Ireland Revisited: Part 5
Despite 1972 being the bloodiest year of the Troubles, murders and bombings continued at a consistently lethal level. However, the British and Irish governments were desperately working behind the scenes to find a political settlement. This took the form of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973-74.
Despite some general goodwill from both governments the agreement was an overwhelming failure, with the Paisley-inspired United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) ensuring that its protests would be felt throughout local and national government. This, in conjunction with Sinn Fein playing its own traditional role of abstentionism and refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Stormont government, meant that Sunningdale was always likely to end in failure.
The Sunningdale Agreement, like its successor, The Good Friday agreement some 30 years later, sought to establish a coalition government and power-sharing executive, with strong emphasis being placed on trying to encompass republican ideals with those of the unionist tradition. Brian Faulkner and David Trimble both fought the assembly elections as perceived ‘hardliners’ on a policy of not sharing power with supporters of a united Ireland, yet both agreed to work with the SDLP (the only major nationalist party involved in British politics in 1973).
Ian Paisley took a strong anti-agreement stance in both 1973 and 1998 but wielded much more political clout and grass roots support in 1998. His campaign for a ‘NO’ vote in 1998 brought him many more voters who believed Trimble, like Faulkner in 1973, was selling the Unionist cause “down the river” as well as giving too many concessions to nationalists.
In both agreements ‘d’Hont’ – where both parties share power instead of just one – was prevalent. This is why the UUP, DUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP all have positions in government even though in 2011 the DUP is the largest political party in Northern Ireland.
One key aspect of the Sunningdale Agreement was the British Government’s promise of reviewing internment. However, with the benefit of hindsight it is fair to assume that perhaps Sunningdale did come too early for the majority of people in Northern Ireland, perhaps the 30 years of intense murdering and bombing enlightened people to the idea of sharing power with their apparent ‘enemies’.
Was nationalism/republicanism and unionism/loyalism ready to share power in 1973? Most likely not. Sinn Fein, as a political party in 1973 could only be described as amateur and naïve – a party only really starting the long political learning curve. On the 17th May 1974, against a backdrop of increasing loyalist violence, bombs exploded in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 32 people and an unborn child. The no-warning bombs, carried out by the UVF, sought to remind the Irish government that any ‘Irish dimension’ in the Sunningdale Agreement would be opposed by militant loyalists and its implementation would lead to further acts of rebellion in the South of Ireland.
Harold Wilson’s British government knew the crippling situation in the North and South of Ireland would have potentially disastrous repercussions for the stability of his government and therefore he subtly backed away from the situation. However, the pro-Sunningdale unionist members of the power-sharing executive knew that Sunningdale could never work in the current climate and therefore resigned.
Direct rule from Westminster was immediately imposed as a ‘temporary measure’; however it would last 25 years….
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