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Friday, May 28, 1999 Published at 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK


UK Politics

Quarter century after first assembly's fall

Stalemate holds up transfer of powers to Assembly

Twenty-five years ago - on 28 May 1974 - Northern Ireland's first power sharing assembly executive collapsed.

A quarter of a century later, the Northern Ireland politicians are still struggling to find a settlement which would enable the British government to devolve administrative and legislative powers to the current Northern Ireland Assembly.


[ image: After a year the current Assembly has no executive]
After a year the current Assembly has no executive
The first assembly, set up in 1973, was one of a series of attempts by British governments to try to hand powers of governing to elected representatives from all sections of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, after the break up of the old Stormont Parliament in Belfast.

NI Parliament Unionist dominated

The Northern Ireland Parliament had been set up in 1921 after the British Government passed the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which gave control of the 26 southern counties of Ireland to Irish nationalists, who then set up the Irish Free State. Under the Act, Northern Ireland remained part of the UK, but was given a high level of devolved powers.

From June 1921 to March 1972 the Northern Ireland Parliament, with a 52 seat lower house and a 26 seat upper house, had a prime minister and an executive of ministers. It had powers over most areas including housing, health, employment, planning, the police, education, agriculture law and order and social services. The was dominated by a majority of unionists.

Between 1921 and 1999 12 to 16 Northern Ireland MPs have continued to attend Westminster, although a convention held from 1922 to 1972 that no Northern Ireland MP could ask a question about an issue which was under the area of responsibility of a Northern Ireland Parliament Minister. In the British cabinet the Home Office Secretary had overall responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs.

NI Parliament suspended

In March 1972 the British government suspended the Northern Ireland parliament because it was clear it had lost control of law and order. The violence started 1968 when Marches by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association demanding equal rights for Catholics were followed by clashes between nationalists and the Royal Ulster Constabulary and loyalists and nationalists.

By 1969 the situation had deteriorated so much that the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, James Chichester Clark, asked for British Army assistance. As republicans and loyalists stepped up their campaigns of violence, even further, the Northern Ireland parliament introduced internment (imprisonment without trial). Internment was particularly aimed at the IRA, but it did not stop either paramilitary or civil violence.

Bombings and assassinations by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, the UVF and UDA, escalated, and in January 1972 the Army shot dead 13 civil rights marchers in Derry. When the Northern Ireland parliament was suspended, the British government reinstated direct rule.

PR election for new Assembly

In March 1973 the British government addressed the Northern Ireland political vacuum by holding a referendum on Northern Ireland's constitutional status. The same month it proposed a bill to set up an assembly elected by the proportional representation voting system. PR meant that the minority parties, and nationalists in particular, would get a fairer share of seats in the assembly, than they had had in the old parliament. Westminster would retain powers over law and order.

In June 1973 the election was held and the new 78 member Northern Ireland Assembly first sat on 31 July. In November 1974 - the main parties agreed that a cross party power-sharing executive should be formed in the assembly.

In December 1974 at cross-party talks at Sunningdale in England, the parties agreed that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK unless the majority consented otherwise and that a Council of Ireland, with ministers from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and a consultative body with an equal number of assembly and Dail members, would be set up.

In January 1974 the cross-party assembly executive, with a majority of unionists took office. Anti-power sharing unionists did their best to disrupt proceedings and 18 members including Ian Paisley had to be forcibly removed by the police.

Loyalist strike brings assembly down

On 14 May 1974 a majority in the assembly voted for the Sunningdale Agreement. Loyalists were determined to stop unionists in the Assembly executive sharing power with nationalists, and the Council of Ireland being set up. They brought Northern Ireland to a stand-still through an all out strike organised by the Ulster Workers Council and backed up by paramilitary intimidation. For two weeks essential supplies including electricity, water and food were cut or limited.

The final humiliation for the assembly executive came when it transpired that the Army would be unable to run Northern Ireland's power stations, even if willing. On 19 May the Secretary of State Merlyn Rees announced a state of emergency.


[ image: In May 1974 Prime Minister Brian Faulkner led unionist resignations]
In May 1974 Prime Minister Brian Faulkner led unionist resignations
On 28 May 1974
- the unionists led by Prime Minister Brian Faulkner reluctantly resigned from the power sharing executive and it collapsed. The British government reinstated direct rule from Westminster.

Other Assemblies fail

There were several attempts by British governments to return power to the Northern Ireland parties between 1975 and 1995.

From 8 May 1975 to March 1976, 78 members sat in a Constitutional Convention, which was devised by the British government to fill the political vacuum. However, the SDLP boycotted it for much of its lifetime. It was unsuccessful at finding a political settlement or ways to stop the escalation of republican and loyalist paramilitary violence.

On 25 October 1979 the British government invited the main political parties to a constitutional conference at Stormont to try again to find a settlement, against a background of unabated sectarian violence. Some parties attended the Conference at Stormont on 7 January 1980, but by March 24 March it was adjourned with no progress.

On 30 May 1983 the Irish government set up a body called the New Ireland Forum, which was attended by nationalists parties from Northern Ireland and the Republic, but boycotted by unionists.

From 11 November 1982 to 23 June 1986, a new assembly sat at Stormont following the British government's 'rolling' Devolution Bill. The assembly only had a consultative and scrutinising role, because the parties could not agree on applying to Westminster for devolved powers.

It was dissolved following hardline unionist disruption, protests and strikes over the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement in which the British and Irish governments laid out plans for Anglo-Irish co-operation in dealing with Northern Ireland.

Talking about the political future of Northern Ireland did not resume until September 1987 when unionists agreed to meet the British government to start 'talks about talks.' Talks between the SDLP who had been meeting with Sinn Fein and the British government followed in February 1988.

However, although by March 25 1991, the main parties had agreed a formula for multi-strand talks there was little progress until 15 December 1993 when British Prime Minister John Major and the then Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds signed the Downing Street declaration.

Although not widely embraced by the parties, the declaration was important because of the Irish government's agreement that Irish self-determination in Northern Ireland would be subject to the consent of the majority and because it established that a settlement would be achieved only through negotiation between the democratically mandated parties using peaceful means.

New Forum talking shop


[ image: Sinn Fein took up seats in an Assembly for the first time]
Sinn Fein took up seats in an Assembly for the first time
In May 1995 elections were held to Northern Ireland's first province-wide elected political body since June 23 1986. The Northern Ireland Forum, which first sat on Friday 14 June 1996, was designed as a talking shop that would sit for two years in the run up to all party talks scheduled for 10 June 1997.

This body was significant in that Sinn Fein contested the election, following the start of an IRA ceasefire, although they did not take up their seats. Parties with links to loyalist paramilitaries, the Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Democratic Party and the new Women's Party, also stood for election. Although the SDLP resigned their seats in the Forum after violence at the 1996 Drumcree parade and protest, they were still adamant that they would take part in the all party talks.

Ceasefires boost talks

On April 10 1998 the talks, which had been boosted by declarations of permanent ceasefires by the IRA, and loyalist UVF and UDA, achieved the milestone signature of the Good Friday Agreement by most of Northern Ireland's main parties.

The agreement was the first to receive the firm support of a majority of both nationalist and unionist parties. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party formed the most significant opposition to the deal.

It set out provisions for a new assembly elected under proportional representation, cross border bodies and a Council of the Isles to promote co-operation between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland. Powers were to be devolved from Westminster after the Assembly executive was formed.

People vote 'Yes'

On Friday May 22 1998 71% of people in Northern Ireland and 95% of people in the Republic of Ireland voted for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in north and south referendums.

On 25 June 1998Elections to the assembly were held and when it first sat on 1 July 1998 all parties took their seats. The only party which did not gain representation was the loyalist UDP.

In May 1999 more than a year after the assembly elections, the Northern Ireland Parties can not agree on when the assembly Executive will be set up, although the British government is anxious to devolve powers to the assembly.

Negotiations are deadlocked over the scale for paramilitary weapons decommissioning. The Ulster Unionists led by David Trimble are saying that the IRA and other paramilitaries must decommission before Sinn Fein joins any executive. However, Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams says that there is no precondition in the Good Friday Agreement for arms decommissioning before the executive is formed.



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