seamus dubhghaill

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


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1973 Northern Ireland Assembly Election

politics-of-northern-irelandElections to the Northern Ireland Assembly take place on June 28, 1973 following the publication of the British government‘s white paper Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals which proposes a 78-member Northern Ireland Assembly, elected by proportional representation. The election leads to power-sharing between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland for the first time.

From June 7, 1921 until March 30, 1972, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland is the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which always has an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) majority and always elects a UUP government. The Parliament is suspended on March 30, 1972.

Shortly after this first parliament is abolished, attempts begin to restore devolution on a new basis that will see power shared between Irish nationalists and unionists. To this end a new parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, is established by the Government of the United Kingdom on May 3, 1973.

Following the June 28 elections, the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, which receives the Royal Assent on July 18, 1973, abolishes the suspended Parliament of Northern Ireland and the post of Governor and makes provision for a devolved administration consisting of an Executive chosen by the Assembly.

One hundred eight members are elected by single transferable vote from Northern Ireland’s eighteen Westminster constituencies, with five to eight seats for each depending on its population. The Assembly meets for the first time on July 31, 1973.

A cross-community coalition of the Ulster Unionist Party under Brian Faulkner, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is agreed in November 1973 and, following the Sunningdale Agreement, a power-sharing Executive is established from January 1, 1974.

After opposition from within the Ulster Unionist Party and the Ulster Workers’ Council strike over the proposal of an all Ireland council, the Executive and Assembly collapses on May 28, 1974 when Brian Faulkner resigns as Chief Executive. The Northern Ireland Assembly is abolished by the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

In 1982 another Northern Ireland Assembly is established at Stormont, initially as a body to scrutinise the actions of the Secretary of State, the British minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland. It receives little support from Irish nationalists and is officially dissolved in 1986.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 formally establishes the Assembly in law, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. The first election of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly is on June 25, 1998 and it first meets on July 1, 1998. However, it only exists in “shadow” form until December 2, 1999 when full powers are devolved to the Assembly. Since then the Assembly has operated intermittently and has been suspended on five occasions.


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Formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

northern-ireland-civil-rights-associationThe Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organisation that campaigns for civil rights in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s, is formed in Belfast on April 9, 1967. The civil rights campaign attempts to achieve reform by publicising, documenting, and lobbying for an end to discrimination in areas such as elections (which are subject to gerrymandering and property requirements), discrimination in employment, in public housing and alleged abuses of the Special Powers Act.

Since Northern Ireland’s creation in 1922, the Catholic minority suffers from varying degrees of discrimination from the Protestant and Unionist majority. Many nationalist historians regard the ethos of Northern Ireland as unambiguously sectarian, however, academic and author Senia Paseta posits that discrimination was never as calculated as republicans maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed. In fact, laws against religious discrimination are enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland’s constitution. No government of Northern Ireland, even if they want to, can create laws which overtly discriminated against any religious body of peoples.

The genesis of NICRA lay in a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between the Wolfe Tone Societies which is attended by Cathal Goulding, then chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). During its formation, NICRA’s membership extends to trade unionists, communists, liberals, socialists, with republicans eventually constituting five of the thirteen members of its executive council. The organisation initially also has some unionists, with Young Unionist Robin Cole taking a position on its executive council. Official Sinn Féin and Official Irish Republican Army influence over NICRA grows in later years, but only as the latter’s importance declines, when violence escalated between late 1969 until 1972, when NICRA ceased its work.

Events escalate in Northern Ireland until August 1969, when the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march is attacked as it marches through the city’s walls and past a perimeter with the nationalist Bogside. Initially some loyalist supporters throw pennies down from the walls onto Catholics in the Bogside. Catholics then throw nails and stones at loyalists leading to an intense confrontation. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) intervenes, and a three-day riot known as the Battle of the Bogside ensues. Rioting quickly spreads throughout nationalist areas in Northern Ireland, where at least seven are killed and hundreds wounded. Thousands of Catholics are driven from their homes by loyalists. These events are often seen as the start of the Troubles.

In a subsequent official inquiry, Lord Leslie Scarman concludes, “We are satisfied that the spread of the disturbances [in Derry in August 1969] owed much to a deliberate decision of some minority groups to relieve police pressure on the rioters in Londonderry. Amongst these groups must be included NICRA, whose executive decided to organise demonstrators in the Province so as to prevent reinforcement of the police in Londonderry.” In December 1969 and January 1970, both Sinn Féin and the IRA split into “Official” and “Provisional” wings, with the “Official” wings retaining influence in NICRA.

The British government introduces internment on August 9, 1971 at the request of Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. The British Army, in co-operation with the RUC, intern 342 people. One hundred sixteen of those interned are innocent of involvement with the IRA and are quickly released.

The introduction of internment is not a closely guarded secret, with newspaper editorials appearing and discussion on television. The IRA goes underground or flees across the border. As a result, fewer than 100 arrests are from the IRA. By this stage, support for NICRA begins to wane, however NICRA continues to organise anti-internment marches. In Derry on January 30, 1972 NICRA takes part in a mass anti-internment march which had also been banned. Fourteen unarmed demonstrators are shot and killed by British troops during the march which becomes known as Bloody Sunday.


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Northern Ireland Falls Under Direct Rule from Westminster

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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The Sunningdale Agreement

council-of-irelandThe Sunningdale Agreement, an attempt to establish a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive and a cross-border Council of Ireland, is signed at Sunningdale Park in Sunningdale, Berkshire, England on December 9, 1973. Unionist opposition, violence, and a loyalist general strike causes the collapse of the Agreement in May 1974.

On March 20, 1973, the British government publishes a white paper which proposes a 78-member Northern Ireland Assembly, to be elected by proportional representation. The British government would retain control over law, order and finance, while a Council of Ireland composed of members of the executive of the Republic of Ireland, the Dáil Éireann, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly would act in a consultative role.

The Northern Ireland Assembly Bill resulting from the White paper becomes law on May 3, 1973, and elections for the new assembly are held on June 28. Republicans boycott the elections and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) continued its campaign of opposition throughout the outcome.

After the Assembly elections, negotiations between the pro-White Paper parties on the formation of a “power-sharing Executive” begin. The main concerns are internment, policing, and the question of a Council of Ireland. On November 21, an agreement is reached on a voluntary coalition of pro-agreement parties. This new power-sharing Executive take up office and have its very first meeting on January 1, 1974. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is deeply divided – its Standing Committee votes to participate in the executive by a margin of only 132 to 105.

Provisions for a Council of Ireland exist in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, but these have never been enacted. Unionists resent the idea of any “interference” by the Republic of Ireland in their newly established region. In 1973, after agreement has been reached on the formation of an executive, agreement is sought to re-establish a Council of Ireland to stimulate co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. Talks are held between December 6-9 in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale between the British Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Irish Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the three pro-agreement parties. On December 9, a communiqué announcing the agreement is issued, which later becomes known as the “Sunningdale Agreement.”

On December 10, the day after the agreement is announced, loyalist paramilitaries form the Ulster Army Council, a coalition of loyalist paramilitary groups, including the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, which oppose the agreement.

In January 1974, the Ulster Unionist Party narrowly votes against continued participation in the Assembly and Brian Faulkner resigns as leader. He is succeeded by the anti-Sunningdale Harry West. In March 1974, pro-agreement unionists withdraw their support for the agreement, calling for the Republic of Ireland to remove the Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution first. These Articles are not revised until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Following the defeat of a motion condemning power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Ulster Workers’ Council, a loyalist organisation, calls a general strike for May 15. After two weeks of barricades, shortages, rioting, and intimidation, Faulkner resigns as chief executive and the Sunningdale Agreement collapses on May 28, 1974.

(Pictured: Unionist Party leader and designated leader of Ulster’s new executive, Brian Faulkner, sits with SDLP leader Gerry Fitt and John Hume, during talks at Sunningdale, Berkshire, to establish a Council of Ireland.)


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Mary Robinson Elected First Woman President of the Republic

mary-robinson-1Mary Robinson becomes the first woman to be elected President of the Republic of Ireland on November 7, 1990. She becomes the first Labour Party candidate, the first woman, and the first non-Fianna Fáil candidate in the history of contested presidential elections to win the presidency.

Brian Lenihan, the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence is chosen by Fianna Fáil as their candidate, though he faces a late challenge for the party nomination from another senior minister, John P. Wilson, TD. Lenihan is popular and widely seen as humorous and intelligent. He has delivered liberal policy reform (relaxed censorship in the 1960s), and is seen as a near certainty to win the presidency.

Fine Gael, after trying and failing to get former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and former Tánaiste Peter Barry to run, ultimately nominate the former civil rights campaigner and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) member Austin Currie. Currie is elected to Dáil Éireann in the 1989 general election and has been a minister in Brian Faulkner‘s power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland from 1973–1974. However Currie has little experience in the politics of the Republic and is widely seen as the party’s last choice, nominated only when no one else is available.

The Labour Party lets it be known that it would for the first time run a candidate. Along with the Workers’ Party, Labour nominates the independent candidate Mary Robinson, SC, a former Labour Party member and senator, and liberal campaigner. Robinson is a former Reid Professor of Law in the Trinity College, Dublin. She is previously involved in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform and the campaign to save Wood Quay.

Lenihan enters the race as odds-on favourite. No Fianna Fáil candidate has ever lost a presidential election. However, Lenihan is derailed when he confirms in an on-the-record interview with freelance journalist and academic researcher Jim Duffy that he has been involved in controversial attempts to pressurise the President, Patrick Hillery, over a controversial parliamentary dissolution in 1982. As a result of the contrast between his public denials during the campaign and his confirmation during an earlier interview recorded in May, he is dismissed from the Irish government.

At this point a cabinet colleague, Pádraig Flynn, launches a controversial personal attack on Mary Robinson “as a wife and mother,” an attack that is itself attacked in response as “disgraceful” on live radio by Michael McDowell, a senior member of the Progressive Democrats, then in coalition with Fianna Fáil and up to that point supporting Lenihan’s campaign. Flynn’s attack is a fatal blow to Lenihan’s campaign, causing many female supporters of Lenihan to vote for Robinson in a gesture of support.

Lenihan nonetheless receives a plurality of first-choice votes. Mary Robinson beats Austin Currie, forcing Fine Gael’s candidate into third place. Under Ireland’s system of single transferable vote, Robinson receives over 75% of the transfers when Austin Currie is eliminated, beating Lenihan into second place and becoming the seventh President of Ireland.

While the role of the presidency in day-to-day politics is a very limited one, the Robinson presidency is regarded by many observers as a watershed in Irish society, symbolising the shift away from the conservative ultra-Catholic male-dominated Ireland which existed up until the end of the 1980s to the more liberal society symbolised by Robinson.

Robinson is generally credited with raising the profile of the office of president, which has been considered little more than an honorary figurehead position under her predecessors. Prior to Mary Robinson’s presidency it was not unusual to hear commentators advocating the abolition of the office of president, a viewpoint that is almost never advanced nowadays.


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Anne Letitia Dickson Elected UPNI Leader

anne-letitia-dicksonAnne Letitia Dickson is elected leader of the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI) on September 15, 1976, becoming the first woman to lead a political party in Ireland.

Born in London on April 18, 1928, Dickson moves with her family to Northern Ireland at an early age and is educated at Holywood and Richmond Lodge School. After service as the Chair of the Northern Ireland Advisory Board of the Salvation Army she becomes actively involved in politics for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Elected as chair of the Carrick Division Unionist Association she later becomes a member of the Newtownabbey Urban District Council, serving as Vice-Chair from 1967 to 1969.

Dickson is then elected as an Ulster Unionist politician for the Carrick constituency in the Parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont as a supporter of Prime Minister Terence O’Neill. After the dissolution of the Stormont Parliament, she is elected in the 1973 Assembly election for South Antrim as an Independent Unionist candidate having resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party in 1972.

After the Ulster Unionist party split in 1974 over the Sunningdale Agreement, Dickson joins the newly formed Unionist Party of Northern Ireland along with other supporters of former Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner. She retains her seat in South Antrim in the 1975 constitutional convention election. After the retirement of Brian Faulkner in 1976 she becomes leader of the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, becoming the first woman to lead a major political party in Northern Ireland.

In 1979 Dickson contests the Belfast North constituency in the Westminster election, polling 10% of the vote, the best performance by a UPNI candidate in Northern Ireland, however her intervention is sufficient to split the moderate Unionist vote resulting in the seat being gained by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The Unionist Party of Northern Ireland disbands in 1981 after poor results in the local government elections and Dickson retires from active politics. Subsequently she is chair of the Northern Ireland Consumer Council from 1985 to 1990.