Will the Belfast Agreement go the way of Sunningdale?
Can two parties with opposing long-term aims ever work together in the common interest?
State papers: Cosgrave and Faulkner go for a walk during a break in the Sunningdale talks
The Sunningdale conference of December 1973 was important even though it did not succeed in its immediate objective of bringing peace to Northern Ireland. It marked a first step towards the close working co-operation between the British and Irish governments, which was to prove essential to subsequent settlement attempts; and some concepts, structures and ideas developed at that time found their place, in a more developed form, in the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
The conference, the first such meeting since partition, met over four days and nights in a civil service training college in Sunningdale, near London. Those attending included the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave; and the British prime minister, Ted Heath; six other Irish ministers; two other British ministers; and both countries’ attorneys general. Three parties from the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly – Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance, led respectively by Brian Faulkner, Gerry Fitt and Oliver Napier – and a number of officials from both governments – also took part, but not DUP or Sinn Féin. Ian Paisley flatly rejected an invitation to address the opening session; and Sinn Féin, linked with the Provisional IRA in the republican movement, was banned at the time and still years away from being admitted to the political arena.
The conference concluded with an agreed communiqué, which provided for a powersharing executive in Northern Ireland – a novel idea at the time – and a North-South Council of Ireland with “executive, harmonising and consultative” functions. These new institutions were underpinned by solemn declarations by each of the two governments that were also new: in parallel columns the Irish government declared that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people there desired it; and the British government declared that if the majority of the people of Northern Ireland indicated a wish to become part of a united Ireland, it would support that wish.
Ted Heath, in an acrimonious public exchange with Jack Lynch, refused to accept that anyone outside the UK could participate in meetings 'to promote the political development of any part of the United Kingdom'
This, however, was only a first stage. Following further work, a second, formal conference, attended by both governments and the new Northern Ireland Executive, would be held “early in the New Year”. A formal agreement would then be signed and registered at the United Nations as an international treaty.
The agreement to a North-South Council of Ireland in which it would have no direct role was a remarkable change in British government policy and a clear contrast with its position four years before.
In August 1969, when there was serious trouble in Derry and Belfast, the minister for external affairs, Dr Hillery, was rebuffed in London: British Labour ministers told him Northern Ireland was an internal matter and they could not consult about it with the Irish government. Even as late as August 1971, the Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath, in an acrimonious public exchange with the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, refused to accept that anyone outside the UK could participate in meetings “to promote the political development of any part of the United Kingdom”.
Throughout the early 1970s Lynch spoke frequently of his hope of future Irish unity by agreement, while also pressing two points on the British government: the “winner-takes-all” Stormont system, which resulted in permanent unionist government over half a century, was wholly unsuited to the divided community of Northern Ireland; and the Irish government had to be involved in reaching a settlement.
In March 1972, following Bloody Sunday, the British government ended the Stormont parliament, assumed direct rule over Northern Ireland for the first time since 1921, and looked for a new approach. This came in October, in a Green Paper that marked a decisive turning point in British policy and seemed to reflect much of what Lynch had called for.
It saw strong arguments for “giving minority interests a share in executive power”; and, crucially, it recognised what it called “the Irish dimension” of the Northern Ireland problem. A White Paper on similar lines followed in March 1973. It proposed a conference between the two governments and “the leaders of the elected representatives of Northern Ireland opinion”.
Another view is that Sunningdale was premature: the time to seek to end a conflict is when there is stalemate and both sides are exhausted. That was not the case in 1973
In Dublin a new coalition government, led by Liam Cosgrave and Brendan Corish, replaced Fianna Fáil. It continued Lynch’s approach and developed it further. In intensive exchanges over nine months, the two governments agreed the principle of a Council of Ireland to give expression to “the Irish dimension”. This cleared the way for Sunningdale, where both governments joined Faulkner’s Unionist Party, the SDLP and Alliance, in signing the agreed communiqué.
The new Northern Ireland Executive where Unionists, SDLP and Alliance shared power for the first time ever, took office in January 1974. It worked well initially. But Faulkner’s support from unionists proved shallow. It fell further when a UK-wide election in February in effect invited a premature judgment by unionists on the new institutions. Heath lost office to Harold Wilson. In Northern Ireland unionist opposition grew vociferous and more militant; paramilitary violence continued on both sides; and in May, an electricity workers’ strike that blocked power stations and threatened chaos by paralysing industry, brought down the five-month old new Executive. Sunningdale, born in hope, was at an end.
Why did it fail? One view is that a Council of Ireland, especially a strong council, was too much for unionists to accept. But there would be no agreement without it, since Northern nationalists would reject a purely internal settlement. Another view is that Sunningdale was premature: the time to seek to end a conflict is when there is stalemate and both sides are exhausted. That was not the case in 1973. But to say that is to buy into the view that the issue in Northern Ireland was essentially a war between republicans and the British government. The Northern Ireland problem was always deeper and more multifaceted than this, as later settlement attempts recognised by identifying three interlocking sets of relationships: internal Northern Ireland; North-South; and east-west.
Sunningdale was the first serious attempt to devise political institutions to accommodate this complexity. It did not succeed in its time. But the outline of some of its elements – the possibility of change in the status of Northern Ireland but only by consent, a sharing of power in Northern Ireland, and a structured link between North and South – can still be discerned in the corresponding, but more developed, provisions of the 1998 settlement. One element, however, common to both, is now in question. Can two parties with opposing long-term objectives, which are obliged to share power, really work together in the immediate common interest, or must it always be a zero-sum game?
- Noel Dorr is a former Irish diplomat and was a member of the Irish delegation at the Sunningdale talks. Sunningdale: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland is published by the Royal Irish Academy