and from nailbombers but local residents disputed their account, saying they had opened fire without justification. No soldiers were either killed or injured by gunfire or nailbombs, and no weapons were recovered by the army.
Catholic priest Father Edward Daly, who later became Bishop of Derry and will always be associated with Bloody Sunday, witnessed the death of a seventeen-year-old youth as both ran away from soldiers. He said he saw the youth laughing at the sight of a priest running: ‘The next thing he suddenly gasped and threw his hands up in the air and fell on his face. He asked me: "Am I going to die?" and I said no, but I administered the last rites. I can remember him holding my hand and squeezing it. We all wept. We got him to the top of the street. I knelt beside him and told him, "Look son, we’ve got to get you out", but he was dead. He was very youthful looking, just in his seventeenth year but he only looked about twelve.’ The shootings produced one of the lasting images of the troubles in photographs and television film of Father Daly waving a white handkerchief while helping carry a fatally wounded youth out of the killing zone.
Father Daly said later: ‘A lot of the younger people in Derry who may have been more pacifist became quite militant as a result of it. People who were there on that day and who saw what happened were absolutely enraged by it and just wanted to seek some kind of revenge for it. In later years many young people I visited in prison told me quite explicitly that they would never have become involved in the IRA but for what they witnessed, and heard of happening, on Bloody Sunday.’ In his memoirs Gerry Adams wrote: ‘Money, guns and recruits flooded into the IRA.’
The incident had enormous ramifications, taking a place in Irish history as a formative moment which not only claimed fourteen lives but also hardened attitudes, increased paramilitary recruitment, helped generate more violence, and convulsed Anglo-Irish relations. In 1998 Tony Blair, as prime minister, announced the establishment of a full-scale judicial inquiry.
The effect at the time was a dramatic increase in nationalist alienation. In the aftermath of the shootings Irish nationalists, north and south, erupted in shock, the Irish government recalling its ambassador from London. Bernadette Devlin rushed across the floor of the Commons and scratched Maudling’s face. Most of those Catholics who had not yet left public life now did so, while in the Republic a day of national mourning was held on the day of the funerals. After some days of protests a large crowd cheered as the British embassy in Dublin was set alight and destroyed. In his memoirs, ambassador Sir John Peck wrote:
Bloody Sunday had unleashed a wave of fury and exasperation the like of which I had never encountered in my life, in Egypt or Cyprus or anywhere else. Hatred of the British was intense. Someone had summed it up: ‘We are all IRA now.’ The already shaky position of Jack Lynch, the Irish Taoiseach, was now extremely precarious, and the threat posed by the IRA to democratic institutions in the Republic would now be far more serious.
More violence followed three weeks later when the Official IRA staged a revenge attack on the Parachute Regiment’s headquarters in Aldershot. Their attempt to kill paratroopers instead killed a Catholic chaplain, a gardener and five women members of the domestic staff. A fresh wave of nationalist indignation followed publication of the report into Bloody Sunday carried out by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery. His conclusion that the firing of some paratroopers had ‘bordered on the reckless’ brought a deluge of criticism and allegations that it was a ‘whitewash’ and a cover-up rather than an honest attempt to find out how fourteen people came to be shot dead by soldiers.
Early March brought a particularly shocking IRA attack when a bomb went off in a popular Belfast city centre bar, the Abercorn, on a busy Saturday afternoon. Two young women were killed and seventy others were injured. Some of the horror was conveyed in a newspaper report: ‘Two sisters have both been seriously maimed. One, who planned to marry, has lost both legs, an arm and an eye. Her sister has lost both legs. Last night their mother was under sedation. A male victim lost two legs, and a female lost one leg and one arm. Another female lost one limb and three of the injured have lost eyes.’ The Royal Victoria Hospital used a disaster plan for the first time. A senior doctor recalled, ‘We were seeing injuries we had never seen before. The victims were black from the dirt and dust that was thrown up by the bombing. There was also a powerful smell of burning. The high proportion of young people struck everybody.’
Two weeks later came another horrendous incident when seven people were killed by a 200lb IRA car bomb left in Donegall Street, close to Belfast city centre, following contradictory telephoned warnings. The explosion injured 150 people, including many who were fleeing from a bomb scare in an adjoining street. The Belfast Telegraph reported:
Donegall Street looked like a battlefield. When the smoke and dust from the blast cleared, injured people were seen lying in pools of blood on the roadway. Some of the casualties lay in agony with glass splinters embedded in their wounds. A body was blown to pieces by the force of the explosion, which rocked the entire city centre. An old man was comforted on the footpath. As he lay barely conscious, he was unaware that half his leg had been blown off in the explosion.
The final weeks of Stormont
All of this increased the sense of crisis and galvanised the British government. Heath noted in his memoirs: ‘The atmosphere had now grown more poisoned than ever and I feared that we might, for the first time, be on the threshold of complete anarchy.’ He, Maudling and other ministers had already considered a wide range of options, some of which would have greatly alarmed Unionists had they known of them. One idea was for a repartition which would divide Northern Ireland into Protestant and Catholic districts, with the latter being allowed to join the Republic. Another was to have Northern Ireland governed jointly by Britain and the Republic, its citizens having dual citizenship. Heath seems to have considered and rejected these options, though intriguingly the minutes of one meeting of ministers, released in the spring of 2000, mention the possibility of Irish unity. Recording the gist of ministerial discussions, this document said: ‘If the object were to preserve the option of creating a united Ireland at some time in the future, it might be better to seek first for a political solution in which the minority were persuaded to participate in government.’
But many other ideas were in the air and when, five days after Bloody Sunday, Faulkner went to Downing Street he found, in his words, questions coming at him thick and fast. Discussion touched, among other things, on handing over some areas to the Republic; on a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position; on what would happen if troops were removed from Catholic areas; on ways of involving Catholics in government, and on transferring control of security to London.
Faulkner urged Heath to persevere with internment, arguing that if violence could be ended then he ‘would be in a strong position to urge magnanimity upon the majority’. He spoke against most of Heath’s ideas, making clear his two main sticking points. The first was opposition to guaranteeing Catholics a place in government. He argued strongly against a new coalition involving Unionists and nationalists, saying it was unworkable and would result in ‘a bedlam cabinet, a kind of fragmentation bomb virtually certain to fly apart at the first meeting’. He also refused to contemplate a Westminster takeover of security powers, saying this would ‘reduce our government to a mere sham’.
Heath and his ministers were unconvinced by Faulkner and had lost confidence in the ability of the Stormont regime to restore order, though Faulkner did not appear to realise this. He wrote later that he had several times asked if direct rule was in prospect and was assured that it was not.
Within the Unionist community, however, many did not believe that Stormont was secure or that the IRA was on the road to defeat. This was put most forcibly by William Craig, who had been roundly beaten by Faulkner for leadership of the Unionist party. He formed an organisation called the Ulster Vanguard movement, and, while remaining a member of the Unionist party, used Vanguard as his own power base, designing it as an umbrella group to enlist as many supporters as possible from the various loyalist groupings which were springing up in response to the mounting tension.
He associated with some loyalist paramilitary organisations such as the UDA. Advocating a semi-independent Northern Ireland he staged a series of Oswald Mosley-style ‘monster rallies’, arriving complete with motorcycle outriders to inspect thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of men drawn up in military-style formation. What Craig said at the rallies and elsewhere was even more alarming. In a series of what became known as the ‘shoot-to-kill’ speeches he openly threatened the use of force, declaring: ‘We must build up dossiers on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.’
Part of the message here was a warning to Britain not to bring down Stormont, but Heath was undeterred. When Faulkner received another summons to go to London on 22 March, it was for a meeting which would spell the end of Unionist government. He appears to have been totally surprised when Heath announced that he wanted to begin phasing out internment, to take over control of security, and to move towards powersharing with Catholics. Faulkner was to write: ‘We were more puzzled than angry. We decided that Heath was bluffing.’ Heath in turn was to write of Faulkner: ‘Initially he seemed to think that we were bluffing.’ But nine hours of argument failed to shake Heath, and when Faulkner returned to Belfast to talk it over with his cabinet they unanimously voted to resign. Heath had apparently expected this.
One of the few points of substance on which the memoirs of Heath and Faulkner differ is on the prospect of direct rule. Faulkner accused the British prime minister of misleading him, writing: ‘The rug was pulled out from under my feet, and it came to me personally as a bitter blow. I was shaken and horrified and felt completely betrayed.’ Heath by contrast wrote that he had specifically made it clear to Faulkner when he became Stormont prime minister ‘that if significant progress was not made in the next year or so, we would have to introduce direct rule. He did not like the prospect and later claimed he had been duped by us. This is not so. He was aware, from the day he took office, that his premiership was Stormont’s last chance.’
A two-day protest strike which was called by Craig and Vanguard brought Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill in late March with up to 200,000 workers downing tools, most motivated by indignation, some by intimidation. Industry, commerce and most public services ground to a halt as electricity production was cut to one-third of its usual level. Around 100,000 people made their way to Stormont for a rally at which Ulster flags outnumbered Union Jacks, a sign of Protestant anger with London. Faulkner and Craig both addressed the crowd, though those who thought this an indication of a new Unionist unity were to be proved wrong. Stormont adjourned for the last time at 4.15 p.m. on 28 March, ending an existence of just over half a century.
The ending of Stormont rule was an emotional and traumatic time for Protestants and Unionists, involving as it did the demise of the institution which they regarded as their chief bulwark against nationalists and republicans. Brian Faulkner had been prime minister for just a year, the sixth and last person to hold that office. His premiership had indeed been Stormont’s last chance. The irony was that the man regarded as Unionism’s most professional politician had in the space of a year made two major miscalculations. First he thought internment would significantly improve the security situation, and second he thought Heath would not abolish Stormont. He was not just wrong but spectacularly wrong in each case. He further overestimated the RUC and underestimated the IRA.
For his part, Edward Heath had travelled a considerable political distance in a short time. To begin with he regarded Northern Ireland as more of a security problem than a political problem, and was prepared to give Faulkner the chance to proceed with heavy emphasis on security. By March 1972 Heath still believed in strong security measures, but he had come to place much greater importance on political initiatives, which included the involvement of Dublin and moves towards powersharing. In the process he came to conclude that Stormont as then constituted was irreformable, that a cross-community government had to be fashioned and that, in his words, ‘only direct rule could offer us the breathing-space necessary for building it’.
Stormont fell because, with Northern Ireland locked in serious crisis, Heath came to conclude that Faulkner could deliver neither security success nor political progress. Internment, as well as being disastrously counterproductive on the streets, had also destroyed all hope of early political advance. Faulkner had made it clear that he would not relinquish certain areas of Unionist power to London, especially responsibility for security, and would not agree to powersharing with nationalist parties. Although he had invited two non-Unionists into his cabinet, both were there at his personal invitation: he drew the line at having representatives of nationalist parties in it.
It is certainly true that violence increased greatly in August 1971, though it is also probably true that it would have gone up in any case, given that both the IRA and loyalist groups were becoming bigger and more organised, as the increase in IRA violence and the bombing of McGurk’s bar testified. Nonetheless, three events taken together - the introduction of internment, Bloody Sunday and the fall of Stormont -served to trigger the worst violence ever seen in Northern Ireland. Faulkner portrayed Stormont’s end as primarily the achievement of the IRA, declaring: ‘Chief amongst those who have sought the emasculation and ultimately the downfall of Stormont have been the IRA terrorists themselves.’ Heath also admitted that he was shaken by the violence, and that he feared complete anarchy.
It seems unlikely, however, that violence alone would have brought Stormont down. The pressure came not just from IRA violence, but from rejection of Stormont by the entire Catholic community. The writing may have been on the wall as early as the summer of 1971, for Heath was to write that the SDLP walkout had ‘deprived Stormont of any remaining legitimacy’. The rent-and-rates strike, the withdrawal of many nationalists from public life, and the poor state of Anglo-Irish relations were all signs of complete and apparently irreversible nationalist alienation from the old Stormont system. IRA bombs were the most dramatic manifestation of this, but the sense was strong that the Catholic community, whose expectations had been raised so much, had rejected the old system once and for all. And Heath, having concluded that Stormont was part of the problem rather than part of the solution, thus consigned it to history.
The 1972 figure of almost 500 killings stands as a vivid illustration of the lethal depths to which the troubles descended. There were almost 2,000 explosions and over 10,000 shooting incidents, an average of around 30 shootings per day. Almost 5,000 people were injured. Almost 2,000 armed robberies netted £800,000, most of it going into paramilitary coffers. In the worst month of the entire troubles, July 1972, almost a hundred people died as both republican and loyalist groups went on an uninhibited rampage. As the year opened, 17,000 soldiers were available for duty; when it ended a series of hasty reinforcements had brought the figure to 29,000.
The car bomb, a terrifying and often entirely indiscriminate weapon, was introduced by the IRA, causing many deaths, terrible injuries and enormous damage. Violence from loyalists increased significantly from the spring of 1972 when working-class Protestants turned in their thousands to paramilitarism as insecurity and uncertainty soared. Furtive meetings between the IRA and British politicians, first Harold Wilson and later the Tories, reinforced Unionist fears that Britain was attempting to negotiate with republicanism behind Unionist backs. Any hopes that the closure of Stormont and the end of Unionist rule would lead to a reduction of violence were soon dashed. In the twelve months up to direct rule, 250 died; in the twelve months which followed, the killing rate doubled.
It is also worth remarking however on what did not happen. Despite being fearful and insecure about their future, the Protestant community did not attempt to oppose the imposition of direct rule. Although there was deep resentment at the removal of Stormont, there were no serious signs of mutiny among the Protestants who predominated in the civil service and the RUC. The acceptance of direct rule may have been surly, but it was nonetheless acceptance.
Talks and violence
Direct rule was intended as very much a temporary system while a crosscommunity successor to the Stormont system was devised. In London, responsibility was transferred from the Home Office to a new department, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). Its first head, who was known as the Northern Ireland Secretary, or more often in Belfast as the Secretary of State, was William Whitelaw. Whitelaw, who in later years would go on to become deputy leader of the Conservative party, was a wealthy landowner whose political skills lay in the field of conciliation. A natural consensus politician in the high Tory mould, he was adept at personal relations and maintained contact with a wide range of opinion.
His task was to kick-start politics and open negotiations with the parties. In the early months of direct rule he attempted to placate both Unionists and nationalists against the background of steadily worsening violence and continual security crises. Many of the main parties and other elements were not speaking to each other, while the SDLP had for many months refused to meet British ministers. Whitelaw moved quickly to improve his relations with nationalists and republicans by releasing a number of internees and making other conciliatory moves. One of the most important of these, which was to have significant long-term consequences, was to defuse a republican hungerstrike by conceding ‘special category status’ to prisoners associated with paramilitary groups. This amounted to an acceptance of the IRA argument that its prisoners were different from other inmates jailed for criminal as opposed to paramilitary offences. It was a later attempt to withdraw this concession which led to the republican hungerstrikes and political upheavals of 1980 and 1981.
Anxious to explore the minds of IRA leaders, Whitelaw arranged for senior republicans to be flown, in the strictest of secrecy, to a government minister’s home in Chelsea in July. The republicans included veterans and younger elements such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The importance of Adams was emphasised by the fact that he was released from prison to make the trip. McGuinness later recalled: ‘I was 22 years of age, and I couldn’t be anything but impressed by the paraphernalia surrounding that whole business, and the cloak and dagger stuff of how we were transported from Derry to London. I was on the run at the time. There were contacts with the British government and we insisted on a written note from them which would guarantee our safety in the event of us agreeing to go to London. That we were given, and it was held by a lawyer acting on our behalf.
‘We assembled in Derry, six of us, and we were taken in a blacked-out van to a field in which a helicopter landed. We were put in the helicopter and brought to the military end of Aldergrove airport near Belfast. We were brought then on by RAF plane to a military airfield in England, where we were met by a fleet of limousines. They were the fanciest cars I had ever seen in my life: it was a most unreal experience. We were escorted by the Special Branch through London to Cheyne Walk and there we met Willie Whitelaw. We were offered drinks at the meeting and we all refused.’ McGuinness added: ‘The only purpose of the meeting with Whitelaw was to demand a British declaration of intent to withdraw. All of us left the meeting quite clear in our minds that the British government were not yet at a position whereby we could do serious business.’
Whitelaw was as unimpressed with the republicans as they were with him. He recorded in his memoirs: ‘The meeting was a non-event. The IRA leaders simply made impossible demands which I told them the British government would never concede. They were in fact still in a mood of defiance and determination to carry on until their absurd ultimatums were met.’ The very fact that the meeting took place, however, was of great psychological importance in both political and paramilitary circles, being regularly cited in support of the argument that Britain might someday not rule out doing a deal with violent groupings.
Unionists were appalled when news of the exercise broke, stirring as it did their traditional fear that Britain might betray them. Others too disapproved, such as Garret FitzGerald, later Fine Gael Taoiseach and for years a major influence in Anglo-Irish relations. He wrote: ‘The contacts that had taken place had the effect merely of prolonging the violence by deluding the IRA into believing that a British government would eventually negotiate a settlement with them.’ As the troubles developed, a sporadic channel of communication was to remain open between the British and the IRA, even as the republican campaign of violence went on. In the 1990s this channel would play an important role in the developing peace process, but Whitelaw concluded after the Chelsea encounter that the new political structures he hoped to construct had no place in them for republicans.
He sounded out loyalist paramilitaries too, on one occasion meeting loyalists wearing masks and sunglasses in his Stormont Castle office. But a few days after his encounter with republicans a brief IRA ceasefire broke down. The IRA and the British government had met face to face, each concluding that the other was unreasonable and in effect beyond political reach. The IRA stepped up its violence with a vengeance, while loyalist groups also began killing on a large scale.
By this stage it was clear that working-class Protestants were flocking to unofficial defence organisations in their tens of thousands. The huge rise in violence following internment meant many Protestants lost confidence in the security forces, with the result that vigilante organisations sprang into being in Protestant areas. They felt politically insecure, wondering who would prevail in the fierce battles between the army and the IRA, while many of those who lived close to republican areas also felt physically insecure.
At first the authorities did not display serious concern about the groups of men who barricaded districts and patrolled them, sometimes carrying sticks and clubs. According to official minutes Faulkner had told Heath in late 1971: ‘Their purpose was to identify and exclude terrorists in places where the security forces could not guarantee protection. It was worth considering whether they could be employed as an "eyes and ears" force on a regular basis.’ Heath turned down the idea.
It soon became obvious that this was more than simple vigilantism. The majority of those who joined such groupings were not necessarily extremists, but within their ranks were some hundreds prepared to resort to open violence. The bombing of McGurk’s bar was one example of this, but as 1972 went on there were more and more killings of Catholics, carried out in particular by militant pockets within the UDA. By the end of the year loyalists had killed 120 people.
The UDA also made its point in a more public way by staging large marches in Belfast with thousands of men parading in semi-military uniforms including combat jackets, bush hats, sunglasses and sometimes masks. These were not openly violent occasions, although there were occasional confrontations with the army; but the message that Protestants were if necessary prepared to fight for their cause was unmistakable.
Horror piled on horror in July 1972. The restlessness of the mid-1960s had first degenerated into the violent clashes of August 1969 and now descended further into killings at a rate of three a day. That month had many of the features which were to become all too familiar as the troubles went on. Republicans killed Protestants while loyalists claimed Catholic lives, often with particular savagery. On 11 July a number of drunken loyalists broke into the home of a Catholic family, killing a mentally handicapped youth and raping his mother. At the resulting murder trial a lawyer told the court: ‘The restraints of civilisation on evil human passions are in this case totally non-existent. You may well think that in this case we have reached the lowest level of human depravity.’
Republicans meanwhile set off bombs which killed large numbers of people. Nine died in Belfast on what came to be known as Bloody Friday, as the IRA detonated twenty devices in just over an hour, injuring 130 others and producing widespread confusion and fear in many parts of the city. According to one account: ‘In many places there was panic and pandemonium as shoppers and others heard bombs going off all over the city. The carnage, with some people blown to pieces, was such that the number of dead was unclear for some time, newspapers at first reporting that eleven people had been killed.’ A police officer who went to a bomb scene in Oxford Street said: ‘You could hear people screaming and crying and moaning. The first thing that caught my eye was a torso of a human being lying in the middle of the street. It was recognisable as a torso because the clothes had been blown off and you could actually see parts of the human anatomy.’ In his memoirs Brian Faulkner wrote: ‘Few Ulster people will forget seeing on television young policemen shovelling human remains into plastic bags in Oxford Street.’
Yet still the horror continued. On the last day of the month nine people, including a child and old people, were killed by IRA car bombs left in the previously peaceful County Londonderry village of Claudy. Apart from the human tragedy involved, both Bloody Friday and Claudy were seen at the time as major political setbacks for the IRA. The security forces were able to capitalise by moving into Londonderry, in a massive exercise known as Operation Motorman, to remove the ‘no-go areas’ which had been controlled by the IRA. But although this was a short-term setback for the republicans their campaign of violence went on regardless. At the beginning of 1972 the IRA had predicted imminent victory: by the middle of the year, both they and the authorities were geared up for a conflict that both rightly suspected could be long and bloody.
It was against a background of such unremitting violence that Whitelaw turned to the task of finding a new political settlement. The SDLP was at that point recommending that sovereignty over Northern Ireland should be shared by London and Dublin. Brian Faulkner meanwhile called for a return of Stormont though with nationalist influence on some committees and some new links with the south, approaches that were viewed as modest concessions to Catholics.
In November 1972 Whitelaw published a discussion document, The Future of Northern Ireland, which set out the government’s approach in general terms. It was important in that it laid out many ideas which were to form the basis of the approach of both this government and future administrations. The discussion document stressed Northern Ireland’s financial dependence on Britain, pointedly adding that membership of the United Kingdom ‘carries with it the obligations of membership including acceptance of the sovereignty of parliament as representing the people as a whole’. But in a major departure the document formally conceded that Dublin had a legitimate interest in Northern Ireland affairs, declaring: ‘A settlement must recognise Northern Ireland’s position within Ireland as a whole. It is therefore clearly desirable that any new arrangements should, whilst meeting the wishes of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, be so far as possible acceptable to and accepted by the Republic of Ireland.’ The document introduced to the political lexicon the phrase ‘Irish dimension’ in acknowledgement of the south’s interest.
In his memoirs Heath explained the rationale for this: ‘It was no good just pretending that nationalist aspirations did not exist and that Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland would either be contained or burn itself out. The strength of feeling in the Catholic community had to be addressed, and that meant finding some way of involving the government of the Republic directly in the affairs of the province.’ The document continued the gradual redrafting of London’s approach to Northern Ireland and the possibility of a united Ireland. It said: ‘No UK government for many years has had any wish to impede the realisation of Irish unity, if it were to come about by genuine and freely given mutual agreement and on conditions acceptable to the distinctive communities.’
The discussion document laid down that unfettered majority rule was a thing of the past and that future devolution would be on a basis of partnership. New institutions, it stipulated, must ‘seek a much wider consensus than has hitherto existed. As a minimum it would mean assuring minority groups of an effective voice and a real influence; but there are strong arguments that the objective of real participation should be achieved by giving minority interests a share in the exercise of executive power.’ In putting the concepts of powersharing and an Irish dimension on the table as the pillars of a future settlement, London had defined what were to be the main constitutional battlegrounds for the next three decades.
These ideas held no attraction for the IRA, which saw them as desperate attempts to shore up crumbling British rule. It remained intent on fighting on in the hope of wearing down the British will and bringing about a British withdrawal. But the new concepts were much welcomed by the SDLP and the Irish government, both of which had been lobbying for such an approach.
The proposals were much more problematic for Unionists, representing as they did a radical departure from the old system of majority rule. Faulkner did not consort with paramilitary groups, but others on the Unionist side were less fastidious. The most outspoken Unionist politician was William Craig, whose Vanguard movement continued to hold rallies and threatened a range of protests which included a Protestant rent-and-rates strike, a boycott of council elections and a refusal to pay gas and electricity bills. These generally came to nothing, but what really raised the temperature were Craig’s fiery speeches. Addressing a meeting of the Monday Club group of far-right Conservatives in London he said, ‘I am prepared to come out and shoot and kill. Let us put the bluff aside. I am prepared to kill and those behind me will have my full support. When we say force we mean force. We will only assassinate our enemies as a last desperate resort when we are denied our democratic rights.’ There were calls for Craig’s prosecution: some argued he was giving voice to legitimate Protestant anger, while others accused him of recklessly fanning the flames of violence.
But if the authorities were alarmed by Craig they were relieved by an unexpected new tack taken by Paisley, who during 1972 temporarily switched from incendiary demagoguery to an uncharacteristically moderate note. Instead of stirring Protestant anxieties he suddenly sought to soothe them, taking the line that the loss of Stormont was not the end of the world. ‘Stormont is a thing of the past and there is no good use for Unionists to think that, by some way or other, Stormont shall return,’ he declared. Denouncing Craig’s threats, he told supporters, ‘The voice of Mr Craig and the advice of Mr Craig are the voice and advice of folly. Do not be misled. Do not wreck your country and bring it to an end by selfinflicted wounds. Do not copy the deplorable tactics your enemies have adopted.’
Paisley’s approach at this stage was to advocate stern security policies, including twenty-four-hour curfews in republican areas, but instead of calling for the return of Stormont he become an integrationist, one of those rare Unionists who believed a new Stormont would tend to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. It was an interesting theory but at the time there were few Unionist takers for it, and eventually Paisley would quietly abandon it and return to more familiar ground.
By this point Unionism had splintered, with Faulkner prepared to negotiate, Paisley pressing for integration, and Craig apparently bent on confrontation. Prominent Unionist former ministers such as Harry West and John Taylor demanded a return to the old Stormont system, while many other politicians added to the general confusion by changing their minds and their political lines, sometimes several times. Faulkner found it difficult to hold his party together, particularly since he was advancing the problematic policy of negotiating with a British government which had, in the eyes of most Unionists, been guilty of a betrayal in removing the Stormont system. Some liberal Unionists drifted away from politics entirely, depriving Faulkner of potentially useful support.
At the beginning of 1973 the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic became members of the European Economic Community (EEC), a development which over time had a major effect on Anglo-Irish relations. Disparity in the wealth of the two countries had added to the historical distance between coloniser and colonised, with Irish dependence on British trade reinforcing this. Their simultaneous entry to the EEC, however, helped alter some of the fundamentals of the relationship and in-creased the south’s international standing. Joining Europe also markedly increased the Republic’s sense of national self-esteem as Irish ministers, and some talented Dublin civil servants, were seen to perform well on the international stage. British and Irish officials also formed useful working relationships which would later be important in developing greater understanding and mutual respect.
But meanwhile the violence continued. Security force arguments that loyalist violence was too unplanned to be susceptible to internment became steadily less tenable, and in February the first loyalists were interned. The move was followed by a one-day strike, backed by a range of loyalist paramilitary and political groupings, which was marked by considerable loyalist violence and five deaths. On the republican side the IRA gradually changed the emphasis from open confrontations and car bombings to more carefully planned sniping attacks, together with bombing attacks in England. Bombs planted in London in March 1973 led to one death and almost two hundred injuries, the first of many sporadic but often spectacular IRA attacks in England which in the course of the troubles would take more than a hundred lives. This figure was low in relation to the overall death toll, but the political impact of attacks in Britain was often great.
On the political front, 1973 saw Whitelaw continuing to draw the parties into talks on a settlement. A referendum or border poll was held in March, with voters asked whether they wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom or join a united Ireland. The exercise was supposed to reassure Unionists that, whatever other changes might be on the way, their place in the UK was secure. In the event all shades of nationalist opinion boycotted the exercise, resulting in an almost entirely Unionist turnout. On a 59 per cent poll, 99 per cent voted to stay in the UK, only 1 per cent favouring a united Ireland. Unionists drew some fleeting cheer from the result, though there was no sign that it gave them any lasting reassurance.
By the spring of 1973 London’s thinking had crystallised and was laid out in a government white paper entitled Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals. This proposed the introduction of proportional representation, the same system James Craig had abolished in the 1920s, to elect a new assembly to replace Stormont. A new devolved government or executive would be made up from the major parties, including both Unionists and nationalists. The white paper reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK but envisaged new north-south links. It also made it clear that London intended keeping control over sensitive matters such as security, the legal system, emergency powers and elections.
The white paper reaffirmed that the concepts of powersharing and an Irish dimension were to be the mainstays of a new settlement. It said that government ‘can no longer be solely based upon any single party, if that party draws its support and its elected representatives virtually entirely from only one section of a divided community’. The white paper advocated the creation of a Council of Ireland for consultations and cooperation with the south.
Faulkner accepted the white paper as a basis for negotiation, though his party’s council endorsed his line without enthusiasm. William Craig meanwhile broke with the Unionist party, converting his movement into the Vanguard party. Others within Unionism, including Ian Paisley and the Orange Order, flatly denounced the white paper as unacceptable. There was much confusion in Unionist ranks as prominent figures toyed with alternatives such as forcing a return to Stormont, integration with Britain, independence from Britain, and even the idea of negotiating a new federal Ireland with nationalists. But none of these notions took root, partly because they seemed unrealistic or undesirable to mainstream Unionists, and partly because there were so many personality differences between leading Unionist figures. In the end the central divide within Unionism came down to those headed by Faulkner who found the white paper an acceptable basis for talks, and those, such as Craig and Paisley, who did not.
Although the rejectionist Unionists were against Faulkner and against Whitelaw, personality and political differences meant they were clearly not united in leadership, aims, methods or alternatives. Political groupings, and sometimes loyalist paramilitary groups, from time to time formed umbrella groups but these tended to be shifting, unstable and suspicious coalitions which knew what they stood against but disagreed on what they stood for.
All parties had difficulties with Whitelaw’s proposals. For many Unionists, powersharing with nationalists and a Council of Ireland were objectionable, for all Whitelaw’s stress on Northern Ireland’s guaranteed status within the UK. For the SDLP the initiative was in most aspects a huge advance, even though it fell well short of the London-Dublin joint authority the party had advocated. The continuing use of internment also posed a major problem for the SDLP.
Elections to the new assembly were held in June 1973. During the campaign the wily Faulkner repeated that his party would not share power with any party ‘whose primary objective was to break the link with Great Britain’. Some Unionists appear to have voted for him on the assumption that this meant he would not share power with the SDLP. Afterwards, when it emerged he was indeed prepared to sit in government with the SDLP, opponents accused him of misleading voters. His reasoning was that ending the Union, while perhaps the ultimate ambition of the SDLP, was not its primary objective.
The election result was yet another illustration of Unionist divisions. Thirty-nine of the Unionist party candidates gave their allegiance to the Faulkner approach but, in an echo of O’Neill’s 1969 crossroads election, ten others refused to do so. Unionist rejectionists won 27 of the 78 assembly seats with 235,000 votes, while Unionists supporting the initiative won 22 seats with 211,000 votes. Faulkner thus emerged from the election leading a bitterly divided party and without a majority among Unionist voters. His best hope was that, if a working system of government could be set up, its successful functioning would gradually attract more Unionist popular support.
The powersharing project that was to follow was based on the idea of combining the more moderate parties in a new coalition which would run Northern Ireland on a partnership basis. Both republican and Unionist extremes were to be excluded from this centrist idea - in fact they excluded themselves by refusing to take part in it - but as time went by, the theory ran, support for the extremes would dwindle.
While this scheme was politically coherent, two sets of statistics, concerning electoral support and the level of violence, help show just how formidable were the forces ranged against it. A majority of Unionist voters were against the proposition, while perhaps 30,000 or more of them were so opposed to accommodation that they joined loyalist paramilitary groups prepared to use force to resist what they saw as any further erosion of Protestant rights. There was a certain overlap of the political and paramilitary within the assembly itself, where half a dozen or more anti-deal Unionists had connections with shadowy loyalist groups. In the political centre only a small number of voters supported cross-community parties, the non-sectarian Alliance party being the most prominent, with 9 per cent of the vote.
On the nationalist side the SDLP dominated, having taken 22 per cent of the overall vote and representing in one party virtually all of constitutional nationalism. Nationalism had by this stage regrouped into two very distinct and opposing positions, most Catholics voting for the SDLP. Republicans were not, however, represented, having boycotted the elections: in the 1980s they would build a significant vote but during the 1970s they did not contest elections. Most of those who opted for a violent path came together in the IRA, known in those days as the Provisional IRA, which believed in an eventual republican victory achieved through force. Only a few individuals and organisations, such as Bernadette Devlin, the rump of the Civil Rights Association, and the Official IRA, did not align themselves with either of the two large nationalist groupings.
Republicans made their presence felt not in the assembly but by means of the continuing IRA campaign of violence. The death toll fell substantially in 1973, almost halving from the previous year’s figure of 497. The number of victims in almost every category roughly halved. In round figures during the year 130 civilians were killed as well as 80 members of the security forces. Republicans were responsible for 140 deaths, loyalists for 90 and the security forces for 30. The year also had fewer horrors than 1972, though there were some multiple death tolls, as in Coleraine in County Londonderry where an IRA bomb killed six people. There were also fewer loyalist torture killings, though UDA members killed an SDLP politician and a woman friend by stabbing them dozens of times. Although taken overall the year was a clear improvement on 1972, the continuing violence provided an unhelpful backdrop to attempts to build a new politics based on harmony and partnership. The total figure of 263 killings meant that hardly a newspaper or evening television programme did not bring news of either a killing or a funeral.
When the assembly met it turned into a forum for division rather than for a new start. Its first meeting in July set a pattern of repeated unruly gatherings, with hours of rowdy and rancorous debate, many obstructive points of order and a great deal of personal abuse. Yet even as the assembly chamber became a byword for acrimony, real negotiation was going on behind the scenes as Whitelaw, the Unionist party, the SDLP and Alliance argued out the details of a new settlement. In October Faulkner won the support of his party’s standing committee for powersharing with the SDLP, though only by the narrow majority of 132 votes to 105.
A new element of inter-party trust appeared as the negotiations went on, helped by the SDLP’s position on one touchstone issue, when the party indicated it would call for an end to the rent-and-rates strike which it had previously endorsed as a protest against internment. But such thorny subjects as the composition and powers of the new executive and the Council of Ireland, together with issues such as policing and internment, were difficult areas which required many months of negotiation.
Faulkner was forced to fight major battles within his own party as senior figures such as John Taylor fought a strong rearguard action against the emerging new settlement. Faulkner eventually won the backing of his party’s ruling council, though by the ominously small majority of 379 votes to 369.
By November the talks had achieved agreement on most of the major issues but were stalled on the composition of the eleven-man executive (no women were in line for office) and had yet to settle the form of the Irish dimension. Faulkner insisted that his party should have a majority in the executive while the SDLP and Alliance pointed out that he did not command a majority within Unionism and certainly not within the assembly. Whitelaw told Edward Heath that he expected the talks to fail and made plans to return to London to make a statement in the Commons on 22 November. On the day before, however, he piled the pressure on the parties to reach agreement by having his helicopter land, visibly and very noisily, on the lawn outside Stormont Castle where the talks were taking place.
A last-minute breakthrough was achieved with the aid of the ingenious device of creating a new category of extra ministers. Faulkner would have a majority within the eleven-strong executive, which was to be made up of six Unionists, four SDLP and one Alliance. But four extra non-voting ministers were to be appointed, so that the full executive would consist of seven Unionists, six SDLP and two Alliance members. This piece of sleight-of-hand meant that Faulkner could claim he had a Unionist majority while non-Unionists could simultaneously claim he had not.
The next step was to assemble the three parties which would form the executive, together with the London and Dublin governments. They met at a civil service training centre at Sunningdale in Berkshire in late 1973, the deal which emerged from it becoming known thereafter as the Sunningdale Agreement. Whitelaw, the principal architect of the new settlement, was promoted to a senior post in London, Heath believing that he needed his talents for his government’s confrontation with trade unions in Britain. He was replaced by the less experienced Francis Pym only four days before the Sunningdale conference took place.
The principal tasks of the gathering were to agree on the Council of Ireland’s composition and functions, to deal with the subject of greater north-south security co-operation, and to attempt to settle the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. After high-pressure late-night sessions, with Heath personally taking a leading role, the shape of the Council of Ireland was eventually hammered out. It would consist of seven northern and seven southern ministers, a consultative tier with thirty members of the Irish parliament and thirty members of the assembly, and a permanent secretariat. It was to have ‘executive and harmonising functions’.
All of this was alarming to Unionism, smacking as it did of a dangerous and potentially growing Dublin foothold in Northern Ireland affairs. Faulkner thus tried hard to water down the powers of the Council of Ireland but in the end had to accept much more than he had bargained for. He later defended his concessions on the council’s functions and powers on the basis that they were 'nonsense' that 'meant nothing in practice’ because executive ministers and the assembly would have to agree to anything proposed by the new body.
Although London and Dublin were able to reach agreement on most issues, they had to agree to differ on a number of points and especially on one hugely important issue. In the absence of an agreed single statement on the status of Northern Ireland, the governments agreed that separate statements should be printed side by side in the final conference communiqué. This was seen both as an oddity and as a sign of continuing British-Irish differences. The Irish government statement ‘fully accepted and solemnly declared that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired a change in their status’. Dublin did not, however, propose to delete or change Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which Unionists regarded as an offensive claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. Some in Dublin favoured such a move, but the problem was that the constitution could only be changed by a referendum. If a referendum had been held and lost, the entire initiative would have been undermined.
On the issue of cross-border security co-operation there was also much division. Faulkner’s main demand was for the extradition of suspects to Northern Ireland, but Dublin resisted this, proposing instead the creation of a single all-Ireland court and a common law enforcement area, allowing terrorist offenders to be tried in whichever jurisdiction they were arrested. The fact that the issue was referred to a London-Dublin commission was a significant blow to Faulkner. He had hoped to return from Sunningdale with a southern guarantee of Northern Ireland’s status and a new extradition deal which he could present as political and security gains.
The Sunningdale conference dealt also with the issue of policing. John Hume held that it would be difficult for SDLP members to take their places in a Northern Ireland executive if they were not able to give support to the police force. He argued however that this support would be almost impossible to sell to nationalists unless the police force was tied in some way to the Council of Ireland, a link which could offer the nationalist community some guarantees on policing. Although the SDLP had reluctantly conceded that there would be no change to the name of the RUC, at Sunningdale they were insistent that the Council of Ireland must have some policing oversight role. In his memoirs the Irish Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald, recalled that the Dublin delegation privately concluded that the Unionists had fared badly on most of the major issues, and thus it decided that on policing Faulkner should be allowed to prevail. The result was that the council’s role in policing was largely cosmetic. Faulkner would later insist that this role was ‘tenuous and totally meaningless’, but for many Unionists the mere existence of a council was objectionable.
The Sunningdale conference was something of a cultural clash: the Unionist delegation decided not to use the drinks cabinet provided in their room in case their judgement should be affected. Other delegations laboured under no such inhibitions, first exhausting their own supplies and then gladly accepting the Unionist supplies. Faulkner’s team instead sent out for Polo mints. However, the hours of intense negotiations engendered growing understanding and respect. Faulkner would later write: ‘There was a feeling of comradeship and trust between those of us who had been through hundreds of hours of negotiations, and a sense almost of moral purpose.’
As the parties returned to Northern Ireland, Unionists could point to a reassuring Irish declaration on Northern Ireland’s status, a law commission to tackle cross-border security problems and a Council of Ireland which they argued was largely toothless. The SDLP could claim victories in securing a role at the highest level of government, together with new all-Ireland institutions with the potential to evolve. Both the SDLP and the Faulkner Unionists claimed success, but as one historian pointed out: ‘They were contradictory arguments. The success of the agreement depended on neither side listening to what their allies were saying about it.’
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
Last modified :