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The Sunningdale Agreement - Chronology of Main Events



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Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

In addition to the following note users should also consult the main chronologies particularly the period 20 March 1973 to 31 May 1974.

1973

Tuesday 20 March 1973
A government White Paper entitled 'Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals' was published which proposed a devolved power-sharing 78 member assembly in Northern Ireland and a Council of Ireland. The election would take place under Proportional Representation (PR) and Westminster would retain the powers relating to law and order matters. These proposals followed on from a discussion paper that had been issued on 30 October 1972 entitled 'The Future of Northern Ireland'. [There was an element in Unionist political opinion which was opposed to the idea of power-sharing and still favoured majority rule as the only basis for government. However, the idea of close links with the Republic of Ireland through the proposed Council of Ireland was one which would prove problematic to many Unionists.]

Tuesday 27 March 1973
The governing body of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) the Ulster Unionist Council held a meeting to decide its position with regard to the White Paper published by the government on 20 March 1973. The council voted by 381 to 231 votes to accept the White Paper. Nevertheless, there remain strong opposition to the proposals even among those who decided to support Brian Faulkner. [Following the vote a number of members of the UUP left to form a new political grouping on 30 March 1973.]

Tuesday 10 April 1973
The British government introduced the Northern Ireland Assembly Bill in parliament in Westminster. This bill was to pave the way for an assembly at Stormont based on proposals outlined in the White Paper, 'Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals', which had been published on 20 March 1973. [The bill became law on 3 May 1973.]

Thursday 28 June 1973
Northern Ireland Assembly Election
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were contested in Northern Ireland. There was some violence during the day, some of which was directed against a number of polling stations. However, the turnout was high at 72.3 per cent. The election gave those parties supporting the White Paper 52 seats whereas those parties against the paper obtained 26 seats. However, a number of the candidates who were elected with the 'pro-White Paper' parties were themselves against the proposals so reducing the margin in the new Assembly. [See the page on election results for full details of the Assembly results.]

Tuesday 31 July 1973
The new Northern Ireland Assembly met for the first time amid noisy scenes of protest.

Friday 5 October 1973
William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, chaired a series of talks at Stormont Castle, Belfast, on the question of forming an Executive to govern Northern Ireland. The talks involved representatives of, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The parties disagreed on issues related to internment, policing, and a Council of Ireland, but did manage to make progress on other less controversial areas in the social and economic spheres. [See also: 9 October 1973; 16 October 1973]

Tuesday 23 October 1973
The Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) voted by 132 to 105 to support a policy which would allow UUP members to take part in any future power-sharing executive. [While Brian Faulkner, then leader of the UUP expressed his public pleasure at the result, the narrowness of the victory was an indication of deep divisions within the UUP.]

Wednesday 21 November 1973
Agreement was reached between various political parties about the establishment of a power-sharing Executive to govern Northern Ireland. William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, appeared on the steps of Stormont (tears in eyes) following the final negotiations. The Executive was to consist of 11 members. [The actual composition was to be 6 Faulknerite Unionists, 4 Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and 1 Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI). There were also to be 4 non-executive office holders who would not have a vote: 2 SDLP, 1 Unionist, and 1 APNI.]

Thursday 6 - Sunday 9 December 1973
Sunningdale Agreement
The Civil Service Staff College at Sunningdale in England played host to a conference to try to resolve the remaining difficulties surrounding the setting up of the power-sharing Executive for Northern Ireland. Sunningdale was the first occasion since 1925 that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK), the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and the Northern Ireland government - in the form of the Northern Ireland Executive (designate) - had attended the same talks on the future of Northern Ireland. Edward Heath, then British Prime Minister, and Liam Cosgrave, then Taoiseach, and senior ministers attended in addition to representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI). The participants discussed a number of matters but the main item of concern centred on the unresolved issue of the 'Irish Dimension' of any future government of Northern Ireland. Proposals surrounding this 'Irish Dimension' were finally to be agreed in the form of a proposed Council of Ireland. The elements of the proposed Council were that it would consist of a Council of Ministers and a Consultative Assembly. The Council of Ministers was to be comprised of seven members from the Northern Ireland Executive and seven members of the Irish government. This Council would have executive and harmonising functions and a consultative role. The Consultative Assembly was to be made up of 30 members from the Northern Ireland Assembly and the same number from the Dáil. This Assembly was to have advisory and review functions. [A communiqué was issued on 9 December 1973.]

Sunday 9 December 1973
A communiqué was issued which announced that agreement had been reached at the talks at Sunningdale; this communiqué was to become known as the Sunningdale Agreement.

Monday 10 December 1973
Loyalists announced the establishment of the Ulster Army Council (UAC) to resist the proposed Council of Ireland. The UAC was an umbrella group for the main Loyalist paramilitary groups and included the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

1974

Tuesday 1 January 1974
The Northern Ireland Executive, which had been announced on 22 November 1973, officially took office. Although certain powers were devolved to the Executive and the Assembly others, including security and certain economic matters, were retained by the British government and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Friday 4 January 1974
The Ulster Unionist Council (UUC, the policy making body of the Ulster Unionist Party; UUP) met and voted, by 427 votes to 374, to reject the 'Council of Ireland' as proposed in the Sunningdale Agreement. [Following this vote Brian Faulkner resigned on 7 January 1974 as leader of the UUP.]

Thursday 17 January 1974
Hugh Logue, then a Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) Assemblyman, gave a speech at Trinity College Dublin in which he said that the Council of Ireland was "the vehicle that would trundle Unionists into a united Ireland".

Friday 1 February 1974
Liam Cosgrave, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and seven of his ministers flew to Hillsborough, County Down, for a meeting with members of the Northern Ireland Executive. The meeting agreed to establish working groups consisting of civil servants from North and South which would consider which 'executive functions' would be given to the Council of Ireland. [The report from the civil servants recommended that only tourism, conservation, and 'aspects of animal health', should come under the control of the Council of Ireland.]

Thursday 28 February 1974
General Election
A general election was held in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland 30,000 members of the security forces were on duty during the day however there were a number of shooting and bombing incidents across the region.
The election in Northern Ireland was in effect a referendum on power-sharing, and the Council of Ireland as proposed in the Sunningdale Agreement. There was no electoral pact between the parties in favour of the Executive. There was however a very successful pact amongst those opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement who joined forces in the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC). The UUUC was formed by three main Loyalist parties: Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), (Ulster) Vanguard, and Official Unionists (West). These parties agreed to put forward one candidate in each of the constituencies. The Campaign slogan of the UUUC was, 'Dublin is just a Sunningdale away'. Candidates standing on behalf of the UUUC won 11 of the 12 Northern Ireland seats, gaining 51.1 per cent of the valid votes. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) held West Belfast. [While the election did not mean an immediate end to the power-sharing Executive, it did provide those opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement with a powerful mandate to continue their opposition to it.]
[In Britain the Labour Party won the general election by a narrow margin. Harold Wilson, then leader of the Labour Party, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Merlyn Rees was appointed as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 5 March 1974.]

Monday 4 March 1974
Those Unionists who were in favour of the Assembly and the Executive decide that the Sunningdale Agreement should not be ratified unless Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution are repealed. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) continues to argue that there can be no "watering down" of the Agreement.

Saturday 23 March 1974 (or 10 May 1974 ?)
The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC), a new Loyalist grouping, issued a statement calling for new elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The UWC threatened civil disobedience unless the Executive was dissolved.

Monday 8 April 1974
Merlyn Rees, then Secretary of Sate for Northern Ireland, held a meeting with representatives of the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC). The meeting did not produce any agreement. [At this time the UWC was not consider a serious threat to the future of the Executive mainly because of the failure of previous stoppages by the Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW) and because of apparently low support during demonstrations against the Sunningdale Agreement.]

Thursday 18 April 1974
Harold Wilson, then British Prime Minister, paid a visit to Northern Ireland and said that there was no alternative to the Sunningdale Agreement.

Tuesday 14 May 1974
Beginning of the Ulster Workers Council Strike
There was a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a motion condemning power-sharing and the Council of Ireland. The motion was defeated by 44 votes to 28. At 6.00pm, following the conclusion of the Assembly debate, Harry Murray announced to a group of journalists that a general strike was to start the following day. The organisation named as be responsible for calling the strike was the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC). The action was to become known as the UWC Strike.

Tuesday 28 May 1974
Day 14 of the UWC strike
The crisis came to a head. Brian Faulkner resigned as Chief Executive following a refusal by Merlyn Rees, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to meet with representatives from the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC). Faulkner's Unionist colleagues also resigned. This effectively marked the end of the Northern Ireland Executive. A large demonstration of farmers in tractors blocked the entrance to the Stormont parliament buildings and also much of the Upper Newtownards Road. News of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive spread to the protestors. Celebrations took place in Protestant areas across the region.


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