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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK


UK Politics: Talking Politics

Reform attempts up to 1989


The Belfast or Stormont Agreement of Good Friday 1998 was the latest attempt to grapple with the problem of stable and agreed institutions in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland had been governed under a devolved system since the Government of Ireland Act 1920, while the rest of Ireland won dominion status in the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921.

As the South moved to cut constitutional links with the UK, adopt a republican constitution in 1937 and declare a republic outside the Commonwealth in 1949, Northern Ireland remained part of the Union.

Pressure for change

Northern Ireland's institutions were modelled on Westminster but were applied in the circumstances of a permanent nationalist minority and a unionist majority government.

Periodically, it came under attack by the IRA in the early 1920s, during the 1939-45 world war and the border campaign of 1956-62.

However, it was the pressure on internal institutions from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association from 1968 onwards, the response to demands for change, the outbreak of communal disorder in 1969 and the arrival of the British army in support of the police which began a process of change.

The outbreak of serious violence in 1971 with 174 deaths and the failure of internment in August, produced a major initiative by the Conservative government led by Edward Heath in March 1972.

The Stormont Parliament and government were prorogued, executive, legislative and security power returned to Westminster and direct rule under a Secretary of State began under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972.

The failure of Sunningdale

A Border Poll in March 1973 established popular support for remaining in the UK rather than joining the Republic.

Thereafter the problem was more easily defined than secured, namely, to provide an active, permanent, guaranteed role for the nationalist minority in the government of Northern Ireland.

The solution in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 provided for an Assembly, a power sharing executive and, after the Sunningdale Agreement, an Irish dimension represented by a Council of Ireland.

The system came fully into effect on January 1 1974 and lasted for five months before it was brought down by the Ulster Workers Council strike in May after unionist opinion had radically shifted against it.

Testing the waters

In 1975-6 a Constitutional Convention allowed local politicians to design their own system but their majority report was not acceptable to Westminster.

Direct rule became more positive in form from 1976, but from time to time the Secretary of State would test the parties' attitudes to devolution.

For example, Humphrey Atkins held a conference in 1980 to discuss models of devolution but without success.

In December 1980, a high level British team met the Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, for talks aimed at improving relations.

It marked a new departure, out of which developed the Anglo Irish Inter-Governmental Conference in 1981.

A new Secretary of State of some stature, James Prior, legislated for a new Assembly to which power would be devolved as agreement between the parties developed.

However, the abstention of the 14 SDLP and five Sinn Fein members meant there was not cross community support for devolution and the Assembly had to be content with a scrutinising role.

The real game was elsewhere - in the negotiations between the British and Irish governments on the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement

The special role given to the Irish government in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland through the new Anglo-Irish Conference and the Secretariat at Maryfield alienated unionists.

As the Agreement was an international treaty, however, there was no constitutional, political or other action they could take, try as they might, to change it.

Article 4 of the Agreement did provide for devolution, but no attempt was made to activate it and the Prior Assembly was dissolved in June 1986.

Despite unionist contact and proposals to government since August 1987, the treaty went through its first review in 1989 without change and both governments seemed content with the position.



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