Forty years on: what has changed?

UWC Strike.
UWC Strike.

Given the fact that we now have an Executive in which the DUP and Sinn Fein have been co-governing Northern Ireland for seven years (albeit with bad grace and precious little enthusiasm), it’s probably hard for readers under 30 to understand why a previous arrangement involving an off-shoot of the UUP, Alliance and the SDLP resulted in a Province-wide ‘political strike’ which almost brought the place to its knees.

Yet 40 years ago today, May 28, 1974 – and after two weeks of that strike – the power-sharing Executive resigned and direct rule was reintroduced. It was to be another 25 years before the ‘Sunningdale’ Assembly was replaced with the ‘Good Friday’ Assembly.

Seamus Mallon, the SDLP’s former deputy leader, is fond of describing the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. It was a great line, yet it was utterly inaccurate.

The Sunningdale Agreement was never supported by a majority of unionists. Brian Faulkner didn’t command a majority of the unionist representatives in the Assembly: indeed the Ulster Unionist Council rejected the Agreement on January 4, 1974, forcing Faulkner to resign as leader of the party, while hanging on as Chief Executive (or First Minister). Sinn Fein and the IRA did not support the Agreement. In other words the Agreement didn’t enjoy majority support either inside or outside the Assembly.

In terms of unionism that lack of majority support was confirmed in the general election in February 1974 (just weeks after the Assembly swung into action) when the United Ulster Unionist Coalition took 51 per cent of the vote. Faulkner refused to budge.

On May 14 the power-sharing Executive won by 44 votes to 28 an Assembly vote on support for the Sunningdale Agreement. Less than two hours later the Ulster Workers’ Council (a mixture of anti-Agreement unionist parties, paramilitaries and Loyal Order representatives) confirmed the beginning of the strike.

But what, exactly, were unionists objecting to? What was so bad about the Sunningdale Agreement? Well, to begin with, they weren’t psychologically prepared for it. Their former Parliament – which had dominated the political landscape since 1921 – had been done away with just two years earlier and now they were expected to share power with people they regarded as ‘united Irelanders’ – their traditional enemy.

That said, it is worth noting that the Ulster Unionist Party did vote in favour of power-sharing and contested the 1973 Assembly elections on that basis: although, as was to be the case in 1998, some of their candidates opposed the policy!

By November, after months of talks, showdowns and potential collapses, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance agreed an Executive Committee in which the UUP had a majority of just one. The three parties then departed to meet the British and Irish governments at the Civil Service College at Sunningdale, in Berkshire, to discuss the ‘Irish dimension’ aspect of the process. It was at this point that the Council of Ireland proposals were introduced. These embraced an all-Ireland Council of Ministers; an all-Ireland Consultative Assembly with an advisory role; and a wide range of functions covering all-Ireland trade, tourism, transport, culture, sport, the arts and public health advisory services.

One of the great ‘what ifs’ of local history is what would have happened if there hadn’t been a general election in February? It gave Faulkner’s opponents an opportunity to rally around the brilliant campaign slogan of ‘Dublin Is Only A Sunningdale Away’; and the fact that they polled an overall majority of the votes cast also gave them a broader legitimacy to challenge what was, after all, the democratically elected government of Northern Ireland.

From that point on it became a case of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force – and only one side could win.

The strike itself was not quite as dramatic as it is now portrayed. For many people life went on pretty much as normal. Yes, there were stoppages of power and shortages of food, but people weren’t starving and hospitals weren’t turning away huge numbers of people. Blockades came and went; security forces and hooded UDA members faced each other down; nationalist politicians complained that not enough was being done by the British Government to end the strike.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson made a ridiculous comment about strikers who “spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy. Who do these people think they are?”

“We are the democratic majority of the people here,” was the answer he received from former Stormont minister William Craig.

My A Levels started on the same day as the strike started and I completed all of them without interruption. I was very much opposed to the use of paramilitaries to underpin the strike and I was appalled by the bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan on May 17. I do remember wondering – and having long conversations with my dad (a senior unionist and Orangeman in Co Armagh) – about what would happen when Faulkner stood down, because I had no sense of the anti-Agreement parties having a strategy in place.

All I remember is people like William Craig and Glenn Barr saying that Faulkner and the Executive must step down; but that was about it.

I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone anywhere in Northern Ireland when Faulkner and his fellow unionists resigned from the Executive on May 28. There were already tensions between them and Roy Bradford had even suggested talks with the UWC – even though their agenda was the destruction of both power-sharing and the separate Sunningdale Agreement.

It was also clear that Harold Wilson was not going to instruct the security forces to ‘take on’ the paramilitaries. Governments cannot survive for long without majority support – unless they try and use troops to enforce their will. That was never going to happen.

It was, as I suspected, soon obvious that the UUUC and UWC didn’t have an agreed plan to implement after May 28, and 40 years later not much has changed!

Unionists are still deeply divided on the shape and nature of power-sharing with ‘united Irelanders’ and a mixture of voting trends and non-voting suggests that there will be more problems and showdowns.

Forty years on and politics and community relations are still pretty much the same.