seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Northern Ireland Falls Under Direct Rule from Westminster

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Northern Ireland is brought under direct rule from Westminster on May 29, 1974 following the collapse of Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing assembly the previous day.

The power-sharing assembly’s leader, Brian Faulkner, and fellow members resign on May 28. The collapse follows a seven-day general strike organised by militant unionists opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement. Over the week leading up to the collapse industrial production comes to a halt with power cuts of up to eighteen hours. Rubbish is not collected and there are reports that undertakers refuse to bury the dead.

In 1973, the British Government under Edward Heath held talks at Sunningdale in Berkshire with the government of the Irish Republic and three political parties – the Official Unionists led by Faulkner, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the non-sectarian Alliance Party. They agree to set up a power-sharing executive for Northern Ireland and, eventually, a Council of Ireland involving the Republic with limited jurisdiction over issues of joint concern between north and south.

The declaration also recognises the wishes of unionists to remain within the United Kingdom and nationalists for a united Ireland. Both sides agreed the will of the majority should be respected. But hardline loyalists, led by Harry West, Ian Paisley and William Craig, do not attend most of the talks at Sunningdale, and when the proposals are announced, they criticise them strongly.

The new executive formally comes into power on January 1, 1974 but soon runs into trouble. Anti-power sharing unionists do their best to disrupt proceedings and eighteen members including Paisley are forcibly removed by the police.

In February, a general election sees Labour returned to power in Westminster and eleven of the twelve seats in Northern Ireland won by unionists opposed to the deal under the umbrella of the United Ulster Unionist Council. Of those supporting the executive, only Gerry Fitt is elected as the UUUC wins more than 50% of the vote.

With the Sunningdale executive teetering on the edge, the coup de grâce is delivered by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council, which organises a seven-day strike after the assembly approves the agreement in the week prior to the collapse of the power-sharing assembly. Devolved government is not re-established in Northern Ireland until 1998.

(Pictured: Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike outside the Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings, commonly known as Stormont)

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