Personal memories of Sunningdale and the UWC strike – the lost opportunity for a generation

Although I couldn’t attend the conferences they’ve sparked off vivid memories.

This was a time when not only Northern Ireland seemed ungovernable but Britain too. At the Sunningdale civil service college in Berkshire we in the media were stuck in the conference annex for days because of the difficulty of getting taxis during the three day week, then in full force.  TV had  to close down at 10 o’clock each night – it was  that bad.

In spite of the atmosphere of crisis in England hopes for Sunningdale were high because the Executive had been created in shadow form before the conference. No d’Hondt fancy stuff, just a deal. Because of the Unionist split the SDLP had more members but they wisely conceded primacy to Brian Faulkner, the only unionist of first class executive ability  who had previously been a hard liner  Remind you  of anyone?

At just a little  over  11 months old at the time,  I must be one of quite few survivors of the conference itself. I presented a special TV programme from Sunningdale on the night just after it wrapped.  But such was the byzantine etiquette of scheduling, we had to wait until after  ballet on the Omnibus  arts programme was over. To our fury we were scooped by UTV.

Several recollections of the five months stand out. The biggest single difference between 1974 and 1998 was “the war on two fronts” that the army declined to fight. For the SDLP this was another example of British perfidy and favouritism to unionists. I leave the analysis to the sages Bloomfield ,Hayes and Currie. Who are the  people of similar quality active today?

Snapshots …

The white faces of Faulkner and Roy Bradford as they emerged for interview at Sunningdale  “God what have we done”? (Bradford, Judas- elect). Heath was too busy to give an interview, shuttling between Sunningdale and Chequers for a meeting with the Italian PM about the project he really cared about, the UK’s recent accession to the EEC.

Paddy Devlin minister of health-designate to Garret FitzGerald, on suddenly realising what the Council of Ireland might mean  (allegedly)” Get your fucking hands off my ambulances”. Paddy’s truculence was evidence of the east west, city and country division of the SDLP. Belfast was more pro-Executive, the country boys more pro Council of Ireland.  The Council ended up with no friends. Gerry Fitt, rewriting history and probably memory maintained he was always opposed to the “schoolmasters” Hume and Mallon. But hey Gerry was only the party leader. He was eclipsed by Hume for reasons I ’m still not entirely clear about.

Hume and Currie seriously overbid throughout, I presume in order to reach an acceptable compromise.  Garret and the Irish were concerned about the SDLP’s euphoria over the size of the steps  towards unity  they seemed to believe were being taken.  I suspect they  weren’t really convinced but they were exhausted and were feeling  historic.  Garret himself was the natural lead talker for the south with his  taciturn boss  Liam  Cosgrave ( 94  and still canvassing in the euros )  just about holding him in check, wanted some handle on police reform . No chance at that time. And Garret kept banging on about lots of army violations of Irish sovereignty.

The biggest single flaw was the lack of a firm British position in Whitelaw’s absence, having been suddenly removed in a vain effort to save the Tory government from the miners.  Heath’s impatience for a deal was no substitute. There was the worst possible clash of timing between the interests of NI and the UK as a whole. It was not the last. The new secretary of state Francis Pym toured the corridors politely buttonholing quiet drinkers in  vain attempts to discover what the hell it was all about.

Should the conference have admitted the dissident unionist majority? Paisley may have been the loudest voice but with I think only 9 members he did not have the biggest influence among anti-executive forces. Behind the front of the UW Council the UDA were in charge and they loathed him even then  He’d scarpered  to Canada at the start of the strike. The executive was brought down by the majority unionists and the breakaway Vanguard in collusion with the UDA. .

In 2003 when I made an archive film, Ken Bloomfield broke down obligingly in tears on camera as he talked about Suinningdale.

I also talked to Garret and Declan Costello ( the Attorney General) about the Council of Ireland. They insisted it was ineffectual but admitted they’d underestimated the strength of Sean McBride’s constitutional challenge even though  the republic had not fully endorsed the consent principle. This whipped the feet from under the republic’s position and was a propaganda gift  to the unionists . Surprisingly in view of the DFA’S high reputation the Irish side was no better prepared than anybody else.

Then the strike itself ..  BBC NI found itself running the prototype of a radio news channel. By staying on air for long periods the messenger was accused by the SDLP in particular of stoking the strike and allowing the spokesman for the electricity board to forecast the supply endless “on the brink.” This is a important moment in the history of broadcasting.

For what it’s worth I agree with Currie that the psychological moment passed when the army didn’t drive through the early flimsy loyalist barricades. But if they had done so what then? The army refused to fight a “war on two fronts” and the new Labour government’s indecision was final. They seemed to think they were confronting a trade union protest movement. Harold Wilson ( the prime minister  to you) greatly enflamed the situation by coming on TV and calling the strikers “ spongers” ( on British welfare).

In the nearly no go areas of East Belfast the UDA commander Tommy Herron (RIP) would take me  on triumphant tours with his minder literally riding shotgun, unchecked

When news of the Dublin and Monaghan bombs came through , it was a Civil War moment  when it seemed that the UDA was carrying war into the Republic  and the IRA  was bound to retaliate. I don’t know anyone who had confidence in the ability of the Republic to contain such an outbreak. Aother big special, this time on TV.

Blows were exchanged in BBC hospitality between Bradford and Paddy Devlin over the former’s alleged betrayal of Executive thinking in the middle of the strike. Slightly bruised I  to separate them. Paddy had a fist as big as a ham. Ironically they were both talented writers.

Bill Craig was aghast and apologetic when bearded by the BBC Head of programmes Ronnie Mason  (fortunately  an old friend from Queen’s )s over BBC staff intimidation during the strike:” Bill call your fucking dogs off my staff!”  “ I’m awful sorry Ronnie.”

What if the strike had petered out? It was the narrow defeat of a confidence motion  in the Assembly watched by the  embryonic strike committee that had brought things to a head.  Intimidation or loss of nerve would probably have reversed the vote but the executive would at least have  fallen by democratic process. Fascinating that Bill Craig the nominal leader of the UWC proposed a voluntary coalition the following year and lost his seat later, for his pains.

Yes, the power sharing system of 1974 failed.  Inevitably? Too easy a verdict.  Certainly the ground was vastly underprepared, the whole affair was rushed. That war on two fronts.  But dammit the Troubles had gone on for five whole years and something had to be done! It marked the final inability of unionism  to coalesce  around a plan for  government for a generation. It still amazes me that  so many of then were so blinkered . “So were they all, all honourable men..” Why did they not give it a bigger go and pull the plug  if their worst fears were realised? Granted that this was partly a coup mounted from the streets. You can understand  why Robinson was so nervous over the flegs protest and is still nervous today.

Ironically it was the SDLP who showed them how to govern for a few short months. Austin Currie was the star. Whatever happened to them?

The following year the ban on Sinn Fein was lifted following an IRA ceasefire which started when they deceived themselves (or were deceived)  that a British withdrawal was on the cards . But their moment had not yet come.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • A great memory of mine but I’m not sure whether it was 74 or 78 was the cheeky success of a rip-off artist. There were huge line ups at filling stations. The guy went half way down the line at one, told people that everyone was limited to 5 pounds worth and, to speed things up, they were issuing pre-paid tickets. He then sold those roll up tickets to dozens of people and scarpered with his ill gotten gains before the first one scammed reached the pumps.

  • Today’s unionists are probably privately seething at Paisley for his failed attempt in ’77, which showed London that the strike weapon could work twice, which meant their real enemy the Anglo Irish agreement left them sulking on the sidelnes in ’85. No celebration marches by UDA or DUP over that pyrrhic victory.

  • last post extract should read ‘…that strike weapon couldn’t work twice….’

  • Newman

    Memory of the hope engendered and the despair of the subsequent strike is still vivid..I often wonder if the Council of Ireland had been put on the long finger whether it might have had a chance. Wonderful recollection by Brian

  • aquifer

    “the only unionist of first class executive ability to this day and had previously been a hard liner Remind you of anyone?”

    I am struggling Brian, please give me a clue.

    If you should spot a statesman too, please point him out.

    (Sorry if I seem a bit slow, I got a bit tired today working out how not to waste my vote.)

  • SDLP supporter

    A very useful memoir from Brian Walker. The QUB seminar was mostly pretty good in parts, though I loathe the lionising of retired paramilitaries by some academic political scientists.

    The highlight of the day for me was the septuagenarian Austin Currie eviscerating former Provo IRA man Tommy McKearney. The latter was clear that the Provo strategy in the first five months of 1974 was simply to do down the SDLP. Currie underlined that this was always the Provo IRA’s main aim rather than living up to the rhetoric of bringing the war to the Brits. Currie also highlighted the hypocrisy of the Provos excoriating the SDLP talking to the British Government while there was still internment while at the same time Gerry Adams was freed from jail to engage in secret talks behind everybody’s back at Cheyne Walk.

  • Brian Walker

    Austin had every reason to loathe the IRA and all paramiltaries because of repeated serious attacks on his family. I haven’t asked him what he thought of the Hume- Adams talks. Probably resigned to them by the time they came. John came to dominate partly because he had the SDLP’s sole official salary as an MEP,

    Jack Lynch I believe found Austin some sort of job with Irish Roadstone. He eventually moved south to become a Fine Gael TD and a presidential candidate.

  • Harry Flashman

    If I had a vote in 1974, I would have supported the Sunningdale Agreement, but I didn’t as I was only seven years old, but here’s the problem; no one else had a vote either.

    As I pointed out on another thread the nearest thing to a poll on Sunningdale was the February 1974 election and the anti-Sunningdale ticket swept the board, after the strike in the second election they swept the board again. There can be no doubt that, like it or not, the Sunningdale deal had no democratic mandate or popular support.

    When Sunningdale Mk II was put before the people in 1998 the slow learners caught on and gave it support but the fact remains that the UWC leadership and their minions in their slouch hats and fake Ray-Bans showed a greater grasp of popular opinion than those fine democrats Faulkner, Fitt, Devlin, Hume, Napier or Currie.

    To expect Harold Wilson, who had come to power on the back of a politically motivated strike backed by intimidation and power cuts, to have asked the British Army (with some of their senior command chomping at the bit to stage a coup against him), to use the army to break the strike shows a complete lack of understanding of political realities in the UK in 1974.

  • Brian Walker

    Harry, People of course did have a vote, the power sharing package was well trailed in constitutional proposals and links with Dublin in March 1973 and followed the “border poll” which was boycotted by nationalists. In March the Standing Committee of the UUP voted narrowly in favour of power sharing after some members had already seceded.

    In the June 1973 election for the Assembly a united unionist coalition including the seceded Vanguard, anti-Assembly dissident UUP and 8 DUP outnumbered Faulkner’s pro-Assembly unionists 26 to 24. But there was no designation grouping as in 1998 and there was a comfortable pro-Assembly majority of 26 in a 78 member House. Disgracefully in my view a narrow unionist majority connived with paramilitaries on the streets to bring down an overall majority government. So much for all the prating about constitutional behaviour.

    No doubt the Feb 1974 Westminster general election seriously undermined the result but it was not the right constitutional instrument and the earlier STV vote was a closer guide to overall opinion. It was no excuse for unconstitutional behaviour by those who hypocritically condemned it in others.

    Unionism as a political force paid dearly for it as did everybody else, in the years to come. Instead of winning trust as potential political partners representing the majority, they were treated as vaguely unstable elements or obstacles to be circumvented for the next twenty years.

  • Harry Flashman

    Brian talking about ideas being “flagged up” nine months before a deal is secured and saying that therefore they had a democratic mandate is nonsense.

    In the same way the GFA was “flagged up” long before the deal was signed but it still had to be put to a referendum.

    I asked in the other thread for any evidence that Sunningdale had support among a majority of the voters in Northern Ireland, and that the UWC strikers were not supported by a majority of people in Northern Ireland, the response was along the lines of no of course Sunningdale did not have popular support but the prods should have just sucked it up anyway.

    You know the way nationalists in Northern Ireland meekly accepted the legitimacy of Stormont rule (which funnily enough did actually have majority support) and never tried to overthrow that system of government, oh, er, wait.

    Nationalists were perfectly justified in agitating, and protesting on the street, against Stormont rule, Unionists were perfectly justified in agitating and protesting against Sunningdale.

    The solution? Simple, get a deal that both sides are prepared to accept, ok not so simple as it only took another 24 years but nonetheless solutions imposed by the British and Irish governments against the will of the people have a way of unfolding eventually (as Conor Cruise O’Brien reminded readers of the Irish Times on the day of the signing of the AIA in 1985 recounting his memory of having to fly into a beleaguered Hillsborough by helicopter in 1974).

  • Brian Walker

    Oh well Harry you have the “simple” solution that works for you and I’m stuck with nonsense. Your privilege!

  • carl marks

    Harry, still trying to present the lockout as a victory for democracy, thinks that’s a lost cause mate.
    Nobody disagreed with the results of the election after the strike.
    The main problem was that a group of unionist politicians worked with terror groups to overthrow a government (where did they get the mandate to bring hatred and terror to our streets) and you can try to justify the violence and murder with a result that took place after it but it’s not working.
    Of course unionists will either try to pretend that the people they vote for didn’t stand with murder gangs and forced a government down or they will try to whitewash the whole thing with really quite ridiculous claims to some sort of democratic mandate.