seamus dubhghaill

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


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Dissolution of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention

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.


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Assassination of Norman and James Stronge

Sir Charles Norman Lockhart Stronge and his son James, both former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Members of Parliament, are assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) at their home, Tynan Abbey, on January 21, 1981. The home is then burned to the ground.

Before his involvement in politics Stronge fights in World War I as a junior officer in the British Army. He fights in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and is awarded the Military Cross. His positions after the war include Speaker of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland for twenty-three years.

Stronge (86) and his son, James (48), are watching television in the library of Tynan Abbey when members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, armed with machine guns, use grenades to break down the locked heavy doors to the home.

The Stronge family home is then burned to the ground as a result of two bomb explosions. On seeing the explosions at the house, as well as a flare Stronge lit in an attempt to alert the authorities, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and British Army troops arrive at the scene and establish a roadblock at the gate lodge. They encounter at least eight fleeing gunmen. A twenty-minute gunfight ensues in which at least two hundred shots are fired. There are no casualties among the security forces but the gunmen escape. The bodies of the father and son are later discovered in the library of their burning home, each with gunshot wounds in the head. It is not known who died first, Norman or James. Under the legal fiction known as the doctrine of survival, James is still listed as succeeding to the baronetcy.

The village of Tynan is crowded for the joint funeral of Stronge and his son. Mourners come from throughout the province and from England, including lords, politicians, policemen, judges and church leaders. The coffin is carried by the 5th Battalion the Royal Irish Rangers, the successors to his old regiment. The sword and cap of the Lord Lieutenant of Tyrone, Major John Hamilton-Stubber, are placed on his coffin in lieu of his own, which had been destroyed with his other possessions in the fire. During the service, a telegram sent from Queen Elizabeth II to one of Sir Norman’s daughters, is read. After the service, the chief mourners move out into the churchyard where the “Last Post” is sounded and a Royal British Legion farewell is given. The two coffins are laid in the family plot, where Lady Stronge, Sir Norman’s wife and mother of James, was buried a year previously.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, is informed by friends of the Stronge family that he would not be welcome at the funeral because of government policy on Irish border security. Atkins leaves the Northern Ireland Office later that year, to be replaced by Jim Prior. Stronge is commemorated with a tablet in the Northern Ireland Assembly Chamber in Parliament Buildings on the Stormont Estate.

The IRA releases a statement in Belfast, quoted in The Times, claiming that “This deliberate attack on the symbols of hated unionism was a direct reprisal for a whole series of loyalist assassinations and murder attacks on nationalist peoples and nationalist activities.” This follows the loyalist attempted murder of Bernadette McAliskey and her husband Michael McAliskey on January 16, and the loyalist assassinations of four republican activists (Miriam Daly, John Turnley, Noel Lyttle and Ronnie Bunting) which had taken place since May 1980.

The killings are referred to as murder by multiple media sources including The Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman, The New York Times and Time magazine, by the Reverend Ian Paisley in the House of Commons and by Alec Cooke, Baron Cooke of Islandreagh in the House of Lords.

Stronge is described at the time of his death by Social Democratic and Labour Party politician Austin Currie as having been “even at 86 years of age … still incomparably more of a man than the cowardly dregs of humanity who ended his life in this barbaric way.”

The ruins of Tynan Abbey are demolished in 1998, having stood for 249 years.


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Gerry Adams & David Trimble Meet at Stormont

On November 4, 2002, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams meet face-to-face for the first time since the suspension of Northern Ireland‘s power-sharing government in an attempt to break the deadlock in the peace process. They meet at Stormont as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, continues his round of meetings with the political parties in an attempt to find a way to end the deadlock.

The province’s institutions are suspended on October 14 following a row over allegations of Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity, including alleged spying within the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Speaking after a 40-minute meeting with Trimble, Adams says they had had a “useful exchange of views.” But he adds, as expected, “there were very few conclusions in terms of the big picture….I asked Mr. Trimble how he thought things could be sorted out and Mr. Trimble had no particular suggestion to offer. But it was a good meeting.”

The Sinn Féin president says he had suggested to Trimble that each leader could address the executive of the opposite’s party. “He declined. But I hope he will think about the suggestion.”

Trimble says no significant developments came out of the meeting. He adds that the onus is on the republican movement to move the process forward. He dismisses Adams’s suggestion that they should address each others’ parties as a “stunt.”

Elsewhere on this date, Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen and Northern Secretary Paul Murphy also hold talks with a Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) delegation in Dublin. Among the items on the agenda are how to restore the North’s devolved political institutions and whether or not the next Northern Ireland Assembly elections will be held as planned the following May.

Adams leaves for Washington, D.C. the following day, where he is expected to brief President George W. Bush‘s Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, Richard N. Haass. He also plans to visit New York, New Jersey and Canada for fund-raising events during his six day trip.

(From: “Trimble Adams meeting ‘useful'”, BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk, November 5, 2002)


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Harland & Wolff Cranes Listed as Historic Monuments

samson-and-goliathSamson and Goliath, the twin shipbuilding gantry cranes situated in the shipyard of Harland & Wolff at Queen’s Island, Belfast, are listed on October 9, 2003, as historic monuments to ensure their preservation. The cranes, which are named after the Biblical figures Samson and Goliath, dominate the Belfast skyline and are landmark structures of the city.

The cranes are constructed by the German engineering firm Krupp, with Goliath being completed in 1969 and Samson in 1974. Goliath, the smaller of the cranes, stands 315 feet tall, while Samson stands 348 feet in height. Goliath sits slightly further inland closer to Belfast City. At the time Harland & Wolff is one of the largest shipbuilders in the world. The announcement that they are to be built is an important event at the time.

Each crane has a span of 459 feet and can lift loads of up to 840 tonnes to a height of 230 feet, making a combined lifting capacity of over 1,600 tonnes, one of the largest in the world. Prior to commissioning, the cranes are tested up to 1,000 tonnes, which bends the gantry downwards by over 12 inches. The dry dock at the base of the cranes is the largest in the world measuring 1,824 feet × 305 feet.

At its height, Harland & Wolff boasts 35,000 employees and a healthy order book, but in the years following the construction of the cranes, the workforce and business declines. The last ship to be launched at the yard to date is a roll-on/roll-off ferry in March 2003. Since then the yard has restructured itself to focus less on shipbuilding and more on design and structural engineering, as well as ship repair, offshore construction projects and competing for other projects to do with metal engineering and construction. Initially there is concern that the now largely redundant cranes would be demolished. However, on October 9, 2003 they are scheduled as historic monuments under Article 3 of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Northern Ireland Office Minister of the time Angela Smith states, “These cranes are an essential part of our city, our roots and our culture.” The cranes are not, technically, “listed buildings,” but are recognised by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as buildings of “architectural or historic interest.”

Shipbuilding has ceased in Belfast, but the cranes are retained as part of the existing dry dock facility within the restructured shipyard, situated adjacent to the Titanic Quarter, a business, light industrial, leisure, and residential development on land now surplus to the heavy industrial requirements of the shipyard on Queen’s Island. They are kept in working order and used for heavy lifting by Harland & Wolff in its other activities.