Sunningdale: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland, by Noel Dorr review – God help the peacemakers
Dorr deserves our thanks for his comprehensive account of a doomed but, in the longer term, useful attempt to bring an end to a bitter conflict
Former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, the British prime minister Edward Heath, Brian Faulkner, of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Gerry Fitt for the SDLP, signing the communique, watched by the other signatory Oliver Napier (far left) of the Alliance Party, on the agreement to form a Council of Ireland. Photograph: Ciaran Donnelly
Sunningdale: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland
Royal Irish Academy
This important book will be closely read by historians, diplomats and the more thoughtful breed of politician. Its length at almost 500 pages and the level of detail provided may seem daunting the general reader but there are lessons to be learnt from the narrative that should be taken to heart by anyone who wants to see a lasting peace on this island.
Best-known today for its golf-course, in December 1973 the village of Sunningdale in Berkshire was home to a large civil service training college that was chosen as the location for the most sustained effort to resolve, or at least reduce the toxicity of, “The Irish Question” since the Treaty negotiations of 1921.
Senior government figures and civil servants from London, Dublin and Belfast participated in the talks. As an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs, author Noel Dorr was deeply involved in the preparations for the conference and its aftermath. A conscientious note-taker and keeper of records himself, the passage of time means he also has access to a wide range of other documents from that period as well as memoirs and biographies of participants.
It is worth recalling how dreadful the situation had become. The number of deaths related to “The Troubles” since they broke out in 1969 was already close to 1,000. The British government had presided over major disasters such as the one-sided introduction of internment and the killings of unarmed civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday. For its part, the Irish government went through the turmoil of the 1970 Arms Crisis with ministers accused of attempting to import arms for the IRA.
The book chronicles the change in the British attitude in those years. In August 1971, prime minister Ted Heath firmly and publicly rejected the notion that the government in Dublin could participate in meetings on the future of Northern Ireland. But just over two years later, as part of the Sunningdale Agreement, he approved the setting-up of a Council of Ireland linking north and south, in which the British Government would have no direct involvement.
Heath emerges reasonably well from this narrative, as does his Northern Ireland counterpart, Brian Faulkner. Both of them were prepared to change and move with the times in an effort to bring about peace and stability. Unlike Gladstone in the Home Rule era, Heath did not have to contend with a strong pro-unionist opponent such as Lord Randolph Churchill. Faulkner, on the other hand, had many vociferous critics, inside and outside his party.
Jack Lynch as Taoiseach oversaw the laying of foundations for Sunningdale until the change of government in March 1973, and the work was completed by his successor, Liam Cosgrave, with Garret FitzGerald playing a central role as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
The basic problem was that the proposed Council of Ireland “put the frighteners” on large sections of the northern Protestant community, leading to the Ulster Workers’ Council strike which sank the Sunningdale pact.
Looking back on it, the best hope of allaying unionist fears would have been to modify the “claim to the north” in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution but that would not prove politically attainable until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In the interim, the number of Troubles-related deaths increased by around 2,500.
The March 1974 change of government in London didn’t help, as Harold Wilson hadn’t developed the same commitment to the process as Heath. The two governments and even Faulkner himself clearly did not fully appreciate the sheer intensity of loyalist and hard-line unionist opposition to anything bearing even the slightest whiff of potential Irish unity in the future. There is consequently a serious air of unreality about the detailed preparations made for the Agreement.
The Good Friday process showed that, in order to succeed, it was necessary to bring the extremes to the table. Loyalists and republicans with very militant backgrounds were critical to the success of the talks in 1998. As a reporter, I witnessed the heckling that the Reverend Ian Paisley received from erstwhile loyalist allies when he showed-up at Stormont’s Castle Buildings in a last-minute attempt to derail that agreement. The lack of US involvement in the Sunningdale process was another weakness.
Noel Dorr deserves our thanks for his comprehensive account of a doomed but, in the longer term, useful attempt to bring an end to a bitter conflict. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is a well-known phrase but, when you read about all the work carried out for so little immediate result, “God help them” seems more appropriate.
Deaglán de Bréadún is author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (Collins Press, 2008)