Politics

Alex Kane: Series of agreements lead unionists to distrust the British government

The Sunningdale talks resulted in agreement on the creation of a power-sharing executive and Council of Ireland
The Sunningdale talks resulted in agreement on the creation of a power-sharing executive and Council of Ireland

On December 5, 1973—the day before the UUP, SDLP and Alliance, along with the UK and Irish governments met to draw up the Sunningdale Agreement—the NI Assembly met. This is how Brian Faulkner summed it up:

‘Paisley arose on a spurious point of order, which was clearly a pre-arranged signal for what followed. There was a concerted physical assault on members of my party by the loyalists. Peter McLachlan was rugger-tackled by Professor Kennedy Lindsay, fell over the bar of the House, and then was kicked in the groin as he lay half-stunned on the floor. Herbie Kirk received a wound on the head which drew blood, and all around the benches members were trading punches and struggling. Basil McIvor was seized by the tie and half-strangled before he hit his attacker so hard he almost knocked him down. Once again, the Assembly was adjourned by the Speaker in grave disorder.’

Maybe it’s a good thing the present assembly is mothballed! Mind you, the biggest change this time is that it is the DUP which is coming under pressure from loyalists, other unionist parties and factions within its own party, not to push ahead with a ‘union-destroying’ agreement. Even if Jeffrey Donaldson did decide to go ahead with it he could end up like Faulkner in January 1974; defeated by his own party executive, forced to resign, yet taking enough of the DUP MLAs with him (along with UUP support) to reboot the assembly. Cue chaos.

Donaldson, who walked away from David Trimble and the UUP at a key moment in 1998, knows his history. Knows it well. Knows that the destruction of Faulkner and Sunningdale in 1974 didn’t deliver alternative success for unionism. Knows too, that his own part in the destruction of Trimble didn’t prevent him from ending up in precisely the same dilemma that Trimble faced: having to endorse an imperfect deal or lose devolution altogether.

The 1973 Sunningdale Agreement did have at least one significant protection for unionism. While a Council of Ireland was to be established, its authority would be tempered by the written acknowledgment that there would be ‘appropriate safeguards’ for the UK’s ongoing financial and other interests in Northern Ireland. That wasn’t enough for the unionists and loyalists, though, who supported the strike that led to the collapse of the assembly in May 1974.

Read More: Unionists no longer dominate the battlefield and shouldn’t pick a fight they cannot win – Alex Kane

Agreement Reached at Sunningdale – On this day in 1973

Now, jump ahead twenty years to the Downing Street Declaration of December 15, 1993. That contained the affirmation that the UK Government had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.’ That was an extraordinary departure from the Sunningdale Agreement (and one that had been flagged up by Secretary of State Peter Brooke in November 1990).

Alex Kane

In essence, the UK Government (John Major was Prime Minister) was declaring itself neutral on NI’s constitutional position; and doing so just months after the UUP had agreed to help him during his struggles with his Maastricht ‘rebels’ in July. Interestingly, the UUP was supportive of Major even though UUP leader James Molyneaux had, on July 11, claimed that peace proposals had been put to the IRA at the end of 1992. Was he hoping Major would repay his support by rowing back from back-channel negotiations?

Jump ahead again to March 2023 when, by an overwhelming majority, both the Commons and Lords endorsed the Windsor Framework, which placed NI in an entirely new position: not fully in the UK, nor fully in the EU.

Almost a century earlier Edward Carson noted in the House of Lords: “Let me say before I sit down…like everyone else, you have betrayed Ulster.” The same language was used by unionists in the House of Commons at various times afterwards, most memorably by UUP MP Harold McCusker in November 1985: “I felt desolate because as I stood cold outside Hillsborough Castle everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth. Even in my most pessimistic moments reading the precise detail in the Irish press on the Wednesday before, I never believed that the (Anglo-Irish) Agreement would deliver me, in the context that it has, into the hands of those who for 15 years have murdered personal friends, political associates and hundreds of my constituents.”

All of the key steps since the prorogation of the NI Parliament in March 1972 have dealt psychological blows to unionism: forcing it to ask itself over and over and over again, how much do successive UK governments actually care about unionism and NI’s position within the UK? I was struck by this particular exchange in the House of Lords last week:

“Do not treat unionists as fools...we know a bad deal when we see it. I believe the Windsor Framework is but another part of the gameplay to destroy the union...the UK government collapsed rather than take a stand for the unity of the United Kingdom.” (Lord McCrea, DUP peer)

“When will the noble lord recognise that the Conservatives now want Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom” (Lord Kilclooney, former UUP Minister, MP, MEP and MLA)

“Sad to say, everything they have been doing recently has led to that conclusion. Sad to say, also, many other people and parties within this chamber have a similar leaning. They want to humiliate unionists and they want to destroy the union.” (McCrea)

In May 1974, just months after the signing of the Sunningdale Agreement, Dr Ian Paisley addresses a mass gathering of supporters in the Protestant Shankhill Road area of Belfast. The Ulster Workers' Council declared that "everything" in the strike-bound Province "stops at midnight" in an attempt to bring down the new Ulster power sharing executive. Picture, PA Archive
In May 1974, just months after the signing of the Sunningdale Agreement, Dr Ian Paisley addresses a mass gathering of supporters in the Protestant Shankhill Road area of Belfast. The Ulster Workers' Council declared that "everything" in the strike-bound Province "stops at midnight" in an attempt to bring down the new Ulster power sharing executive. Picture, PA Archive

I was speaking to an old Westminster friend at the end of October: “The UK wants and needs good relations with the EU (even outside), the US and Dublin. If that means vacillating on NI’s exact constitutional position in the UK, then so be it. British government policy on NI will always be dependent on UK national and international interests. It’s that simple. Yet too many unionists, even those with decades’ experience of Westminster and Downing Street, don’t seem to realise that brutal reality.”

Unionism is at yet another crossroads. Each moment (March 1972, March 1973, December 1973, May 1974, November 1985, December 1993, October 2019, May 2022, March 2023 and December 2023) is, in fact, pretty similar, yet each one brings another hammer blow to morale and another hugely difficult decision to be made. All of which means that the most difficult question and decision is now unavoidable: if unionism cannot trust any UK government to, unambiguously, protect and promote its constitutional position, then what must it do?

It may fall to Jeffrey Donaldson to make the call. I can understand why he has been reluctant to make it, because the consequences, personally and politically, are enormous. Unlike the UUP crisis in 1998—when the DUP stepped up--there is no big enough or organised enough unionist rival to take the lead and offer an obviously better alternative. Leaving it to yet another UK government to help it out of the latest hole wouldn’t, I suspect, end well.