Extracts from 'The Northern Ireland Assembly 1982-1986: A Constitutional Experiment' by Cornelius O'Leary, Sydney Elliott and R.A. Wilford(1988)
[KEY_EVENTS] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
Assembly 1982-1986: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Chronology] [Sources]
The following chapter has been contributed by the authors Cornelius O'Leary, Sydney Elliott and R.A. Wilford and the publisher, C.Hurst & Company. The views expressed in these extracts do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is from the book:
Cover image by the Belfast Telegraph
This book is currently out of print:
This chapter is copyright Cornelius O'Leary, Sydney Elliott and R.A. Wilford (1988) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the publisher C.Hurst & Company and the authors. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of C.Hurst & Company. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
THE ASSEMBLY CONSIDERED
As we have seen, political commentators regarded the birth of the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly with some misgivings. When it was dissolved three years and seven months later, an editorial in the Belfast Telegraph stated that ‘its end had been inevitable for months; if not years’ (24 June 1986). It would be easy therefore for the chronicler to record that the institution was doomed from the start.
However, a closer examination of the evidence can lead to the conclusion that the history of the Assembly falls into three distinct phases of development. Before discussing these, it is useful to make some general comments which cover the entire life-span of the Assembly.1
Party strength altered slightly during that life-span. The Official Unionists originally had twenty-six members. They gained a seat from the SDLP through a by-election in Armagh following the disqualification on petition of Seamus Mallon, who had breached the 1982 Act by accepting nomination to a ‘foreign legislature’ (the Irish Senate), but lost one when one of the four members who defied the boycott (John Carson - see below, p. 84) sat on as an Independent. Two OUP members died during the four years (one, Edgar Graham, was assassinated by the IRA in December 1983), but the seats were retained in subsequent by-elections. The DUP also lost a seat when George Seawright was expelled from the Party and sat on as an Independent (see below). Also Paschal O’Hare resigned from the SDLP in early 1986.
The Assembly procedure was a modified form of that employed at Westminster. Sittings originally took place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 2.30 and 6.30 p.m. on the first and third of these days and 2.30 and 10.30 p.m. on the second. After March 1983 the Thursday sitting was usually dropped. Salaries and allowances were three-fifths of the Westminster rates. From early 1985, when members received a comparability increase, their basic salary was fixed at £10,139, plus secretarial expenses. Plenary sessions of the Assembly amounted to 221, an average of seventy per year, and were of four-and-a-half hours’ duration. Debates were more numerous and longer than in the pre-1972 Stormont, but the range of subjects was more limited. ‘Excepted matters’ were excluded from the scope of Assembly debates unless requested by the Secretary of State (this power was never used). That prohibition (imposed by the 1982 Act) excluded the armed forces, the judiciary, elections (Parliamentary, Assembly or Local), taxation and special powers for dealing with terrorism. Reserved matters could be discussed (e.g. the criminal law, prosecutions, firearms), but the debates on substantive motions tabled by members - the normal procedure for a general debate -tended to concentrate on a small number of policy areas: the constitutional position of Northern Ireland; law and order; the economy; and social issues - education, housing and hospital services. Apart from debates on substantive motions the remaining Assembly business comprised the scrutiny of Draft Orders in Council referred by the Secretary of State or discussion of reports from Committees.
The First Phase
The first phase lasted from the first sitting on November 1982 until the return of the OUP at the end of their six-month boycott, in May 1984. During this entire period the future of the Assembly was problematic because of the perceived lack of commitment by the largest party, the OfficiaI Unionists.
As has been shown, the OUP tried hard to prevent the Northern Ireland Bill 1982 from passing into law, and when the Assembly was elected tried to frustrate it by a diversionary move - Molyneaux’s invitation to members to discuss security. Then occurred the row over the allocation of Chairmanships, which was only terminated by Kilfedder threatening to resign as Speaker (February 1983). The OUP then agreed to serve on the Committees, with the previously stated exception of the leader and deputy leader, Molyneaux and McCusker.
However, from the beginning the DUP and Alliance members applied themselves energetically to the task of manning the scrutiny Committees, all of which were functioning well by March 1983. The Secretary of State, James Prior, had also given the Assembly his blessing by appearing at one of its earliest meetings (November 1982), and while evading requests for a regular ministerial question time, he suggested that Ministers might attend the Assembly on a weekly basis to lead discussions or to make statements and answer questions on them. (In fact ministerial attendances averaged only six per year in the three years of the Assembly’s life.)
During the first six months the debates showed a common interest in maintaining the Assembly linking the DUP and the Alliance Party, while relations between the OUP and the DUP continued to be frosty - as indeed they had been since the debates on the Bill in 1982. On 29 March, Peter Robinson announced that his party was tabling a motion to ‘flush out’ those members of the Assembly whom he believed were against devolution. The motion was not debated until 10 May. When the debate took place it was noteworthy not only in occasioning the longest sitting in the history of the Assembly (twenty hours) but also in revealing the irreconcilable attitudes of all three parties in the Assembly. The DUP motion advocated the continuation of the Assembly as a scrutinising body and proposed an extra committee to plot a course towards the goal of devolution.
The OUP proposed an amendment to concentrate on movement towards devolution and largely ignore the Assembly. The Alliance Party proposed another amendment, insisting that devolution must involve power-sharing. All three were voted down, the Alliance combining with the DUP to vote down the OUP proposal and vice versa, while the two Unionist parties coalesced against the Alliance amendment. During this debate for the first time in the Assembly there were angry exchanges between the DUP and Alliance members, Robinson accusing the latter of inconsistency, while Cushnahan claimed that the DUP were partly responsible for keeping the SDLP out of the Assembly.
On 28 June Prior, in his second appearance before the Assembly, emphasised that it was an ‘essential precondition’ for devolved government to operate successfully that any proposals must have substantial support from both sides of the community.2 Following his address the DUP tabled a motion deploring what they called ‘the effective veto in progress towards full devolution bestowed by the Secretary of State on the SDLP’. (In his speech Jim Allister (DUP) stated that if they were faced with a choice between no internal government and a power-sharing government with the SDLP or ‘other representatives of Republicanism’ his party would have no difficulty in opting for the former.)
On 8 July (the final debate of the session) the OUP members tried to force Prior’s hand by calling for the immediate devolution of the functions of the Department of Health and Social Services to a committee of members drawn from the three Assembly parties. The DUP moved an amendment calling for devolution on the basis of the defunct Convention Report, Paisley denouncing the OUP motion as a ploy to wreck the Assembly. Again the Alliance voted tactically to defeat both amendment and motion.
When the Assembly reconvened in November 1983, Prior held a press conference during which he asserted that the Unionists could have done more to encourage the SDLP to participate in the Assembly and while conceding that the scrutiny Committees were ‘doing a useful job’ reiterated his opinion that the Assembly could not move beyond the initial phase without ‘widespread acceptance’. He went on, ‘If Unionists want devolved government they have to show they are prepared to meet the SDLP and make statements that will encourage them to take their places.’
The OUP did not react directly to the Secretary of State’s speech but at their annual conference the following weekend many speakers expressed doubts about the value of a ‘talking-shop Assembly’. Two days later an INLA gang burst into a Sunday service at a Pentecostal Church in the small village of Darkley (Co. Armagh) and shot indiscriminately at the congregation, killing three people. On the following day, despite pleas from the Speaker, the Official Unionists withdrew en bloc from the Assembly in protest against what they regarded as the inadequate security policy.
After the OUP withdrawal the DUP and Alliance carried on the work of the Assembly as best they could, although handicapped by the loss of three scrutiny Committee Chairmen. In the succeeding months four Official Unionists (John Carson, Raymond Ferguson, James Kirkpatrick and William Thompson) defied the party line by returning to the Assembly. When the Assembly held its hundredth session (27 March 1984) and produced a glossy brochure entitled ‘Local Democracy at Work’, publicising its achievements, it was noteworthy that only thirty-three of the seventy-eight elected members were attending.
OUP members continued their boycott for five months and once again showed their dislike of the 1982 Act in December 1983 when a Westminster MP Ken Maginnis, who had drawn a place in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, presented a Bill to amend the 1982 Act by making the 70 per cent requirement applicable not to the total membership but to those attending the Assembly. The Bill was given ‘a polite but very brief airing in December 1983 before being consigned to oblivion’.4
In the meantime the SDLP were pursuing their own constitutional course. During the election of 1982 John Hume gave as one reason for abstention from the Assembly his belief in an all-Ireland, not a purely ‘internal’, solution. Shortly afterwards he managed to persuade Garret FitzGerald (elected Taoiseach again in December 1982) to summon the ‘New Ireland Forum’ in which representatives of all parties in the Republic and constitutional Nationalists in the North would come together to spell out the way in which they hoped to achieve the unity of Ireland by consent. By doing this, Hume (and FitzGerald) hoped first to upstage Sinn Fein, which had just secured its significant vote in the Assembly election, and also to clarify to the Unionists all the constitutional options that Nationalist Ireland regarded as feasible and then to ask for their reasoned objections. The Forum began its work in public in Dublin Castle on 30 May 1983 and took a year to report. It comprised an outside Chairman, twenty-one members of the three major parties in the Dail including the leaders, FitzGerald, Haughey and Spring, and five representatives of the SDLP, including Hume, Mallon and Currie. The Forum heard evidence from many public bodies including the Catholic Episcopal Conference. Ulster parties were invited to submit evidence but only the Alliance Party accepted. However, a few individual Unionist gave evidence.
The Forum Report appeared in May 1984.5 It identified several necessary elements of ‘a framework in which a New Ireland could emerge’. The most important of these were the principle of free consent (the political arrangements for a new and sovereign Ireland would have to be freely negotiated and agreed to by the people of the North and the people of the South), the validity of both Unionist and Nationalist identities, both of which must have equally satisfactory political expression and protection, equal civil and religious rights for all. The Report professed to be a blueprint for the future but in the meantime the Forum recommended for Northern Ireland the establishment of new structures, including security structures with which both Unionists and Nationalists could identify.
As to the future constitutional structure the Forum opted for a unitary state, but also put forward a federal/confederal state and a system of joint authority and ended by stressing that ‘the parties in the Forum remain open to discuss other views’. Joint authority, as envisaged by the Forum, would get around the vexed question of sovereignty by setting up a Joint Authority Commission with representatives from both Governments exercising some executive powers, of which security and criminal justice were the most important.
When the Forum Report appeared all parties in Northern Ireland were immersed in the European elections. As expected, the three outgoing members, Paisley, Taylor and Hume were re-selected by their respective parties. However, an unexpected candidate entered the race. On 15 May, Jim Kilfedder, the Speaker of the Assembly, announced his candidature as ‘a personal crusade to save the Stormont Assembly’. His statement went on,
I go forward as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly which I deeply regret, is in real danger of collapse, because of the campaign by different organisations to smash Stormont. Time is running out for Stormont and I have no other means of mobilising public opinion.6
Within a week of this announcement Molyneaux announced (23 May) that the Official Unionists were returning to the Assembly. The Kilfedder candidature, although it undoubtedly annoyed the OUP, does not appear to have determined the decision, since Kilfedder remained in the election race7 and moreover the OUP had already given some indications of a change of heart. (On 16 May the composition of the Devolution Report Committee with five OUP members, four DUP and two Alliance members was announced to the Assembly.) A contemporary report suggests that the true reason for the about-turn was a realisation that the Government was not going to budge on the twin OUP demands on security and devolution.8 Moreover, those members who were Chairmen of Committees had been under attack in the press for continuing to draw two salaries during their prolonged absence. The returning members received an effusive welcome from the other two Assembly parties and carried on as if nothing had happened.
The Second Phase
The OUP return undoubtedly boosted the morale of the Assembly. On 4 June, one of their members Jack Allen, was elected Chairman of the Devolution Report Committee by the combined votes of his colleagues and the Alliance Party. When the summer recess arrived, the Belfast Telegraph observed that the future of the Assembly then looked more assured than six weeks previously, and that although there was still no sign of any willingness by the SDLP to take their seats, the other parties were pinning their hopes on the Devolution Report Committee (5 July 1984).
The Commons debate on the Forum Report (2 July) held out a further hope that the parties would get together. In one of his last appearances in the House as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Prior reiterated the ‘realities’ of the Ulster situation - continuing majority desire for the constitutional status quo, the responsibility of the United Kingdom government to maintain that position for as long as the majority remained, the necessity for a devolved government with support from both sides of the community and for a close relationship with the Republic - perhaps involving one inter-parliamentary body. But more interesting contributions came from Hume and Paisley. Hume openly admitted the ‘nervousness’ of some aspects of Irish Nationalism; Paisley, in an emotional speech recounting the numbers of victim’s funerals he had attended, stated that he was prepared to talk to ‘the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland’ to ensure ‘some sort of political and economic stability’ and a secure future for his children10 So the Irish Forum came and went without any significant alteration in the British government policy on Northern Ireland.
On 19 June the Chairman of the Devolution Report Committee wrote to John Hume requesting a submission on the views of the SDLP as to how progress might be made towards devolution. Hume ignored the letter but Allen issued two further invitations. On 24 September he expressed satisfaction with recent statements, ‘indicative of your party’s openness to discussion’,11 and on 27 November wrote assuring Hume of the ‘complete sincerity of all members’. There was no reply to either letter. Eventually (4 February 1985) the Committee issued an angry public statement, expressing their disgust that, according to a recent statement, Hume was willing to talk to Republican subversives but not to elected representatives. The Committee also wrote to the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Cahal Daly, (26 November), inviting him to apprise them of the views of ‘Constitutional Nationalists’, in the continuing absence of their political representatives. After two months the Bishop replied rather stiffly, disclaiming any role other than a spiritual and pastoral one, and also complaining that the Committee’s letter had been leaked to the BBC; to which Allen immediately replied, categorically denying responsibility and expressing regret for the leak. Although their efforts failed, it is likely that the Committee members were sincere in their efforts to involve Hume and Bishop Daly in dialogue and were prepared to meet Hume privately at any time.12
Towards the end of 1984 there was considerable evidence that some at least of the politicians felt that the Assembly was then so firmly based that the SDLP could not continue their abstentionism without eventually suffering an electoral setback. On 23 October the DUP’s Jim Wells, the youngest member, observed that they had just passed (20 October) the second anniversary of the election and that what had been derided as ‘a clapped-out old bus’ had now ‘found itself a new engine’, that attendance at scrutiny Committees had risen, and that a recent opinion poll had indicated that 53 per cent of the Roman Catholic respondents thought that the SDLP should participate in the Assembly.13 Similarly, at a closed session, Cushnahan opined that the Assembly was a viable institution although not 100 per cent successful.14
While politicians generally were more optimistic about the future of the Assembly than at any previous stage in its history, the chronic Unionist anxiety about a Westminster sell-out was mitigated by the proceedings at the second summit of the Anglo-Irish Governmental Council involving Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald in London on 19 November 1984. While the communiqué was bland, Mrs Thatcher at a press conference summarily dismissed the Forum models; all three (a united Ireland, a confederation of two states and joint sovereignty) were ‘out’. The mode of expression rather than the substance caused deep resentment in the Irish Republic, especially among FitzGerald’s party, and corresponding glee in Unionist circles.
Their joy was short-lived. The Irish Government immediately set itself to the task of mending fences and initiated behind the scenes the series of discussions between top civil servants from London and Dublin that were to culminate in the Anglo-Irish Agreement a year later. In the Assembly, on the other hand, the post-summit debate simply evoked a rehash of all the familiar arguments - including a complete rejection of any ‘Irish dimension’ - but no fresh initiative.
On 4 December 1984 the new Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd made his only appearance before the Assembly. Following a hostile demonstration from the gallery by George Seawright (DUP) who was sternly ordered out of the House by the Speaker, Hurd delivered a speech which covered three areas: security (‘our aim is to wear down and eliminate terrorism’), the economy (he mentioned schemes to develop Belfast and Londonderry), and political and constitutional development. On the last he simply repeated the principles on which government policy was based and reminded the House that the ideal goal of devolved government with widespread acceptance could not be achieved without their support and that of the people they represented. But his speech ended with a warning which was not lost on some of his hearers - that if the Government’s plans for the Assembly were unsuccessful, ‘it would not divert the Government from the search for structures and processes in Northern Ireland which would reflect their commitment to those communities, nor would it inhibit the continuation of the Anglo-Irish dialogue.’15 (He had already indicated that dialogue was ongoing on security and other matters of mutual interest and asserted that the concern of the Southern government for the Nationalist minority was natural and to be respected.)16
In the new year Hurd elaborated on that theme. On 2O January he asserted that machinery might be devised to enable the Dublin government to consult systematically on matters affecting the Northern minority (this occasioned a special adjournment debate on a DUP motion).17 In March, Hurd admitted that such arrangements were under discussion. Further evidence that the idea of a Dublin input into the affairs of Northern Ireland was becoming increasingly popular was provided by the publication of two separate reports and a book that caused widespread discussion. The Kilbrandon Report (November 1984), from a small group set up by the British-Irish Association and chaired by a Scottish judge (Lord Kilbrandon), rejected the Forum report but proposed alternative models for Anglo-Irish co-operation;18 in July 1985 a report prepared for the leader of the new Liberal/Social Democratic Alliance called for institutional recognition of the Irish dimension; while a book by Professors Boyle and Hadden, who had given evidence to the Devolution Report Committee in November 1984, proposed joint authority in certain policy areas in Northern Ireland underpinned by a new treaty.19 Against this background the Second Report of the Devolution Report Committee in February 1985 seemed already out-of-date and little interest was aroused by the statement that they were henceforth indulging in ‘sub rosa consultative sessions’.20
As the summer and the ‘marching season’ approached, the involvement of the Irish Government in the affairs of the Province became increasingly evident. The main agent was the Foreign Minister, Peter Barry, who rapidly became one of the leading figures in the Unionist demonology. The RUC either banned or imposed restrictions on several Orange marches through Catholic areas - at Barry’s insistence, claimed the Orange Order and the DUP. Hurd denied this charge and claimed that the restrictions were imposed on the grounds of public order and were not due to external influence. However, on 1 July he walked out of a stormy meeting with the Security Committee after two DUP members (Foster and Campbell) refused to accept his denial of Dublin interference and Campbell called him a liar. The final meeting of the Assembly before the recess (4 July) was marred by disorder and Cushnahan and another Alliance member were ordered to leave for referring to the DUP members as ‘thugs’ and ‘gangsters’.
Although at this point there were many signs of an impending Anglo-Irish accord, the pro-Unionist Belfast newspapers - and the local newspapers - persistently refused to recognise them. A Belfast Telegraph21 editorial said: ‘It still appears that the only realistic way of making progress here is by having agreement between the indigenous parties.’ At the same time it urged the SDLP to become more directly involved in the political process.
During the recess Molyneaux and Paisley showed their anxiety by sending a letter to the Prime Minister indicating their readiness to consider any ‘reasonable’ proposal for protection of minority interests short of seats in Cabinet and, if members of a devolved administration, to meet with their opposite numbers in Dublin to discuss matters of mutual interest. But Mrs Thatcher’s reply repeated the principle of widespread acceptance.22
The Assembly reconvened in October under the shadow of the impending agreement. For Unionists it was ominous that Tom King, appointed to succeed Douglas Hurd on 2 September 1985, chose to visit Dublin to speak to FitzGerald and Barry before he met Unionist leaders. The speedy adoption of the Catherwood proposals by the Assembly (29 October 1985) might be interpreted as a last line of defence for the Unionist position. As mentioned above,23 the Government reacted unenthusiastically to Catherwood, and in the following week the Secretary of State declined an invitation to address the Assembly on the ground that he had ‘a heavy programme of engagements’.24
The Third Phase
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald on 15 November 1985 at Hilisborough Castle, the official residence of the Secretary of State and previously of the Governor of Northern Ireland. The Agreement is a complex document of eleven clauses, beginning with an assertion - in a slightly different form from the Sunningdale declaration - that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would not be altered until a majority of its people gave consent. The most important innovation was the Inter Governmental Conference, comprising the Secretary of State and a Cabinet Minister from the Republic (expected to be the Foreign Minister), who would meet regularly to deal with political, security and related matters, legal matters, including the administration of justice, and the promotion of cross-border co-operation. (Political ‘matters’ were defined in the Agreement so as to specify those of particular interest to the minority - the use of the Irish language, changes in electoral arrangements, the use of flags and emblems and the avoidance of economic and social discrimination.) The Conference would be serviced by a permanent secretariat. That the new arrangements would facilitate devolution in Northern Ireland was demonstrated by a clause prescribing that powers devolved to a Northern Ireland administration would be removed from the remit of the Conference. The Agreement was to be subject to review after an initial period of three years, and earlier if formally requested by either government.
British newspapers, from the ‘heavies’ to the tabloids, reacted favourably to the signing of the Agreement. Apart from The Times and the Daily Telegraph which expressed doubts about the gamble, the others were enthusiastic in varying degrees about the ‘brave attempt to bury an ancient conflict’ (Daily Mail, 16 November 1985). The same reaction of temperate eulogy came from the Dublin newspapers and the Irish News, which welcomed ‘the brave and commendable attempt to begin the healing process’ (16 November). The most remarkable reaction came from the Newsletter. Right up to the signing of the Agreement, that newspaper refused to believe that anything of the sort was being contemplated. As late as 14 November, the editorial advised Mrs Thatcher to repeat her message of the previous year and say ‘out’ to Dublin and ‘to the real obstacles which have bedevilled community relations in this part of the United Kingdom for more than 60 years’. The morning after the signing, the editorial blended rage, disappointment and hysteria: ‘At Hillsborough yesterday the ghosts of Cromwell and Lundy25 walked hand in hand to produce a recipe for bloodshed and conflict which has few parallels in modern history.’ That sense of outrage was sustained through almost a year’s editorials and feature reports.
The attitude of the Newsletter - the Belfast Telegraph was also disappointed but more restrained - was mirrored in that of the leaders and rank and file of the two Unionist parties. The uppermost feeling was one of betrayal - that the hated Irish dimension had again been introduced into the governing of the Province, in an underhand way, without any consultation with the elected representatives of the majority - although the minority, through John Hume, had obviously been consulted. On 16 November the Assembly held a special adjournment debate at which by 44-10 (the Alliance Party opposing) the House resolved to request a referendum in Northern Ireland on the Agreement and threatened that otherwise the Westminster MPs would resign their seats and force a mini-general election on the issue. Unionists members of district councils and various public bodies resigned their seats. Northern Ireland ministers were boycotted and the Secretary of State was physically attacked at a function in Belfast City Hall. On 23 November a massive protest demonstration in Belfast was addressed by Molyneaux, Paisley and almost all the Westminster MPs and assured that the Province would not go down ‘the Dublin road.’
The OUP and DUP hoped that the volume of angry protest would (as in 1912) cause a modification of government policy. The Alliance Party, after an initial hesitation, reluctantly agreed to accept the fait accompli. Only the SDLP was enthusiastic. In the Republic the two governing parties were strongly for the Agreement, but Fianna Fail opposed it as ‘fully accepting British sovereignty over the national territory’.
These contrasts emerged in the debates in the House of Commons and the Dail, both of which had to ratify the Agreement. In the Commons the Prime Minister dismissed the Unionist arguments and apprehensions. It was ‘nonsense’ to suggest (as they were doing)26 that the Agreement set the Province on the road to an united Ireland. In a rare display of unity she was supported by the leaders of the Labour, Liberal and Social Democratic parties. Some right-wing Conservatives protested, but they were much less vocal than in 1982: in the intervening years Margaret Thatcher had established a firm control over her party and only Ian Gow (her former PPS and who had resigned as a junior minister) and Ivor Stanbrook stood with the outraged Unionists. The Agreement was approved by 473 votes to 47, an exceptional majority (23 November 1985). The debate in the Dail also resulted in a victory for the Agreement, Fianna Fail being the only party in opposition (19 November).
After the ratification of the Agreement the two Unionist parties decided to make the Assembly the spearhead of their campaign. The first display of Assembly non-co-operation occurred in the weeks immediately after the signing when reports from statutory Committees were referred back or Committees refused to comment on draft Orders in Council.
On 5 December Paisley proposed a motion to set up a ‘Committee on the Government of Northern Ireland’ with a remit ‘to examine the implication of the Anglo-Irish Agreement for the government and future of Northern Ireland and the operation of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act in 1973 and the Northern Ireland Act 1982.’27 To facilitate the working of this Committee (comprising 10 OUP, 8 DUP and 1 independent Unionist with Molyneaux as Chairman) all normal meetings of the Assembly and its scrutiny Committees were to be suspended - except for the Finance and Personnel Committee, which was to investigate the consequences of the Agreement for the provincial civil service. Only the Speaker could reconvene the Assembly, after consultation with the Business Committee. The Alliance party opposed the motion, arguing that the course of action proposed was a flagrant violation of the statutory obligations of the Assembly. Cushnahan pointed out that if it failed to perform these duties the Assembly would dearly be in conflict with the terms of the Act. The APNI resolutely refused to accept nominations for the new committee and when the vote went against them formally withdrew from the Assembly. The events of 5 December marked the virtual end of the Assembly as an institution in any way resembling the design of 1982. As the Belfast Telegraph (6 December 1985) pointed out, ‘By removing its [the Assembly’s] main plus point [the scrutiny Committees] the Unionists are taking away the justification for its continuance.
The first Report from the new Committee (hereinafter referred to as the Grand Committee) was presented to a sitting of the Assembly convened by the Speaker for 19 January.28 (By then only forty-nine of the seventy-eight elected members were attending.) The Report contained a scathing indictment of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It concluded that the Agreement must lead to a radical reappraisal of the future of the Assembly; that devolution could no longer be regarded as a solution, since it would occur under the aegis of the Inter-governmental Conference, and recommended that in consequence the Catherwood proposals should be formally withdrawn and the scrutiny Committees be re-activated to carry out an ‘urgent investigation’ into the relations between the Inter-Governmental Conference and the six departments. The report was unanimously adopted.29
The second report, presented to the Assembly on 11 February was brief and pessimistic.30 The Grand Committee recorded ‘a radical change of direction’ in the relations between the departments and the scrutiny Committees. The Secretary of State had written to the latter pointing out that the matters which they wished to investigate were ‘political’ and therefore outside their remit. He offered to meet the Committee Chairmen to discuss the problem, but the offer was spurned, and the report of the Grand Committee claimed that King was placing an ‘insurmountable obstacle in the path of co-operation’. In his speech presenting the report to the House, Paisley,31 the Deputy Chairman of the Committee, accused King of trying to destroy the Assembly and as a mark of protest Robinson, the Chairman, and several members of the Environment Committee tendered their resignations. (Paisley’s resignation as Chairman of the Agriculture Committee followed soon afterwards.) On the other hand the Secretary of State had continued (between 5 December and 11 February) to send draft Orders, consultative documents and the Government response to eleven Assembly reports. All were ignored.
The next meeting of the Assembly was on the 13 March and marked the end of the performance of any function other than as a sounding board for opposition to the Agreement. The House received the third and final report of the Grand Committee,32 which recommended further measures of non-co-operation. Since the scrutiny function had allegedly been impeded by the Secretary of State, the Committee recommended that all the Scrutiny Committees be again suspended, that the Devolution Report Committee be formally discharged and that the minutes and proceedings of all Scrutiny Committees plus the Devolution Report Committee be published.
While all this was going on in the Assembly, opposition to the Agreement was hardening in the Province generally. As they had threatened, the fifteen Unionist MPs at Westminster resigned their seats in January and used the by-elections as a referendum.33 Unfortunately the mini-election gave conflicting signals, since on the one hand the combined Unionist share of the vote held firm but the SDLP gained a seat in Newry-Armagh, where the deputy leader, Seamus Mallon defeated the incumbent Jim Nicholson (OUP), and the advantage derived by that party from the Agreement was shown by a net swing of over 10 per cent (from 1983) in the four constituencies where SDLP and Sinn Fein both entered candidates. Meanwhile Unionist dominated district councils were refusing to transact normal business, and the Alliance Party was seeking court orders to compel them to do so. After an abortive meeting with Mrs Thatcher in which she refused to interfere with the Agreement, Paisley and Molyneaux called a general strike for 3 March. Despite considerable disruption of traffic, essential services were maintained and the experiment was not repeated.
The remainder of the Assembly story can briefly be told. Between 13 March and its dissolution on 23 June, twelve sessions were held, all devoted to vehement attacks on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. One further committee was set up - ‘the Committee on Victimisation in Employment,’ (with Paisley as Chairman) - with one DUP and three OUP members, to report on allegations that some employers had coerced their employees into working during the one-day strike. The report found insufficient information to justify any further action. The most dramatic mode of protest was that adopted on 15 May, when fourteen DUP members took over the switchboard at Parliament Buildings and harangued all callers about the evils of the Agreement - which had been signed exactly six months previously.
By the beginning of June the demise of the Assembly was clearly imminent. On 12 June Tom King told the Commons that the Assembly was performing neither of its two main functions, administration of devolved powers or scrutiny of legislation. He moved the dissolution order, promised to implement it before the end of the month and vaguely hinted at a future Assembly.
It was widely expected that the dissolution order in Council would be signed on Wednesday 18 June, so at the beginning of the Assembly proceedings (which were televised by arrangement with the Business Committee) the Chairman of the Grand Committee delivered a long speech justifying the OUP attitude during the four years of the Assembly and refuting allegations of intransigence. All blame was laid squarely at the door of the Northern Ireland Ministers and the SDLP whom they were so anxious to placate. King’s refusal to come to the Assembly in November was derided as having ‘all the marks of a tired socialite declining an invitation to a dinner party which he knew he would find boring’.34 Paisley followed Molyneaux by proposing a motion which deplored the ‘insulting disregard’ paid by the Government to the many positive proposals of the Assembly contrasting them with the ‘dishonourable’ policy of constantly seeking to placate the SDLP.
The Assembly also moved an address to the Queen and a petition to the Privy Council, protesting against the dissolution. However, no Order in Council was transmitted. On the following day the Speaker made a valedictory speech urging members to behave with dignity. (The Assembly had already passed a vote of thanks and ordered that his photograph hang in the debating chamber with all his predecessors, the Stormont Speakers.)
Monday 23 June was then universally expected to be the final day,’ since it was a ‘Privy Council day’. Business began at 9.00 a.m. instead of 2.30 p.m. and there followed from OUP and DUP members the familiar harangues against the British government, the NIO and the SDLP. There were also some fierce criticisms of the RUC. At 3.50 the Speaker read out a letter from the private secretary to the Secretary of State stating that the Queen in Council that afternoon ordered the dissolution of the Assembly. Kilfedder then left the Chair. However, twenty-one members (18 DUP, 2 OUP and 1 independent) stayed on, debating a motion ‘that the Assembly still says ‘No’, with Beattie in the Speaker’s chair, and continued until 2 am. on the following morning when they were forcibly ejected by police.35
Most British newspapers reported unfavourably on the antics of the DUP on 23 June. The Times had a leading article on Paisley headed ‘The Uncivil Warrior’, referring to a warning in the Assembly that ‘the Province was on the verge of civil war’ (26June 1986), while on the same day the Daily Mail called him a ‘hate-filled rabble-rouser’. Remarkably, none adverted editorially to the unhappy outcome of the Prior initiative.
1. For the data in the succeeding paragraphs we have been greatly helped by the unpublished paper by Peter Smyth, ‘The Northern Ireland Assembly: A New Exposition of Democracy’, esp. pp. 16-19.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
Last modified :