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‘Unionists did not repeat mistake of Sunningdale’

The Sunningdale Agreement was signed on December 9, 1973 following days of negotiation

The Sunningdale Agreement was signed on December 9, 1973 following days of negotiation

Forty years ago today the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement was signed after days of intensive negotiations, and against a backdrop of IRA violence.

But the uneasy agreement on a power-sharing executive to govern Northern Ireland – initiated when Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath held talks with the Irish government and the UUP, SDLP and Alliance – did not satisfy unionists due to the guaranteed role it gave Dublin in the affairs of the Province.

It was criticised strongly by hard-line unionists, including the late Harry West, Ian Paisley and the late William Craig, who did not participate in the negotiations at Sunningdale.

Prominent members in the short-lived power-sharing administration included the SDLP’s Paddy Devlin and Eddie McGrady, Ulster Unionists Roy Bradford and Herbert Kirk and Alliance leader at the time, Oliver Napier.

The day after it was announced a coalition of loyalist paramilitary groups, including the UDA and UVF, formed to oppose the agreement, which was feared as a step closer to a united Ireland.

The power-sharing arrangement lasted five months, before collapsing on May 28, 1974, after the loyalist workers’ strike – something which crippled life in the Province for several weeks.

It resulted in the Conservative government re-imposing direct rule, an arrangement that would remain in place for 26 years.

Lord Kilclooney [John Taylor], a former UUP MP and a minister in the last Stormont government of the 1970s, said the Sunningdale Agreement was “one of the great disasters”.

“It gave the Dublin government executive powers of internal affairs in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“That made it totally offensive to most people in Northern Ireland and that is simply why it was rejected.

“It was passed because Dublin and London agreed it. It wasn’t passed with the approval of the Northern Ireland politicians.

“There are people who say the Belfast Agreement is similar to the Sunningdale Agreement.

“But the Belfast Agreement specifically excludes the Republic from any role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

“That’s why the Belfast Agreement has been a success.

“We learned from the mistakes predecessors had made.”

Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey, a Young Unionist at the time and who was not involved in negotiations, said: “There are two component parts to the agreement, the power-sharing side and the Council of Ireland issue.

“I think to be blunt if it had just been the power-sharing issue it would have survived, but what brought it down at the end of the day was the Council of Ireland.

“The history of the Council of Ireland was to bring about a single Irish parliament outside the UK.

“I think people saw history repeating itself.

“I got the impression they went too far, too fast and links with the Republic were deemed to be heading in a particular direction. That was what scuppered it.

“There was no mandate from the people for doing it.”

 

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