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New Myths of the Peace Process No. 1: 2007 in 1973… Sunningdale: our last best hope for peace… December 10, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in New Myths of the Peace Process, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North, Ulster.


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the Peace Process and the Troubles have generated a number of ‘myths’ as regards the actions, motivations and implications of various players within the Process and during the Troubles. This is a game everyone has been playing. Nationalists, Unionists, Republicans, Loyalists, Republican dissidents and indeed the British and Irish. It’s a game which is played in order to support partisan political stances, to provide moral legitimacy and so on. Is it revisionism, rewriting of history or just the natural process by which narratives are developed? Without some analysis we’ll never know. So, here’s an on-going series of pieces. Enjoy, or perhaps not…


Perhaps the most interesting new myth, or narrative, of the Peace Process is the one which goes as follows: In 1973/4 everything that was in the Good Friday Agreement was available – this was the great lost opportunity for Northern Ireland.

The Sunningdale Conference is seen as the high water mark of potential before the sustained spiral into violence. Sometimes the ‘blame’ for this is landed at PIRA’s door, other times at Ulster Unionism. This myth links into, but is not identical, to another myth which argues that everything in the Good Friday Agreement was also available in Sunningdale.

I’ll address the second soon, but here concentrate on the first.

Firstly Sunningdale wasn’t a single Agreement, but more accurately was a term to describe a rolling process of negotiations and Agreement that predated the Conference. It came on foot of a British government White Paper, “Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals’ published in March 1973. This outlined a power sharing assembly – elected by PR – and a Council of Ireland. One can point to elections to a Northern Ireland Assembly as the first element of the process. The Ulster Unionist Party was mandated by a fairly close vote of 381 to 231 by its governing body the Ulster Unionist Council to engage. This first hurdle reached and grudgingly jumped the government then introduced a Northern Ireland Assembly Bill. The Assembly was to have 78 members from which a power-sharing executive would be drawn dependent upon party strength.

In June the elections to the Assembly were held and a remarkably high figure of 72.3 per cent voted.

Joe Lee in Ireland 1912-1985 argues that the June 1973 Assembly elections were crucial:

This might have been once more a critical moment in determining the fate of the North…had all nominally constitutional parties chosen to cooperate, the lines would have been clearly drawn between constitutionalism and violence.

The problem is the ‘nominally’ in the above sentence. Brian Faulkner could count on 23 seats from the 78 seat assembly, 27 seats were held by dissident Official Unionists, DUP and the near fascist Vanguard Unionists Progressive Party. Alliance held 8 seats and the SDLP 19. That 27 seats, and some of the 23 of the Faulkner cohort were simply not wedded to constitutionalism as was to be seen within the year.

Lee argues that:

By refusing to cooperate with Catholics in the Executive, Paisley and Craig pandered to the supremecist instincts of their grass roots, and effectively sabotaged whatever possiblity there may have been of peaceful evolution. They might have responded that their supporters would not permit them. But if the unionist grass roots were not prepared to contemplate powersharing with a Catholic party to try to make the state work, then it was difficult to see what future there could be for Northern Ireland as a state.

And remember, this is before Sunningdale was implemented. In November Willie Whitelaw appointed an Executive. Six Official Unionists joined one Alliance and four SDLP members. Faulkner became Chief Executive, Gerry Fitt became his Deputy.

The agreement reached was clearly a precursor of the Good Friday Agreement. And much as a two state solution is the obvious – although apparently unattainable outcome of any serious Palestinian/Israeli peace negotiations – so it was with the general outline of a settlement for the North. An internal devolved administration. Cross-border or all-island links. The continuation of Northern Ireland as a part of the UK until a majority within it voted otherwise. The removal or amendment of Articles 2 and 3. And so on.

Interesting, is it not, that it was a Conservative government under Edward Heath which fixed upon these? And perhaps a certain historical irony since the all-island aspect was merely a reworking of the original approach in the 1920-22 period and in particular the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

So what were the specific aspects of the power sharing administration and Assembly? Well, they didn’t retain foreign relations, defence, electoral arrangements, the judiciary or emergency legislation. But they did oversee industry, education, planning, agriculture and social services. And much like the GFA policing was ‘reserved’ with the option of transferring it from London to Stormont in the event of a successful implementation of the Agreement.

In a way this was interesting, since it largely avoided significantly contentious issues such as the RUC (which in the more recent agreement was parked to a semi-detached process of change that in some respects bled much of the poison away from the issue). But in so doing effectively left the de facto situation intact.

On the 9th of December 1973 at the Sunningdale Agreement the three parties to the Agreement, the Executive, Ireland and Britain decided upon a Council of Ireland. This Council was as Lee says ‘unlikely to wield any real power for the foreseeable future’. But that didn’t stop a headlong rush back to the trenches. The OUP promptly split with six MPs leaving to support Harry West (supported by the OUPs governing UUCouncil) and leaving just 21 MPs supporting Faulkner. While on paper the pro-Executive forces were still greater than the anti-Executive forces the game was almost up.

I think Lee links the two crucial issues. On the one hand powersharing was in and of itself almost definitely a bridge too far for Unionism as a whole at that point in time (worth noting too how evenly balanced Unionist sentiment was in 1998 and after) and the splintering on the Unionist flanks indicates that they almost certainly wouldn’t have countenanced it for any length of time. However, the Council of Ireland was also crucial to Sunningdale as a means of pulling back some support from Republicans. And here is the central paradox. An agreement in 1973 meant that Unionism was in a position where they had to concede too much, but still too little to ensure societal stability.

But there is a danger in suggesting that the process was one of only Unionism conceding principles or issues. Richard Bourke in his interesting, if not entirely persuasive, Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas, notes that ‘… from a Unionist perspective, the first obstacles to agreement were overcome on the opening day of the talks when the SDLP made it clear that it would accept an oath of allegiance to the new constitution – including by implication, acknowledgement of the legitimacy of NI as a politically subordinate part of the UK’. This was by no means inconsiderable. It represented an historic recognition by Irish Nationalism – underpinned by the Republic of Ireland – of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland and perhaps even a form of rapprochement.

Alvin Jackson in Home Rule: An Irish History 1800-2000 argues that ‘it might have been better to bank the achievement of a power-sharing executive and postpone the adjustment of cross-border relations until the new consensual government in the North was more securely rooted.’. And yet, it would have been near impossible to bring Nationalism to the table – to a table that specifically rooted Northern Ireland within the UK – without some sort gesture towards the island at large.

Joe Lee suggests that: “Sunningdale arguably represents one of those tantalising ‘lost opportunities’ for a start…”. But perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps Sunningdale was doomed from the start since it was simply too early in the process for a ‘solution’ to command sufficient support across Nationalism, Republicanism and Unionism to prosper. That’s a cold analysis, I know. And one that comes dangerously close to suggesting that the weight of human life lost in the subsequent period in some sense provided a ballast for a future Agreement.

But violence has a momentum all its own, and those who used it, threatened it, or had even recently relinquished it all had their part to play. And that part was universally profoundly negative. A small yet telling point is, as Richard Bourke writes, that… … the Republican Clubs – the political wing of OIRA – actually stood in the contest. They stood however in opposition to the government’s constitutional proposals.

To me it seems that there these dynamics which while having influence on each other didn’t necessarily operate in a clear anti-thetical fashion. For example. Unionist intransigience, indeed inability to accept power sharing was a feature of the ruptures in Unionism from the off. Looking at the historical record I find it near impossible to believe that there was any genuine space for power sharing before the mid to late 1980s.

Now that butted straight into Republican intransigence in the sense that PIRA would not accept any devolved or internal solution. But I think it is more difficult to argue that the PIRA campaign in and of itself was a more important block to political progress than the then existing Unionist mindset.

However, it is also clear as time went on that revanchist Unionism was willing to use PIRA violence as an excuse for not engaging.

The remarkable, arguably deliberate, ambivalence of Seamus Mallon’s quip during the negotiations prior to the GFA about “Sunningdale for slow learners” encapsulates all the paradoxes and contradictions of later attempts at settlement. Who were the slow learners? Unionism, unable to or incapable of dealing with powersharing? Republicanism, unable to countenance any deal which recognised – however – grudgingly the reality of Unionism on the island and the consequent reality of continuing links between the North and Britain? An Irish state equally unable, although arguably willing, to reconsider its own identity or a British one unable to maintain the integrity of an agreement it was desperate, but not quite desperate enough, to see implemented.

And who then was to blame? It may be unpopular to say this, but I don’t believe that it is possible to apportion blame at this point. It really was too early in the process to allow for the significant changes that were envisaged. The original Stormont was too recent a memory for a Unionism dislocated by the events of the previous four years. Republicanism in all its strands was unlikely to accept any compromise at this point, and in any event was arguably too embedded to be ignored (although the signs are mixed on that point). Nationalism was prepared to do a deal. But then, from the point of view of Hume and the others, they were effectively pushing an open door with a British government which was as noted previously – desperate to see progress. And the Republic? As locked in its own way into a different set of narratives as the Unionists… and therefore unable to make the clear gestures that would have given some succour (but to my mind still insufficient) to Unionist fears.

And herein lies the problem with historical ‘what-ifs’. 1973 did not see a great new dawn. By contrast it saw yet another tightening of the screw. In a way it reminds me of historical debate over the proposed German invasion of Britain in 1940. All the evidence indicates that – despite a plethora of fictions to the contrary – the British would have repulsed the Germans had they seriously intended to invade. Either German forces would have been too few in number, or their capacity to cross the Channel was too limited or the British navy could have forced them from any towns they managed to take on the coast. In other words when analysed in detail it is clear that there was no way there could have been a German victory given the material circumstances. And the North in 1973 and 1974 seem to me to be the same. For all the wishes and hopes that have been retrospectively mapped onto the Sunningdale process the actuality was of a Northern Ireland that was simply ill-equipped on all sides (bar Nationalism – but being wise before the event is hardly much use if there is no means to effect change) to engage.

And much like Israel/Palestine, to know the shape of a solution is by no means the same thing as knowing how to bring about the circumstances that would allow for the implementation of that solution. That lesson was to be taught to all the players in the subsequent 25 years.


1. Garibaldy - December 12, 2007

Seeing as you’re feeling the lack of comments. We discussed this recently on another thread, otherwise I would have jumped straight at this.

I think you’re right that for too many, on both sides of the divide, it was too early. But that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility. As for the Republican Clubs, I wouldn’t underestimate how big a deal standing in this election was. And the opposition to the arrangements was to some extent due to the compulsive element of power sharing, and thus not due to any feeling that a local government missed the main conflict, which was with Britain, as the Provos argued. On the failure, a large part of it was the failure of the British Army to do what it was told, as well as unionist opposition. It made the unionist opposition so much more effective than it would have been otherwise. It might be one element missing from your post.

What ifs may only be parlour games, but they are fun. And if we are to understand what happened, we need to understand the other possible outcomes and how likely they were.


2. Tom Griffin - December 12, 2007

“On the failure, a large part of it was the failure of the British Army to do what it was told, as well as unionist opposition.”

Interesting, if slightly involved, titbit on this.

Merlyn Rees told a press conference on 31 May 74 that the Chief of the General Staff had been present at the cabinet meeting that decided to send troops into the oil depots.

The CGS insisted that this was not true and demanded that the NIO set the record straight. The Military Assistant that wrote the letter was Major Charles Guthrie, the same Lord Guthrie who led the charge against Gordon Brown in the Lords last month.


3. Cathal Lalor - December 12, 2007

Counterfacuals are not helpful. We simply do not know what might have been….
Of more significance is how to characterize what happened. Anthony McIntyre in his forthcoming book (Good Friday, the death of Irish republicanism, intro Ed Moloney, on Amazon) seems to be suggesting, just going by the title, that republicanism was not only defeated but now its dead. But Eamonn McCann is saying that republicanism is THE problem, presumably because it inhibits cross-communal class struggle, and thus impedes the historical development of the workers revolution. Axes are grinding, oxes are being gored. It seems that those who lost are this time struggling over whose version of the story is told. (assuming that the defeated don’t accept the official British/Irish/U.S. and-Gerry Adams-account). So confusion reigns. Can this story ever be comprehensible?


4. WorldbyStorm - December 12, 2007

In a way I don’t think this is a what if, it’s a how did it come about and I agree with you completely Garibaldy as regards it being a big step for the RClubs to step up. On the other hand, by worrying about the ‘compulsory’ nature of power sharing I think that once again they missed the wood for the trees.. And Cathal makes an interesting point I’ll try to address later about the story being comprehensible. Tom, the linkages on the UK side are sometimes worryingly contemporary. What has the good Lords view on matters Irish been since?


5. Starkadder - December 12, 2007

I’ve been reading Ian S. Wood’s book “Crimes of Loyalty” and he
suggests in his section on the Ulster strike that many sections of
the British Army were sympathetic to the strikers and might
have disobeyed orders from the Labour government.

This is plausible, given that it was the time in the UK when
rightist organisations such as the infamous National Association For Freedom in Britain would seriously discuss actually rebelling against the
Labour government (see the book Pinochet in Piccadilly,
by Andy Beckett).


6. jake - December 12, 2007

how come none of you crypto provos have raised sinn fein’s lurch to the right at the weekend – i mean where do ‘lefties too stubborn to quit’ stand on that, or to re-phrase it, how can you ignore it? what a silly question, of course you’ll ignore it or at least explain it away – big lad’s strategic brain, trick up his sleeve, worker’s republic still the goal etc, etc


7. Garibaldy - December 12, 2007

Nice one Jake. Put everybody in their place there. Especially The Workers’ Party members among us.


8. Ed Hayes - December 12, 2007

Aye, the well known crypto provo site. maybe you could give us run down on their conference then Jake?


9. Tom Griffin - December 12, 2007


The Freedom Association still exists. One of its council members, Winston Churchill, was instrumental in forming the new UK National Defence Association, which appears to have played a role in the former defence chiefs’ attack on Gordon Brown last month:


10. Starkadder - December 12, 2007

Thanks for that, Tom Griffin. I was aware that the
National Association for Freedom/Freedom Associatiion
were in the ultra-right in the UK, part of the
same milieu that included the Monday Club and the
Western Goals Institute.
I didn’t know about the defence’s chiefs attack on
Brown. It seems their members are still active at a high level in
British politics.


11. WorldbyStorm - December 12, 2007

Tom, that’s even more disturbing. David Leigh’s “The Wilson Plot” has more on these matters on pp222. Field Marshall Lord Carver who was approached about various plots and refused to participate was ‘regarded with grave suspicion…. he never spoke out against defence cuts sufficiently’. Sort of contemporary resonance…


12. Tom Griffin - December 12, 2007

Very much so. In a recent issue of Lobster Robin Ramsay suggested that the Iraq War showed the politicans were very much on top of the ‘permanent Government’ in Britain, but one does begin to wonder if the old pattern isn’t being resumed.

Incidentally, there’s some intriguing stuff about Churchill on p237-8.


13. WorldbyStorm - December 12, 2007

And it’s so contradictory. The military didn’t want the Iraq war, but they, naturally, want the military. The political class did. But they don’t want a very strong military.

Interesting reference. Leigh takes a very benevolent view of these matters as they pertain to WS.


14. Nick Cohen’s musings on the McGuinness Presidential campaign. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - September 28, 2011

[…] But that’s to reify but one element in the equation because Cohen ignores the unwillingness of vast bulk of political Unionism to share power with nationalism – not Sinn Féin but the SDLP, an unwillingness that was reiterated time and again through the 1970s and on into the 1980s. And this unwillingness wasn’t predicated by the activities of the IRA – though it didn’t help, but rather was an intrinsic belief on the part of unionism that power-sharing in and of itself, even with the mildest of nationalist formations was simply wrong. This issue was engaged to some degree here. […]


15. After Sunningdale… | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 13, 2013

[…] (that’s the interpretation of Socialist Democracy, Danny Morrison amongst others), but I’ve always wondered whether he was also talking about unionism. Collins certainly appears to forget that Sunningdale wasn’t brought down by PIRA, but by an […]


16. The Spectator, Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA | Daniel Collins - May 22, 2016

[…] Lounge Revolution’s ‘WorldbyStorm’ has further challenged Seamus Mallon’s latter-day contentions that the Good Friday Agreement was a […]


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