Gordon Gillespie-Why Sunningdale was never going to work

As it is the 40th anniversary of the UWC Strike we asked Dr.Gordon Gillespie who completed his doctoral research on the strike to write up a piece on why he feels that Sunningdale was always doomed to failure.

Forty years ago this month the first attempt to create a cross community executive in Northern Ireland ended in failure. The political strength of loyalist power station workers allied with paramilitary force on the streets and backed by broad unionist support forced Brian Faulkner and his supporters to resign from the Executive rather than see the power grid collapse. Thus ended the Sunningdale experiment.

Pro-Sunningdale commentators still argue that, given the right circumstances, Sunningdale would have worked by drawing support away from the extremes but the package was a clear example of Murphy’s Law – if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. And with Sunningdale there was too much that could, and did, go wrong.

Given the zero sum nature of Northern Ireland politics changes needed to be carefully balanced. Nationalist expectations of an end to internment and police reform proved hard to achieve while paramilitary campaigns were in full swing and the immediate ending of internment would, in any event, have drastically undermined mainstream unionist support for the deal.

SDLP and Unionist leaders had comparatively little time to prepare their supporters for the compromises they were forced to make. The SDLP’s main policy document still talked of a united Ireland in the short-medium term or, at a minimum, joint British-Irish authority pending Irish unification. Most unionists, meanwhile, wanted a return to a majority government or one which might include Alliance and the NILP but the late addition of the SDLP came as a shock to many.

Unlike the GFA both republicans and a large group of unionists were excluded from the Executive – republicans had little electoral support at this time but more than half of unionists excluded from the Executive in what was an unrepresentative Assembly. Loyalists clearly had a valid point in calling for fresh Assembly elections but the inevitable destruction of Faulkner’s support which this would have entailed meant that it would not be conceded by the UK government. The result of February 1974 Westminster General Election, when anti-Sunningdale unionists received over 50 per cent of the vote merely demonstrated that Emperor Faulkner had no clothes.

While Faulkner saw the Council of Ireland as ‘necessary nonsense’ this was not the view of key nationalist players like John Hume and Garret FitzGerald and the supposed potential of the Council became inflated to such an extent that it became the biggest single factor in destroying unionist support. It was not hard to see why this was the case as the SDLP repeatedly told their supporters – but also unionists – that the Council of Ireland was their back door approach to achieving a united Ireland.

If a counterbalance was to be achieved then unionists needed three key conditions to be met; the unequivocal recognition of NI’s constitutional position within the UK by the Irish government, the extradition of paramilitary suspects from the Republic to NI (although the Irish government had said from early on that this was simply not going to happen) and improved security co-operation with the Republic. In the end only the third made any progress but a renewed IRA bombing offensive in the Spring made it difficult to see that it had made any difference.

Could the recognition of NI have been handled better by the Irish government or did the need for a referendum mean they were hamstrung from the outset? In the event the Irish government was unwilling even to try for an amendment and the Boland case meant they were forced into such an indefensible position that they tried not to discuss the issue at all.

Above all the Sunningdale deal was a consociational construct requiring at least the tacit support of a clear majority of unionists and of nationalists if it was to work. In reality at no time during the entire process did a majority of unionists support the Sunningdale package and this was its main flaw. Years after the events William Whitelaw, one of the key architects of the deal, told journalist and Faulkner supporter Peter Utley, ‘You always told me that I was driving Faulkner too far. My God you were right! But what a fool he was to allow himself to be driven.’

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  • Granni Trixie

    Fascinating to see the nuts and bolts of what is often talked about from a distance as a missed opportunity yet you show why it was unlikely ever to work out.

    I think I’m right in sayng however that the concept of power sharing as the way to change NI is shown to have been one with good potential (despite the evident flaws we see today), a concept first advocated by the New Ulster Movement around 69/70?

  • David Crookes

    Is it true that Faulkner went into the election refusing to say whether or not he would share power with the SDLP?

  • PaddyReilly

    Power sharing governments can only be guaranteed to work in a (con-) federal system, like Switzerland, where the real power lies at a more local level, and the central government has to make provision for all the parties, or risk the excluded ones seceding.

    The miracle is that power-sharing has worked for so long in the present circumstances. What I think happened is that MI5 or such like prepared a prosecution dossier on all the potential troublemakers and told them they would be going down for ever if they didn’t play ball.

  • @Gordon,

    You neglected to mention that Conor Cruise O’Brien advised the Irish government that it was going too far with the Council. He said that unionists would not tolerate this. Garret FitzGerald refused to listen.

    “Power sharing governments can only be guaranteed to work in a (con-) federal system, like Switzerland, where the real power lies at a more local level, and the central government has to make provision for all the parties, or risk the excluded ones seceding.”


    Actually NI and Bosnia are the only two examples so far of power-sharing being used–when it hadn’t been before–to end a violent conflict. Your observation seems to apply to Bosnia where almost all the governance takes place at the subnational level, within the Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat federation. And then in the federation most power lies at lower levels in the two constituent parts. There are five or six tiers of government in Bosnia.

  • @Gordon,

    I. William Zartman, an American conflict resolution specialist wrote a number of years ago that a minimum of three conditions are necessary in order for a conflict to be ripe for resolution:

    1) legitimate representatives–the two or more sides involved in the negotiations must actually represent the parties involved in the conflict;
    2) a formula that offers a way out–there must be a compromise formula that is acceptable to both or all sides;
    3) a hurting stalemate–neither side can be perceived as winning the conflict and if possible a reversal of fortune might be foreseeable.

    At Sunningdale there was a formula but not legitimate representatives–the conflict was between the IRA on one hand and the British government and loyalist paramilitaries on the other. Neither the loyalists nor the IRA were represented at Sunningdale. And in 1974 both sides believed that victory was still possible. The IRA thought that it could drive the British out of the province through terrorism and the British thought that they could prevent this and remain. So one out of three just doesn’t cut the mustard.