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Northern Ireland Assembly (November 1982 to June 1986)
- Summary of Main Events



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Text and Research: Brendan Lynn
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This page contains a summary of the main events associated with the Northern Ireland Assembly (November 1982 to June 1986).

Northern Ireland Assembly (November 1982 to June 1986) - Summary of Main Events

Background

At the end of March 1972 the British government suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and imposed direct rule from Westminster. From the outset however the move was viewed as a temporary measure and the intention of the British government was to restore some form of devolved administration to the region. However, it soon became clear that such a task was going to be difficult to achieve. This was due to the fact that there was to be little political consensus as to the exact form and nature of any new institutions in Northern Ireland to which devolved powers could be returned to. This was evident with the failure of the Northern Ireland Assembly (July 1973 - May 1974) and the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (May 1975 - March 1976) to secure any long-term solution. As a consequence direct rule began to take on a sense of permanency as there appeared little immediate prospect of any political initiative capable of breaking the stalemate. This remained the case even after the return of a new Conservative government in Britain following the general election of May 1979. A fresh round of political discussions launched by Humphrey Atkins, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1979-81), with the main Northern Ireland political parties failed to get beyond a preliminary stage and they were later abandoned without any real progress having been made.

Assessment

In September 1981 Atkins was replaced as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by Jim Prior (1981-84). Soon after taking up his new position Prior was to conclude that the existing political stalemate in Northern Ireland could not be sustained indefinitely. He firmly believed that direct rule was having a profoundly negative affect and only adding to the problems Northern Ireland had to face. In particular Prior had decided that by depriving local politicians from having a real say in the decision making process was making democratic politics irrelevant. In turn the political vacuum that this had created simply provided the ideal conditions for the various paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland to operate under. Prior concluded that the situation had worsened in the wake of the events surrounding the Republican Hunger strike of 1981.

Anxious to avoid the problems which had bedevilled previous attempts to return a devolved administration to Northern Ireland Prior chose to try a fresh approach, which subsequently became known as "rolling devolution". Under this scheme an election would be held to a new seventy-eight member assembly which initially would have no legislative power and instead would only have a consultative and scrutiny role to play. If however over time the assembly could prove that it could operate on a ‘cross-community basis’, with unionist and nationalist members working together, then this would result in its role being enhanced. In particular this would involve the devolution of power to the assembly to administer one or more of the various Northern Ireland departments which had been established under direct rule in 1972. Thus over time Prior's plan would ultimately lead to full devolved powers returning to local politicians. If this objective could be secured and some sort of political stability established Prior believed it would then be possible to address other pressing problems faced by Northern Ireland, such as the ongoing security situation as well the various social and economic difficulties.

From the outset however the prospects for Prior’s plans appeared bleak. To begin with he failed to win the wholehearted support of Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister. Her lukewarm reaction was then added to by outright opposition to the measure by a number of Conservative backbench MPs who favoured a policy of integration for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, rather than a return of devolved power. As for the attitude of the main political parties in Northern Ireland it was decidedly mixed. The main unionist parties the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were opposed to what they saw as an attempt to re-introduce the concept of ‘power-sharing’ by way of the requirement that devolved power would only be granted to the assembly if it could achieve ‘cross-community support’. In addition there were also to be differences in approach by the two parties to the scheme as a whole. Whilst the DUP was anxious to see devolution restored to Northern Ireland the UUP was deeply divided on the issue, between supporters of devolution and those who favoured the alternative of integration. As for the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), then the largest nationalist party, it completely rejected the proposals on the grounds that it failed to meet its minimal demands of 'power-sharing' with an 'Irish dimension'. The prospects for Prior’s plan was then further complicated by the apparent growing electoral strength of Sinn Féin, (SF) which had emerged in the wake of the 1981 Republican hunger strike. With the republican movement as a whole now committed to the 'armalite and ballot box' strategy its opposition to 'rolling devolution' was also clear. It was therefore in the midst of this uncertainty that the election for the new assembly was held on 20 October 1982.

Legacy

In official terms the Assembly was to last from its opening on 11 November 1982 until it was dissolved on 23 June 1986. Yet in essence throughout this period there was no point at which it appeared as if the Assembly was ever going to be able to fulfil the role that Prior had set out for it. Almost from the outset its prospects of providing long-term political stability for Northern Ireland was non-existent given the decision of the SDLP not to take their seats. At a stroke the plan for 'rolling devolution' on the basis of 'cross-community support' in the Assembly was impossible. In any case even if the SDLP had not chosen to boycott the Assembly it is still difficult to find any evidence to suggest that Prior’s scheme would have been successful. It was clear that there was little common ground between the main unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, and the SDLP as to the shape of any future administration in Northern Ireland. Furthermore given the earlier experiences of the Assembly (1973-74) and the Convention (1975-76) there was little real evidence to indicate that relations would develop between nationalist and unionist politicians in any new body.

As it became obvious that the Assembly was not going to succeed in making progress the British government began the search for an alternative way forward. Eventually its attention began to focus on seeking to build on the efforts that had commenced in the early 1980s to improve relations with the Republic of Ireland. These negotiations intensified and eventually in November 1985 led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA). In the aftermath of the AIA the Assembly effectively ceased to be a representative body as Unionists opted to utilise its continuing existence to assist in their campaign against the AIA. This sealed its fate and by the summer of 1986 the British government had decided that the time had come to put a final end to it. Thus the closure of the Assembly at the end of June 1986 marked the failure of yet another attempt to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland.



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