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

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