Issue 3-2023-200dpi

27 March 1997 Edition

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Remembering the Past: A victory for a risen people

Peter O'Rourke describes the events that led to the fall of Stormont 25 years ago

In March 1972, after 50 years of mis-rule and discrimination against the nationalist population, the Stormont parliament, whose bigotry had become too embarrassing even for the Tory government in England, was suspended and direct rule imposed from London.

Established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and confirmed by the Treaty of December 1921, the unionist regime immediately began to consolidate their artificially-created state with the aid of the RUC and the infamous Special Constabulary and backed by draconian legislation (the Special Powers Act, introduced in March 1922).

During the following decades, pogroms against the nationalist population, the denial of basic civil rights and other measures, including the introduction of internment without trial, became the order of the day. Discriminated against in employment, education, housing and at elections, the nationalist minority was treated as second class citizens in the `Protestant state for a Protestant people'.

The campaign by the Civil Rights Association in the late 1960s for equality in housing, education, employment and at elections, was met with a ferocious onslaught by the Stormont regime. When the Civil Rights Association took to the streets in peaceful protest in support of its demands during the winter of 1968-'69, it was savagely attacked by the RUC and the B Specials, backed up by loyalist mobs.

It quickly became apparent that Stormont had no intention of granting any reforms despite pressure from the British government, which was alarmed at the worldwide publicity being given to the civil rights marches. Attempts by Terence O'Neill, the Six-County premier, to grant modest reforms, were met with violence from extreme loyalists led by Ian Paisley.

During the spring of 1969 loyalists, backed-up by the RUC and B Specials, began a campaign of murder against the nationalist population. This culminated in organised pogroms the following August against Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry. After three days of riots and pogroms during which 100 people died, the majority of them nationalists, British troops were deployed in a number of areas in the North, much to the relief of the beleaguered nationalist population.

As the promised radical reforms by the Westminster government turned out to be purely cosmetic, the nationalist population became further alienated and realised, particularly after the Falls Road Curfew of July 1970, that the British troops were not `peacekeepers' but were there to back up the RUC and prop up the hated Stormont regime.

Alarmed at the increased activity of the reorganised IRA, which had gone on the offensive against the British, James Chichester-Clarke, who succeeded O'Neill as prime minister, panicked and announced on TV that ``Northern Ireland is at war with the IRA Provisionals''. He flew to London and demanded a series of repressive measures including more troops, increased arrests, a much wider role for the UDR (who replaced the B Specials), a total curfew in nationalist areas and massive search and raid operations into these areas. These measures were rejected by the British.

Chichester-Clarke resigned on 20 March 1971 and was replaced by Brian Faulkner who immediately announced that British troops could now shoot `with effect' at anyone acting suspiciously. He urged Westminster to sanction the use of more repressive measures, including internment, against the nationalist population.

In August Edward Heath, the British prime minister, agreed to the introduction of internment which began at 4.30am on 9 August with swoops throughout the North and the arrest of 342 men, all of them nationalists. But internment was a disaster and totally alienated the nationalist population. Many nationalists who had advocated reform within the Six County state now realised that the state was irreformable.

The shooting dead by British troops of 14 nationalists in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, and the world-wide publicity it received, left the Stormont regime in ruins. The IRA, realising that they were nearing their interim goal, the toppling of Stormont, relentlessly pursued their campaign to achieve that aim.

By March 1972, Stormont's position had become untenable while the British were rapidly sinking in the morass of an unwinnable colonial war. On 23 March Heath issued a three point ultimatum to Faulkner as the price for the continuation of Stormont: a periodic plebiscite on the border; the gradual phasing out of interment; and the transfer of responsibility for `law and order' to Westminster.

Faulkner refused to accept these conditions and the following day Heath announced in the House of Commons that Faulkner and his cabinet had resigned, Stormont was being suspended for one year and that direct rule was being introduced from Westminster. William Whitelaw became the North's first direct ruler.

The introduction of direct rule was a watershed, after 52 years loyalist rule in the Six Counties was at an end. The one year suspension of Stormont was a charade; the parliament was gone, probably for ever.

It had taken half a century, but Stormont was dead, and it was the nationalist people, spearheaded by the IRA, who had killed it. The IRA could now press ahead to achieve its ultimate aim, a 32-County independent Irish republic.

The Stormont parliament was abolished and direct rule imposed from London 25 years ago this week.

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