Sunningdale Agreement

From Academic Kids

The Sunningdale Agreement on December 9, 1973, was an attempt to end the Northern Ireland troubles by forcing unionists to share power with nationalists. The Agreement had three parts — an elected Northern Ireland Assembly, a power-sharing cross-community Northern Ireland Executive and a cross-border Council of Ireland. Unionist opposition, Provisional IRA violence and finally a loyalist general strike caused the collapse of the Agreement in May 1974.


The Northern Ireland Assembly

On March 20 1973, the British government published a white paper which proposed a 78-member Northern Ireland Assembly, to be elected by proportional representation. The British government would retain control over law and order, and a Council of Ireland would give the Republic of Ireland and the six counties a voice in each other's affairs. This assembly was to replace the suspended Stormont parliament, but it was hoped that this assembly would not be dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party in the same way, and would thus be acceptable to Irish nationalists.

The Northern Ireland Assembly Bill resulting from the white paper became law on 3 May 1973, and elections for the new assembly were held on 28 June. The agreement was supported by the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, the unionist Ulster Unionist Party and the moderate unionist and cross-community Alliance Party. The pro-agreement parties won a clear majority of seats (52 to 26), but a substantial minority inside the Ulster Unionist Party opposed the agreement.

Republicans boycotted the elections, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army continued its campaign of violence throughout the events described in this article.

The Power Sharing Executive

After the assembly elections, negotiations between the pro-agreement parties on the formation of a "Power Sharing Executive" began. The most contentious issues were internment, policing and the question of a Council of Ireland.

On 21 November, agreement was reached on a voluntary coalition (not unlike the provisions of the Belfast Agreement) of pro-agreement parties. Prominent members of the executive included former Unionist Prime Minister Brian Faulkner as Chief Executive, then SDLP leader Gerry Fitt as Deputy Chief Executive, future Nobel Laureate and SDLP leader John Hume as Minister for Commerce and then leader of the Alliance Oliver Napier as Legal Minister and head of the Office of Law Reform. Again, the UUP was deeply divided — its Standing Committee voted to participate in the executive by a margin of only 132 to 105. Sharing power was totally alien to the unionist majoritarian mentality.

The Council of Ireland

After agreement had been reached on the formation of an executive, the next step was to agree on a Council of Ireland to stimulate co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. Talks were held between 6 December and 9 December in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale between the British Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Irish Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the three pro-agreement parties.

The talks agreed on a two-part Council of Ireland:

  • The Council of Ministers was to be composed of seven members from the power-sharing executive, and seven members from the Irish Government. It was to have "executive and harmonising functions and a consultative role".
  • The Consultative Assembly was to be made up of 30 members from Dáil Éireann and 30 members from the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was to have "advisory and review functions" only.

The Irish government also accepted that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom unless unionists consented to join the Republic.

On 9 December, a communiqué announcing the agreement was issued, which later became known as the Sunningdale Agreement.

The Ulster Workers' Council Strike

The reaction from hardline unionists was extremely negative. It was eventually agreed that the executive functions of the Council would be limited to "tourism, conservation, and aspects of animal health", but this did not reassure the unionists, who saw any influence by the Republic over Northern affairs as a step closer to a united Ireland. They saw their worst fears confirmed when SDLP assembleyman Hugh Logue publicly described the Council of Ireland as "the vehicle that would trundle unionists into a united Ireland".

On 10 December, the day after the agreement was announced, unionist paramilitaries formed the Ulster Army Council — a coalition of loyalist paramilitary groups, including the UDA and the UVF, which would oppose the agreement.

In January 1974 the Ulster Unionist Party narrowly voted against continued participation in the Assembly and Faulkner resigned as leader, to be succeeded by the anti-Sunningdale Harry West. The following month a general election took place. The Ulster Unionists formed the United Ulster Unionist Council as a coalition of anti-agreement unionists with the Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party to stand a single anti-Sunningdale candidate in each constituency. The pro Sunningdale parties, the SDLP, the Alliance, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the "Pro Assembly Unionists" made up of Faulkner's supporters, were disunited and ran candidates against one another. When the results were declared, the UUUC had captured eleven of the twelve constituencies, several of which had been won on split votes. Only West Belfast returned a pro-Sunningdale MP. The UUUC declared that this represented a democratic rejection of the Sunningdale Assembly and Executive, and sought to bring them down by any means possible.

In March 1974, pro-agreement unionists withdrew their support for the agreement, calling for the Republic of Ireland to remove the Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution first.

Following the defeat of a motion condemning power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a loyalist organization called the Ulster Workers' Council called a general strike for 15 May. After two weeks of barricades, shortages, rioting and intimidation, Brian Faulkner resigned as Chief Executive and the Sunningdale Agreement collapsed on 28 May 1974. The unionist unwillingness to share power persuaded many nationalists to support the IRA.

Some twenty-five years after the collapse of Sunningdale, the Belfast Agreement replicated most of its principles and was famously described as "Sunningdale for slow learners" by SDLP Deputy Leader Seamus Mallon.

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