Northern Ireland

State papers: Violence at opening of 1974 power-sharing assembly recorded

The Sunningdale power-sharing government of 1974 collapsed following the Ulster Workers Council strike
The Sunningdale power-sharing government of 1974 collapsed following the Ulster Workers Council strike The Sunningdale power-sharing government of 1974 collapsed following the Ulster Workers Council strike

OFFICIAL files released in Belfast this year include a report on violent scenes which marked the opening of the 1974 power-sharing executive and assembly at Stormont.

The document relates to scenes in the assembly chamber at Stormont on January 22 1974 when members of the anti-Sunningdale parties, led by Ian Paisley, seized the seats reserved for the new executive ministers, led by Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt.

They disrupted business and had to be physically ejected by the RUC.

In a report to the clerk of the assembly, Ronnie Blackburn, dated January 29, the Serjeant at Arms Captain John Cartillon noted that, in view of the "threat of disruption to the assembly", considerable police reinforcements had been laid on to deal with any possible disorder.

The official had arranged with Superintendent Gray of the RUC that "should fighting break out in the chamber, then the RUC would be requested to enter to stop any fighting, using the minimal force necessary".

In the event of MLAs being suspended by the speaker, the clerk would direct the members to comply with the ruling. Failing this, he would involve the police who would, as a last resort, "physically remove the member or members concerned out of the chamber".

The official described the rowdy scenes which unfolded: "Immediately after prayers, Major Hall-Thompson (Ulster Unionist) raised a point of order concerning the misappropriation of seats reserved for members of the executive.

"Mr Speaker ordered the members occupying those seats to vacate them. Dr Paisley rose on a point of order which Mr Speaker refused to accept.

"At this, a number of members rose to protest and uproar commenced. Among other disorders which I noticed, I particularly remember Mr (William) Beattie (DUP) snatching the mace and passing it to another member."

It was finally brought to the clerk who had it placed in safe custody until order was restored.

Meanwhile, the clerk observed a Vanguard member, Professor Kennedy Lindsay, jumping on a table and "carrying on what I can only describe as a `war dance'".

The official ascertained that the offending members had been named by the speaker and approached them individually with the request that they should leave the chamber.

He approached Dr Paisley who "said he would have to be put out by the British army. Abuse was hurled at me from other members including Mr Poots who shouted, 'If you don't get out quickly you will get hurt'."

The official took this to be a "threat and not a warning" and then sent for the RUC.

As police entered the assembly, the clerk observed Dr Paisley and other members "seizing the clerk's chairs and placing them as a sort of barricade".

"I remember noting Dr Paisley (and others) violently resisting the police."

Eventually all the members concerned had been ejected including Eileen Paisley "who offered no resistance".

The power-sharing executive finally collapsed as a result of the Ulster Workers' Councils strike in May 1974, leading to 25 years of direct rule.