Issue 3-2023-200dpi

4 December 2008 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The Sunningdale Agreement


BY THE END of 1973, the British Army had been redeployed in force on the streets of the Six Counties for over four years. Internment without trial had been imposed in August 1971 and hundreds of nationalists were imprisoned in the Cages of Long Kesh. Nationalist districts were heavily occupied by the British Army and there were frequent IRA attacks against the crown forces and bombings of commercial targets.
The unionist parliament at Stormont had been prorogued and direct rule from London instituted in March 1972. This followed unprecedented national and international reaction against the British Government following Bloody Sunday. Unionists responded with fury to the loss of their parliament but their political response soon fizzled out while sectarian murders of Catholics escalated in 1972 and 1973.
There was a large degree of nationalist unity against internment and repression, including a rent and rates strike which was widely supported. In March 1973, nationalists boycotted the ‘border poll’, a Six-County referendum on the Union with Britain, called by the British Government of Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath. Later that month, the Heath government published a White Paper on the future of the North. It proposed a new assembly, a power-sharing executive and a Council of Ireland to provide for co-operation with the Government of the 26 Counties.
Assembly elections were held in June and there was a pro-White Paper majority elected. Even at this stage, though, the Ulster Unionist Party, led by former Stormont Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, was divided into pro- and anti-power-sharing factions. The other unionist parties were Ian Paisley’s DUP and the rival Vanguard, led by William Craig, former Stormont cabinet minister and loyalist demagogue who used to appear at quasi-fascist rallies in an open car flanked by motorcycle outriders. Vanguard had close links with the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

By the end of November 1973, agreement had been reached on an executive to be headed by Faulkner with SDLP leader Gerry Fitt as his deputy.
On 5 December, Faulknerite unionists were physically attacked by Vanguard and DUP members in the Assembly. The next day, Faulkner’s party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party joined Heath and Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave for talks at the Civil Service Staff College in Sunningdale, Berkshire. They finalised agreement on the Power-sharing Executive and the Council of Ireland. There were differing interpretations of what the latter would entail, with the SDLP claiming it would pave the way for Irish unity.
Also on 6 December, the anti-power-sharing wing of the Ulster Unionist Party joined with the DUP and Vanguard to form the United Ulster Unionist Council. The following February, the UUUC wiped out the Faulknerite unionists in the Westminster general election, winning 11 of the 12 seats in the Six Counties (the twelfth was won by Gerry Fitt in West Belfast).
This was the first fatal blow against the Executive.
There followed the campaign of the Ulster Workers’ Council which culminated in May 1974  with their anti-Sunningdale strike and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, in which 33 people were killed. During the work stoppages loyalist paramilitaries operated openly and without interference from the British Army and RUC.  The power-sharing Executive collapsed at the end of May.

Sunningdale was doomed to failure. There was no peace process. Sinn Féin was banned in the Six Counties, as it had been since 1957. Internment without trial was still in place. The SDLP had pledged never to participate in political institutions in the North until internment was ended. Not only did they break that pledge but their Executive minister, Austin Currie (later to become a Fine Gael TD in Dublin), pursued people for rents and rates arrears incurred during the anti-internment strike which Currie had previously encouraged.
There was nowhere near a unionist majority for power-sharing. The British Government was pursuing a repressive agenda and the British Army was implementing a counter-insurgency strategy involving the use of loyalist murder gangs as surrogates. The Fine Gael/Labour Government’s policy was dominated by the anti-republicanism of Liam Cosgrave and they turned their backs on the North when Sunningdale failed.
For its part, the IRA was pursuing its armed campaign with intensity. A bombing campaign in England had commenced in late 1973. Banned in the Six Counties and without an electoral platform, Sinn Féin put forward its Éire Nua plan for a four-province federal Ireland following a phased British withdrawal.
Much hope had been invested in Sunningdale, especially as 1973 was one of the bloodiest years of the conflict with 252 people killed, but the Agreement collapsed in less than six months.
The Sunningdale Conference took place between 6 and 9 December 1973, 35 years ago this week.

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