The search for a political solution - attempt at power-sharing, 1973-74

The search for a political solution - attempt at power-sharing, 1973-74

The Sunningdale Agreement

  • The Sunningdale Agreement was signed in December 1973 in an attempt to end the political crisis in Northern Ireland.
  • It advocated for a power-sharing executive comprised of both unionist and nationalist politicians.
  • A key aspect of the treaty was establishing a Council of Ireland, which provided for cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • William Whitelaw, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the politicians of major Northern Irish parties, signed the agreement.
  • The Sunningdale Agreement was the first instance that both governments agreed to the principle of consent: Northern Ireland would remain a part of the UK until a majority of its citizens agreed to a united Ireland.

Power-Sharing Executive and Assembly

  • The power-sharing executive was formed in early 1974, with Unionist Brian Faulkner as Chief Executive and Social Democratic And Labour Party (SDLP) leader Gerry Fitt as his deputy.
  • The Northern Ireland Assembly, chosen by proportional representation, consisted of representatives from various parties including the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Alliance Party and others.
  • This was the first time that Nationalists and Unionists shared power in Ireland.

Ulster Workers’ Council Strike

  • The new structure was fiercely opposed by many Unionists. In May 1974, a coalition of hard-line Unionists and loyalist paramilitaries executed the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) Strike.
  • This widespread strike across Northern Ireland led to the breakdown of services - electricity supply was particularly hit, causing confusion and disruption.
  • The strike demonstrated the huge opposition that existed amongst the Protestant/Unionist community to the power-sharing executive and the proposal for closer cooperation with the Republic of Ireland.

Demise of the Sunningdale Agreement

  • The British government was unable to break the UWC strike, and consequently, the lack of public order and social chaos forced the power-sharing executive to resign.
  • The Assembly was suspended in May 1974 thereby marking the end of the Sunningdale experiment.
  • Dire consequences followed with Northern Ireland being ruled by Direct Rule from London, and an upsurge in violence and political turmoil.

Understanding the downfall of the Sunningdale Agreement and the failure of power-sharing during this period may give insight into the complexities of the Irish-British relations and the many issues surrounding the governance of Northern Ireland.