The path to a political solution in Northern Ireland
Chronology of attempts before and since the Anglo-Irish agreement
Loyalist protestor outside Hillsborough during the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement
Under pressure both from Westminster and nationalists, and in the face of escalating violence, the Conservative British government ended the Stormont administration and brought in direct rule from Westminster, ending 51 years of single-party unionist rule.
In late 1973 the Sunningdale Agreement was concluded involving the British and Irish governments, the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance. It led to the first Sunningdale powersharing administration which lasted from January to May 1974. Its executive was formed from the 78-member Northern Assembly elected in June 1973. It was brought down when confronted by fierce unionist and loyalist opposition – with continuing IRA violence also contributing to that collapse.
The 78-member constitutional convention was elected in 1975 with the brief of finding a system of government that would gain widespread support in Northern Ireland. Dominated by unionists strongly opposed to powersharing it ground to a halt in early 1976 without reaching agreement.
The Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference was established by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1981. It was a consultative only body comprised of British and Irish officials which promoted cross-Border co-operation and addressed political, legal and security matters.
The 78-member Northern Assembly was created, brainchild of the then northern secretary James Prior who wanted to see gradual or “rolling devolution”. Because there was no so-called Irish dimension it was boycotted by the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Direct rule continued from London in the meantime. After the Anglo-Irish Agreement it was used by unionists to vent their opposition to the accord. It was dissolved in June 1986.
The New Ireland Forum of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the SDLP and Labour was established to devise an agreed nationalist position on what could constitute a political settlement. Unionists were invited but refused to take part. In May 1984. it put forward three options: a united Ireland, a federal or confederal Ireland, or British-Irish joint authority over Northern Ireland. They were rejected by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1984 in her “out, out, out” comments.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald at Hillsborough in November.
In 1988 John Hume of the SDLP and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin opened up dialogue on how peace might be achieved. It came to nothing but that contact was re-activated in the early 1990s resulting in the secret Hume-Adams talks. Based on those talks, Hume handed over a document to the Irish government in October 1993. While never made public that paper is said to provide the basis for the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993.
While the Hume-Adams initiative was happening secretly the unsuccessful Brooke-Mayhew talks were taking place more publicly. These ran between April 1991 and November 1992. They involved the British and Irish governments and the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland – the UUP, the DUP, the SDLP and Alliance. They were overseen by northern secretary Peter Brooke and his successor Sir Patrick Mayhew. They addressed the three sets of relationships on these islands – within Northern Ireland (strand one), North-South relations (strand two), and British-Irish relations (strand three).
The breakthrough Downing Street Declaration agreed between Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and British prime minister John Major on December 15th. The agreement upheld the principle of consent – a united Ireland only by the wishes of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. It also stated that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest“ in Northern Ireland.
Following the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, taoiseach Albert Reynolds established the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation at Dublin Castle in October that year to help press forward the peace process. The forum was effectively wound up after the IRA ended its first ceasefire in February 1996.
In February, the then taoiseach John Bruton and John Major published the framework documents which envisaged incorporating the principle of consent into the Irish constitution and into British law; and also the creation of a Northern Ireland Assembly.
The 110-member Northern Ireland Forum was elected in May, viewed as a method to smooth the way to serious all-party talks. Sinn Féin boycotted the Forum while the SDLP and the small UK Unionist Party later withdrew from the body. It ran until April 1998.
The Belfast Agreement or Good Friday agreement of April 10th, 1998, was endorsed in referendums North and South the following month. In June, the 108-member Northern Assembly was elected. It met for the first time in July to elect UUP leader David Trimble as First Minister and SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister.
The Northern Executive was formed in December 1999. Due to various disagreements the Executive was suspended four times, the longest period from October 2002 to May 2007.
The St Andrews Agreement of October 2006, involving the British and Irish governments and the North’s five main parties, enhanced the terms of the Belfast Agreement and created the conditions to bring the DUP fully inside powersharing architecture.
Following Northern Assembly elections in March, when the DUP and Sinn Féin were returned as the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams – in a famous face-to-face encounter at Stormont – formally agreed to share executive power.
From May 2007, there has been uninterrupted powersharing at Stormont, notwithstanding boycotts and controversies, the most recent of which was the fallout from the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan and the British government commissioned report which found that the IRA is still in existence and that its army council remains in operation.