In Northern Ireland, history repeats itself

As another crisis threatens to destroy hard-won progress, Rhys David looks back to the resignation of Chief Minister Brian Faulkner in May 1974.

Rhys David is a writer and journalist. He was Northern Ireland Correspondent of the Financial Times 1973-1974.

Here we go again, or so it would seem. Not for the first time a painfully-constructed power-sharing government in Belfast ends, bringing back memories of the occasion the province had to be returned to direct rule more than 40 years ago.

In May 1974, it had been a difficult few months and an even more difficult few weeks for the recently established Government led by Ulster Unionist chief minister, Brian Faulkner, and containing some of the best-known Republican-sympathising politicians of the time, including John Hume, Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt as well as representatives from the cross-community Alliance Party.  It had come into being despite considerable opposition from the more extreme wings of Loyalism and Republicanism. Yet, it was slowly establishing its authority and demonstrating the two sides could work together for the good of the troubled province, at that stage nearly 10 years into what were euphemistically called the Troubles and the more than 3,000 deaths they would ultimately bring.

The UK election called by Edward Heath in May 1974 on the question “Who Runs the Country”, –  the Government or striking coal miners – drove the Conservative party from power, ushering in five years of Labour administration under Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan, and paving the way for a further showdown with the miners in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.  In Northern Ireland, however, it brought by way of Westminster seats a sweeping endorsement of Loyalist opposition to the power-sharing executive established after long negotiations at Sunningdale a few months earlier.

The Ulster Workers’ Strike that followed brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. Factories and shops were intimidated into closure, barricades closed roads, and the authorities were at a loss how to respond without seeming to give in to what was in effect an attempted putsch. Electricity supplies were reduced to a trickle, making it quite an effort without a lift to go up and down to the rooms – numbers 510 and 512 – which had been my home for more than a year as the Financial Times Northern Ireland correspondent. The Europa’s manager, the legendary Harper Brown, did his best to look after guests in these circumstances, driving south to the Republic to pick up large tins of ham to put on the table in the absence of hot food.  Press, radio and television gathered from all over the world to see what would be the outcome of this stand-off.

Faulkner’s power-sharing executive pleaded with the UK authorities for decisive police or Army action to break the strike and restore public order but this never came. Instead, a newly-appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, Merlyn Rees, vacillated in the face of this early challenge so soon into his assumption of the role.

The crucial day turned out to be Tuesday May 29th 1974. With civil servants advising that hospitals would have to shut down and that raw sewage could flood low-lying parts of Belfast, the executive split on the issue of whether it should negotiate with the unelected, self-appointed Ulster Workers Council. The Ulster Unionist members, led by Faulkner, decided they had no option other than to resign and ask Merlyn Rees to take back control.  

Summoned to a press conference together with the rest of the press corps I arrived at Stormont after driving past shuttered shops, along roads strewn with makeshift roadblocks, and littered with other debris of civil unrest. Hooded paramilitaries patrolled the roads. After clearing security at the entrance to the long drive and parking outside the monumental Parliament building I decided I would go inside and see what was happening.

As I walked along one of the corridors I came across Brian Faulkner and his entourage proceeding towards me. After trying a few questions, I turned and followed him out to where the rest of the reporters and film crews following the crisis were gathered. Brian Faulkner, a decent man who managed through his efforts to become even less liked on his own side than among his enemies, duly announced his resignation to us and the world and Northern Ireland returned to direct rule until the next set of negotiations led to the Good Friday agreement 20 years later.

Without the UK election, the power-sharing executive would, I believe, have gradually won the support of the people of the province, saving the expenditure of much blood and treasure over the next couple of decades. The misinformation that the Loyalists spread without effective rebuttal about the Council of Ireland, one of the planks of the previous autumn’s Sunningdale Agreement, had been allowed to take root, depriving the executive of the opportunity to win community support.

The situation in 2017 is, of course, very different. Community relations, while still strained are better and previous levels of violence are no longer being recorded, though occasional incidents involving extremists on one side of the other still occur. Nor is the crisis this time a constitutional one, as in 1974 when the prospect of any involvement by the Irish state in Northern Ireland’s affairs was anathema to fierce Loyalists led by Ian Paisley. Yet, the relatively centrist parties led by Faulkner and Hume have lost influence in the interim with the Republican Sinn Fein, and the Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party now the dominant forces in the Northern Assembly and the Government. The once all-powerful Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party have been largely reduced to a watching role.

The next few weeks will be crucial.  Sinn Fein has said it will trigger an election now its leader Martin McGuiness is no longer in place as deputy first minister, an outcome that could harden positions on both sides and make it difficult post-ballot to create a new administration that can agree a programme. There could yet be more talks between the two parties to avoid an election. Or it might be necessary to revert to direct rule from London.

The concern must be that at a time when ministers in Northern Ireland – and London – need to be concentrating on the Brexit negotiations, they will be seriously distracted by instability in the province. The consequences will be even more serious if politicians and public return to their silos and focus more on blaming each other and point-scoring than on trying to ensure a peaceful transition to further power-sharing. The further possible consequences are obvious.

Karl Marx observed that history is repeated first as tragedy and then as farce. That years of painfully-orchestrated co-operation since the Good Friday agreement should founder on the costly mishandling of an unsound renewable heating scheme suggest history this time, however, is being repeated first as farce. It is in everyone’s interest Marx’s other formulation does not now follow.

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