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1973: Chaotic meeting of Belfast Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly has met for the first time in Stormont, Belfast.

It is the first democratically elected assembly in Northern Ireland since direct rule was imposed by London last March.

The inaugural meeting was to elect a presiding officer and invite nominations to the standing committee to draw up procedural rules.

But the two-hour debate was disrupted by loud protest and interruptions from a group of 27 hardline loyalists - forming the biggest power block in the administration - led by Reverend Ian Paisley.

Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Mr Paisley said: "I should like those members of the British Government who are here and the Westminster members who are skulking in the galleries to know that Ulstermen are free people and we are not going to be bullied."


"Ulstermen are free people and we are not going to be bullied"

DUP leader, Ian Paisley

The loyalist-unionist alliance - including the DUP, the Vanguard Party and the 10 unaligned Unionists - issued statements yesterday to reject the British Government's White Paper and proposals for a power-sharing executive and Council of Ireland.

Unionist Party leader and former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner criticised the unaligned unionists and the behaviour of their alliance at the Assembly meeting.

Leaders of the main Catholic opposition group, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) were also scathing.

Veteran SDLP leader Gerry Fitt made a quiet, constructive contribution to the debate.

"We have come here today with a clear commitment to make this assembly a fair and just system of administration for the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

After two hours of barracking, the Assembly elected a Unionist with 24 years' experience at Stormont, Nat Minford, as presiding officer by 31 votes to 26.

Minutes after the meeting was adjourned Mr Paisley and his loyalist group stayed in the chamber - with the lights turned off - to continue their vociferous protest against the British Government.

In Context
Months of wrangling in the new Assembly resulted in the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973.

This led to the formation of the Council of Ireland to govern Northern Ireland with representatives from the north and the Irish Republic.

Meetings at Sunningdale in Berkshire highlighted the rifts between the parties.

Prime Minister Brian Faulkner considered it as merely an advisory body to improve cross-border co-operation.

Mr Paisley, the DUP and other hardliners considered the deal a sell-out to the British Government. The SDLP hoped it would provide the foundations for a united Ireland.


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