Northern Ireland

Alex Kane: Who learned most from January 7, 1974?

Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner
Faulkner Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner

Almost fifty years ago to the day, Monday January 7, 1974, Brian Faulkner resigned as leader of the UUP.

It followed a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council (the party’s governing body) on January 4—a meeting which Faulkner described as ‘an extremely acrimonious debate’—at which a motion opposing the proposed all-Ireland Council in the Sunningdale Agreement was supported by 454 to 374.

The motion, proposed by John Taylor and Harry West (who was to succeed Faulkner as leader) wasn’t framed as a motion of confidence. But shortly after the result was declared, Taylor said, “If Brian Faulkner were an honest man he would now resign leadership of the Unionist Party’.

It was always going to be a difficult call for Faulkner. His party had rejected a key element of the Sunningdale Agreement and if he remained leader he would either be defying the UUC vote if he ploughed ahead with the Council; or risking the automatic collapse of the new executive if he tried to extricate the UUP from supporting it.

His best option—and hindsight is a wonderful thing of course—would have been to seek a further meeting of the UUC a couple of weeks later (it’s what David Trimble would have done) and see if he could muster support for a much broader motion in favour of continuing with the power-sharing experiment and at the very least give it time to find its legs.

He might even have been able to gather some support from the UK and Irish governments, along with the SDLP and Alliance, his executive partners; buying him some time, in other words.

Alex Kane

The executive had only met for the first time on January 1 and, as Faulkner noted, ‘it was impossible to expect that after only four days of this completely new form of government for Northern Ireland we would have effectively proved our value to the people of the Province’.

Yet how could he lead the executive forwards if, at the same time, his own party was trying to lead him backwards? He spoke to his twenty-three UUP assembly member supporters over the weekend: two told him they would no longer support him, while the others gave him their full support. So, on the morning of Monday 7 he sent his letter of resignation to the Chairman of the UUP’s Standing Committee.

Read More: Mike Nesbitt says Sinn Féin ‘want Northern Ireland to work’ in bid to win border poll

John Manley: Electorate won’t forgive further stalling from the DUP

I was back at school after the Christmas break—I was in upper sixth and preparing for A Levels, including politics—and didn’t hear about Faulkner’s decision until my dad picked me up in the afternoon. He was a member of the UUP and quietly supportive of Sunningdale: he recognised the obvious difficulties for unionists, but still thought it was worth giving the new deal a chance. His first words to me—and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember them exactly after all this time—were, “It’s over for Brian and Sunningdale. He has closed down all options within the party”.

Faulkner had closed down all of the options. He was now a leader and Chief Executive without a party or party structure in place. He was leader of a pro-Sunningdale party grouping which accounted for a minority of unionist assembly members, the rest of whom were anti-Sunningdale.

His resignation meant that the leadership of the UUP would pass to an unambiguously anti-Sunningdale replacement who would, in turn, shift the party from its previous support for devolution, power-sharing and the recognition of an ‘Irish dimension’. Crucially, resignation meant the UUC never got the chance to have the post-January 4 debate it needed about Sunningdale.

Just before an interview I did with David Trimble in September 2015 I asked him what he had meant a few years earlier when, in an apparently throwaway line, he said, “I wouldn’t have done a Faulkner”.

Neither of us could remember the exact context of the line, but he did tell me that he thought Faulkner was too quick to resign and that he should have grasped the chance to reassemble the UUC—”the officers would never refuse a request from the leader to address the governing council”—and restate the case for the very thing he had taken so many risks for.”

What really did for Faulkner, though, was the decision by Edward Heath to call the Who-governs-Britain general election in February 1974. Faulkner and his allies hadn’t had time to form a new political machine, the executive hadn’t had time to get its act, while the UUP had appointed a new leader and created an anti-Sunningdale electoral/political coalition—the UUUC—embracing the DUP, Vanguard and elements of loyalist paramilitarism.

That coalition won an overall majority of the total votes cast, albeit just 51%, while Faulkner’s allies mustered just 13%. That was the actual moment Sunningdale died. There was no way back.

Will DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O'Neill sitting at a table in Erskine House, Belfast
Will DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O'Neill form a power-sharing government at Stormont in 2024? (Liam McBurney/PA)

Extraordinarily, that was the moment Faulkner chose to hold on. Having realised that resigning as UUP leader was probably a catastrophic strategic error on January 7—even though he described it as the ‘only honourable course’—he chose to stay on as Chief Executive a few months later, although the anti-Sunningdale unionist mandate dwarfed his own mandate.

Perhaps he believed there was no other option at that point. Perhaps he believed in miracles. Perhaps he believed the hung parliament result of the general election would lead to another election he and his allies would be better prepared for. Perhaps he feared his resignation would lead to the collapse of the assembly and an election at which anti-Sunningdale unionism would top the poll and probably destroy devolution for a generation.

The reality, of course, was that his January 7 resignation had made a difficult situation for him very much worse. He handed the unionist agenda to a collection of parties (many of them entirely new to the political scene) and internal opponents who still hadn’t recovered from the shock of Stormont’s prorogation in March 1972.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble with his ministers
Ulster Talks/ Trimble and his Ministers Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble with his ministers (Paul Faith/PA)

Ironically, the one person who learned most from Faulkner’s decisions in that key period between December 1973 and May 1974 was David Trimble: who, at that time, had been a member of Vanguard and a backroom adviser to the UUUC. Right now, Jeffrey Donaldson is probably reflecting on both men.