Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Power-sharing: Just a little bit of history repeating

The foundation stone of power-sharing was laid 40 years ago today. The faltering first months were to set the tone for the next four decades, writes Alex Kane

Government of Northern Ireland: The Executive. December 1973.
Government of Northern Ireland: The Executive. December 1973.
Ulster Workers Council Strike: 1974
Ulster Workers Council Strike 23/05/74

Forty years ago today, on July 31, 1973, the new Northern Ireland Assembly met in the Great Hall in Stormont. It was tasked with finding a replacement for the Northern Ireland parliament, which had been formally abolished a few weeks earlier.

The Assembly met in the Great Hall, because the SDLP refused to sit in the old Commons chamber, believing that it would send the wrong signal to nationalists.

Brian Faulkner, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, was not in a strong position. Pro-power-sharing unionists had 24 seats, yet the anti-power-sharing tally (made up of Vanguard, DUP, independents and some 'unofficial' Ulster Unionists) was 26.

Crucially, the antis also had more votes – 232,000 to his 211,000. Adding to his political/ psychological woes was the fact that his SDLP/Alliance 'allies' had 27 seats, meaning that unionists wouldn't necessarily represent an overall majority in any new executive.

It was a bad opening day. As Faulkner wrote in Memoirs Of A Statesman: "The obstructionist tactics of the loyalists, orchestrated by [Ian] Paisley, soon became clear, as a continuous stream of points-of-order challenging the Chair were made, most of them spurious and deliberately irrelevant.

"Insults, barracking and noise rapidly reduced the meeting to an undignified shambles and it took some two-and-a-half hours before we reached the election of a presiding officer."

Even when the proceedings had been officially adjourned for the day, Faulkner's opponents refused to leave and spent the next few hours with their own 'chairman' and speech after speech accusing him of betrayal and of lacking a "proper mandate" to speak for the majority of unionism.

Twenty-six years later, on July 1, 1998, at the first meeting of the present Assembly, David Trimble faced similar accusations from some of the same voices.

A standing orders committee spent the next few weeks deciding where the Assembly should meet, if the SDLP maintained its objection to Stormont (it wanted to meet in Armagh); whether proceedings should open with a prayer (and if the prayer should make reference to the Queen); and whether there should be a mace and a Speaker, rather than a presiding officer.

It was to be a long, hot summer of fraying tempers and numerous lengthy speeches, but, as Faulkner noted: "At least they were talking and the loyalists had clearly changed their tactics away from outright wrecking." And, again, that was similar to what was to happen in 1998.

The real meat of debate took place at a series of talks between Faulkner, the SDLP and Alliance, beginning in Castle Buildings on October 5. The other parties refused to take part.

Faulkner's problem, as it was to be Trimble's, was the opposition he was meeting inside his own party.

He had accepted the concept of power-sharing with the SDLP as far back as the autumn of 1972 – as had the standing committee of the UUP – the main proviso being that unionists would have a majority of cabinet/executive positions. But that looked unlikely, if the SDLP/Alliance had more Assembly seats than the UUP.

His critics – led by John Taylor and Harry West – feared being outflanked on one side by Alliance/SDLP and on the other by DUP/Vanguard.

The Assembly election represented the lowest-ever percentage for the Ulster Unionists since 1921 (37.8% in total and only 29.3% for the party's 'official' policy) and Faulkner's internal opponents believed that the disappearance of 'their' parliament was about to be followed by the party falling apart.

So, at every available opportunity, they used the rules and machinery of the party to call Faulkner to account: including emergency meetings of the standing committee and the Ulster Unionist Council.

At a meeting of the committee in mid-October, Faulkner had a narrow victory of 132-105, indicating just how worried and divided his grassroots representatives had become.

A meeting of the 700-strong council on November 20 was even narrower and he scraped through with just 10 votes.

In a passage written about 1973, yet just as applicable in 1998, Faulkner said: "Once again, at a crucial stage in the politics of Northern Ireland, they (his opponents) were able to make progress difficult by calling a meeting of the governing body of the party to try and undermine the credibility of the party's elected representatives. How much stronger and more effective our position could have been if they had given us support."

Ironically, when the UUC was called again and again in the 1998-2001 period by Trimble's opponents, it was John Taylor – this time defending the party leader – who was to complain about the tactics of the internal critics.

Anyway, on November 21, Faulkner/Alliance/SDLP agreed the shape of the power-sharing executive and the distribution of office on the basis of a 6-4-1 split.

Less than three weeks later, at the Sunningdale conference to deal with the 'Irish dimension' aspects of the relationship, Faulkner signed off on a Council of Ireland which linked the Assembly and the Dail.

On January 4, 1974, he lost the support (and leadership) of the Ulster Unionist Council and, on May 28, the Assembly itself was brought down after the Ulster Workers' strike – supported by a young legal academic called David Trimble.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk