In the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on March 5, 1976, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees announces the dissolution of the short lived Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (NICC).
The Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention is an elected body set up in 1975 by the United Kingdom Labour government of Harold Wilson as an attempt to deal with constitutional issues surrounding the status of Northern Ireland.
The idea for a constitutional convention is first mooted by the Northern Ireland Office in its white paper The Northern Ireland Constitution, published on July 4, 1974. The paper lays out plans for elections to a body which would seek agreement on a political settlement for Northern Ireland. The proposals become law with the enactment of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 later that month. With Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Robert Lowry appointed to chair the new body, elections are announced for May 1, 1975.
The elections are held for the 78-member body using the single transferable vote system of proportional representation in each of Northern Ireland’s twelve Westminster constituencies. Initially the body is intended to be purely consultative, although it is hoped that executive and legislative functions can be devolved to the NICC once a cross-community agreement has been reached. Unionists opposed to the NICC once again band together under the umbrella of the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and this coalition proves the most successful, taking 46 seats.
A number of leading Northern Ireland politicians are elected to the NICC, increasing hope that the body might achieve some of its aims. Also elected are some younger figures who go on to become leading figures in the future of Northern Ireland politics.
The elections leave the body fundamentally weakened from its inception as an overall majority has been obtained by those Unionists who oppose power sharing as a concept. As a result, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention Report published on November 20, 1975 recommends only a return to majority rule as had previously existed under the old Parliament of Northern Ireland government. As such a solution is completely unacceptable to the nationalist parties, the NICC is placed on hiatus.
Hoping to gain something from the exercise, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees announces that the NICC would be reconvened on February 3, 1976. However, a series of meetings held between the UUUC and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) fail to reach any agreement about SDLP participation in government, and so the reconvened NICC once again fails to achieve a solution with cross-community support. As a result, Rees announces the dissolution of the body on March 5, 1976 and Northern Ireland remains under direct rule.
On the face of it, the NICC is a total failure as it does not achieve its aims of agreement between the two sides or of introducing ‘rolling devolution’ (gradual introduction of devolution as and when the parties involved see fit to accept it). Nevertheless, coming as it does not long after the Conservative-sponsored Sunningdale Agreement, the NICC indicates that no British government will be prepared to re-introduce majority rule in Northern Ireland. During the debates William Craig accepts the possibility of power-sharing with the SDLP, a move that splits the UUUC and precipitates the eventual collapse of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party (VUPP).
The idea of electing a consultative body to thrash out a deal for devolution is also retained and in 1996 it is revived when the Northern Ireland Forum is elected on largely the same lines and with the same overall purpose. The Forum forms part of a process that leads to the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Assembly.