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Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention - Background Information

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Text: Martin Melaugh
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Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention - Background Information


There were a number of political developments between 1972 and 1974 that set the scene for the Constitutional Convention. The following paragraphs are intended to briefly highlight how some of these developments were viewed from a Protestant and unionist perspective. The reader should consult other sections of the CAIN web service for further information and also the CAIN Bibliography for references to detailed information on particular sections.

The prorogation of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont - 28 March 1972
Brian Faunkner, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was summoned to London on 24 March 1972. Edward Heath, then British Prime Minister, informed Faulkner that security policy would be transferred to Westminster. This was unacceptable to the Unionist controlled Northern Ireland Government and it prompted the British Government to suspend the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont and assume "full and direct responsibility" (Edward Heath, then British Prime Minister, 24 March 1972). The Northern Ireland parliament met for the last time on 28 March 1972 and Brian Faunkner and his cabinet resigned thus ending 50 years of Unionist rule of Northern Ireland. "We feel we, in our endeavour to provide just Government in Ulster, have been betrayed from London" (Brian Faunkner, 28 March 1972).

Undoubtedly the Irish Republican Army (IRA) saw the introduction of 'Direct Rule' as a victory for nationalists and something which, from their point of view, highlighted the real cause of the conflict, that is, British control of a partitioned island. In line with their assessment of the new situation the IRA continued its campaign which reached new heights on 14 April 1972 when 30 bombs exploded in Belfast. In the 'zero sum' game of Northern Ireland politics the prorogation of the Stormont Government represented the greatest blow to the Protestant psyche in 50 years. It undoubtedly had an alienating effect on many Protestants.

The Darlington Conference on political options for Northern Ireland - 25 to 27 September 1972
A series of round-table talks were held at the Darlington Conference in an effort to find agreement on the political future of the region. Unionists, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) and the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) took part, but the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) refused to attend because of the continuation of internment. From the talks the government produced a discussion paper 'The Future of Northern Ireland: A Paper for Discussion', (30 October 1972). The paper stated that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom (UK) as long as the people of Northern Ireland wished. But it added that: "There are strong arguments that the objective of real participation should be achieved by giving minority interests a share in the exercise of executive power." Although the term was not used the government was suggesting power-sharing. The document also introduced the idea of an 'Irish dimension', something which was bound to be viewed with suspicion by unionists. "Any new arrangements for NI should, whilst meeting the wishes of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, be, as far as is possible, acceptable to and accepted by the Republic of Ireland." The Orange Order, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Ulster Vanguard, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) all rejected this proposal.

The United Loyalist Council Strike - 7 February 1973
Two loyalists were arrested on 2 February 1973 in connection with the murder of a Catholic man. Three days later, on 5 February 1973 it was announced that the two men were to be 'detained' making them the first Loyalists to be interned. In response to the internment of the two men the United Loyalist Council (ULC), led by William Craig, then leader of Ulster Vanguard, called for a one-day general strike for 7 February 1973. The ULC was an umbrella group which co-ordinated the activities of the Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and a number of other Loyalist paramilitary groups. The aim of the strike was to "re-establish some kind of Protestant or loyalist control over the affairs in the province, especially over security policy" (Anderson, 1994; p4).

The first cut in the supply of electricity occurred on 6 February 1973 and power cuts were to affect Northern Ireland until the end of the strike. Many factories, commercial establishments, and schools were affected by the action. The ULC strike demonstrated, what many already knew, that loyalist workers had enough control over the Northern Ireland economy to bring it to a standstill if there was sufficient motivation and support amongst the Protestant population. The ULC strike was marked by high levels of violence with five people, including a fireman, being killed, seven people wounded, several explosions and numerous malicious fires. The violence and chaos had the effect of reducing support for the action among the Protestant community, particularly middle-class Protestants.

Most commentators view the 1973 ULC strike as a failure in that it did not achieve its aim and because it divided Protestant opinion. However, it did demonstrate the potential of a general stoppage and similar tactics were to be used during the Ulster Workers' Council strike of May 1974.

The Northern Ireland Constitution Act (1973)
Following the 1973 United Loyalist Council (ULC) strike the British Government issued a White Paper, 'Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals', (March 1973), which proposed the setting up of an assembly at Stormont to be elected by proportional representation (PR). The elected assembly was envisaged as working on a basis of partnership and agreement between Unionists and Nationalists, that is power-sharing. Even more radical were the proposals in the White Paper for there to be an involvement in the government of Northern Ireland by the Irish Government. The proposals were to increase the tensions that already existed within the main Unionist block and eventually lead to further splits in the Unionist Party.

The Northern Ireland Constitution Bill was introduced in Parliament on 15 May 1973 and became law on 18 July 1973. The Act, and related legislation, paved the way for the new assembly with devolved powers to be established at Stormont. The 1973 Act lead to a conflict of loyalties within the Unionist community. In addition to the prospect of Nationalists being given a say in the running of Northern Ireland, the Government of the Republic of Ireland would also have a role. Implicit in all that had happened to date was the fact that the Northern Ireland constitutional question was back on the political agenda.

The election of the Northern Ireland Assembly - 28 June 1973
The election for the proposed Stormont Assembly was held on 28 June 1973. The results table proved to be confusing because the party labels did not reveal the different positions taken by candidates within the Unionist Party on the question of the White Paper proposals. The majority of unionist candidates were against the proposals on power-sharing. However, the combination of unionists, nationalists, and Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) candidates, in favour of the proposals, outnumbered those against the proposals. This coalition of parties, however, took quite a considerable time to reach agreement.

The first meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 31 July 1973, but it was not until the 22 November 1973 that it is announced that agreement has been reached on the setting up of an 'executive', made up of 11 members.

The Sunningdale Agreement - 9 December 1973
In reaching agreement on a power-sharing executive to govern Northern Ireland the question of the proposed 'Irish dimension' had not been resolved. It was to tackle this issue that the parties involved in the executive took part in a conference in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which also included representatives of the British and Irish Governments. The most contentious elements in the eventual 'Sunningdale Agreement' were the proposals for the setting up of a Council of Ireland. For many unionists the Council of Ireland was totally unacceptable.

The Westminster election - 28 February 1974
Although the Northern Ireland Executive members encountered problems from the time they were sworn in, the first public test of opinion came with the Westminster election on 28 February 1974 which was viewed as a referendum on power-sharing and the Sunningdale Agreement. Those opposed to Sunningdale fought the election under the auspicious of the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and won 51 per cent of the votes cast, and took 11 of the 12 Westminster seats. While the results of the election did not have a direct affect on the Northern Ireland Executive it did show the increasing opposition to power-sharing and the Council of Ireland. The result also provided those opposed to Sunningdale with a mandate to continue to try to end the Northern Ireland Executive.

Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) Strike, 15 May 1974 to 28 May 1974
The Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike took place between Wednesday 15 May 1974 to Tuesday 28 May 1974. The strike was called in protest at the political and security situation in Northern Ireland and more particular at the proposals in the Sunningdale Agreement which would have given the government of the Republic of Ireland a direct say in the running of the region. The strike lasted two weeks and succeeded in bringing down the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. Responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland then reverted to the British Parliament at Westminster under the arrangements for 'Direct Rule'.

There had been a couple of occasions before, and several after, the 1974 UWC strike, when sections of the Loyalist community had tried to use the industrial might of Protestant workers in a national stoppage or strike to achieve a political end. Most of these stoppages were failures or achieved only limited success. The 1974 UWC strike, however, was successful for a number of reasons. The most important was the fact that the leadership of the strike was able to harness the deep sense of alienation that had grown in the Protestant community during the previous five years. This sense of alienation meant that a large section of the Protestant community was prepared to give active or, at least, tacit support to the strike. Another key factor was the support for the strike in key industries such as power generation, gas and petrol distribution. Other reasons for the success of the strike can be found in the shambolic nature of the response of the British Government and the Northern Ireland Office.

There is no doubt that the events of May 1974 have had important repercussions on the various attempts that have been made since to find a political settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The attempts in the current Peace Process to find a vehicle for nationalist aspirations in the form of 'cross-border bodies' have obvious echoes in the 'Council of Ireland' proposals in the Sunningdale Agreement.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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