Are people content with no government? If they really want change, they need to vote for it – Alex Kane

50 years after Ted Heath asked the electorate ‘Who governs?’, perhaps the Secretary of State should call an election here

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

The estate of former British Prime Minister Edward Heath is set to be sued by some of the 'Hooded Men'
Edward Heath called a generation election in 1974 asking the question 'Who governs?' – and lost, with voters returning a hung parliament

This time 50 years ago the United Kingdom was preparing for a general election, called by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath on the issue of ‘Who governs?’.

It was an era when the union barons (representing workers, rather than constitutionalists) were able to close down whole sections of business, manufacturing industries, transport, local councils, mines, shipping, schools, hospitals and just about every other area of the public sector – as well as areas of the private economy.

Heath and his government (some of whom were in open rebellion about the UK having joined the Common Market a year earlier without a referendum) were under pressure on just about every front. His economic policies – including anti-inflation strategies – were being shredded every day by trade union leaders (usually claiming to speak for ‘millions of our members’) who were both better known and considerably more powerful than members of his own cabinet.

The country gave a very indecisive answer to his question. The Conservatives lost, but Labour didn’t really win, resulting in a hung parliament with Harold Wilson as PM. The knock-on effect of the election in Northern Ireland – with the new executive just a few weeks in place – was a hammer blow to Brian Faulkner and pro-Sunningdale unionism, which managed just 13% of the overall vote.

Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner
The 1974 general election was a hammer blow for Brian Faulkner and the new power-sharing executive

The recently-formed United Ulster Unionist Coalition may not have had a coherent strategy for replacing Sunningdale with something more to their liking, but they certainly had the numbers – and a 51% electoral mandate – to destroy Faulkner and the entire structures of the new devolution. And 50 years on there is still a majority of unionism/loyalism angry with the latest manifestation of devolution, but still without the coherent strategy to replace it.

On Wednesday, just before joining Talkback for a discussion about Sunningdale, I had a chat with Brian Feeney. We agreed (we sometimes do!) that the real problem with Sunningdale was that it was too early for most unionists to accept. The NI Parliament had been prorogued less than two years earlier and, to be frank about it, unionists hadn’t got over the shock of having to prepare for something entirely different.

And when Faulkner resigned as UUP leader on January 7, retaining the support of the majority of the party assembly members elected the previous June, there was a palpable sense across unionism/loyalism that their voice and mandate was not represented at the heart of the new government.

I bumped into Seamus Mallon at an event shortly before the DUP and SF agreed the deal which restored devolution in 2007. I reminded him about his comment that the GFA was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ and asked him whether, looking back, he thought Sunningdale was just too early (and not just for unionists, since elements of republicanism and SF opposed it, too).

David Trimble and Seamus Mallon shake hands after being elected First and Deputy First Ministers of a new power-sharing government following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, with Assembly Speaker Lord Alderdice looking on
Seamus Mallon, pictured shaking hands with David Trimble after being elected Deputy First and First Ministers respectively in 1998, described the Good Friday Agreement as 'Sunningdale for slow learners'

He took a couple of minutes to think about it before saying something along the lines of, ‘everything always seems too early for some section of unionism. That’s it’s major problem. O’Neill and Faulkner were destroyed. David was destroyed. Let’s see what happens to Ian and the DUP.’

A year later Paisley had been dumped: and just look at the DUP’s dilemma right now, with a new generation section of unionism/loyalism on Donaldson’s tail.

I wonder if it’s time NI had its own ‘who governs’ election? If there isn’t an executive by January 18, the SoS has the power to set the date for one. Maybe he should do just that

I wonder if it’s time NI had its own ‘who governs’ election? If there isn’t an executive by January 18, the SoS has the power to set the date for one. Maybe he should do just that. If the electorate chooses to return the same parties in the same numbers then so be it – they clearly have no problem with the present stalemate or future stalemates. Maybe they’re happy enough with no decision-making power in Belfast, no decision-making power in London and somnambulism as their preferred form of governance.

If they want change – and people keep telling me they do – then they have to vote for change. But that would require big, bold changes in voting habit for hundreds of thousands of people. Are they ready to do that?