Below is an interview Oliver Napier gave me in his law offices in April, 1996. Sir Oliver Napier (11 July 1935 – 2 July 2011) was the first leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.In 1974 he served as the first and only Legal Minister and head of the Office of Legal Reform in the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive set up by the Sunningdale Agreement.
I was an undergraduate student at the time. I said almost nothing; it is all Napier. I typed it up from a tape recording, word for word, to put in an Appendix for a student paper I was doing. Napier was articulate and basically spoke in sentences, so I didn’t make any attempt to clean up his syntax and what comes through is an erudite but very Belfast turn of expression. That’s what I like most about the interview. I haven’t even cleaned up my own inarticulate questions.
The topic was the course of negotiations that led to the creation of the power-sharing Executive with a bit about why Napier thought the Executive failed, especially the mistakes he thought some of the parties and personalities involved had made. Some of his recollections are funny.
The interview is an inside source about the Sunningdale/Executive era but also a source about 1996, when, although the IRA ceasefire had broken down at that moment, there was political optimism but no certainty about whether there would be an agreement, what shape an agreement would take, and what would happen in the years following an agreement. It is really a source about two eras (1973-4 & 1996) rolled into one.
The Castle talks that laid the groundwork for power-sharing concluded on November 21st, 1973, and the Sunningdale talks concluded on December 9th, 1973. The power-sharing Executive took office on January 1st, 1974. The 50th anniversaries are coming up.
April 1996, 1-9 Castle Arcade, Belfast.
AJM: I’m looking at the power-sharing initiative with a view to why it failed. But just to put it in context I was wondering if you could account for the success of the power-sharing initiative?
Napier: I could, yeah. Let me put it like this: After the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, various parties were invited by the Secretary of State at that time, Willie Whitelaw, to talk. And those talks took place in Stormont Castle. Three parties agreed that they would take part – the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the ‘pledged’ unionists – Faulkner’s unionists. The ‘unpledged’ unionists said they weren’t going to attend and the DUP refused to attend also. At the beginning of those talks it looked pretty bleak and I certainly was not tremendously optimistic.
[secretary brings tea in]
I wasn’t very optimistic, but what we started talking about was basically the need for a local administration in Northern Ireland. And Brian Faulkner basically said that his bottom-line position was that he was prepared to go into a power-sharing executive provided that his Official Unionist Party – that’s the ‘pledged’ unionists – had an overall majority. Now the numbers game – I don’t know exactly – but I think the SDLP had something like nineteen seats, I think Faulkner had about seventeen seats, and I think we had about eight seats. And the argument didn’t appear to be a matter of principle but it was apparently to Faulkner a matter of principle that he had to have an overall majority – his argument was that he could sell it to the unionist population if he had an overall majority in the Executive. Now that produced an absolute stalemate because the SDLP said there is no way [that] out of the twelve Executive seats which were provided for in the legislation – that is in the ’73 Act, which was a maximum of twelve – that Faulkner got seven and that the Alliance Party and the SDLP split the other five, they just weren’t prepared to go along with that, and they had more people for jobs than what they would get on that.
That took a considerable amount of argument and in fact it was myself who came up with the solution, which was: the maximum was twelve – make it eleven and give Faulkner six, the SDLP four, the Alliance Party one and then top up with members of what I called the administration, who were not members of the Executive but who could hold in fact posts – government posts – and that did happen and in fact we got topped up by an extra one and the SDLP got topped up by, I think, an extra two, and I think Faulkner got an extra one. And that brought it more into balance with party strengths. And once that breakthrough had happened – and it was about to fail when the breakthrough did happen – we sat down to arrange who got what posts and secondly to agree a social and economic policy.
The agreement to who got what posts were very simple – almost no arguments. For some reason Brian Faulkner was fixated on Finance – that he would have to have Finance, that his party would have to have finance, and [laughing] I don’t think anyone else wanted it, so there wasn’t any great argument about that. The SDLP obviously were very much looking for Commerce and Housing, and for reasons that are not terribly clear to me Faulkner would have liked Commerce, Housing went more or less by the board, and the SDLP got both. We wanted Manpower Services and nobody else wanted Manpower Services and I was Chief Legal Officer – Minister of Law Reform – which nobody else wanted either. So, on the allocation of posts, I remember we sat down one evening and allocated posts and there really was no problem.
We then came to this question of social and economic policy and each of the parties involved in the talks set up a sub-committee, you know, appointed a couple of people to a sub-committee to go through the social and economic policies. They were a little bit more difficult. First of all, both ourselves and the SDLP had a social and economic agenda – we knew what we wanted. The Faulkner unionists didn’t really. It’s always easier when you have something written down and the Faulkner unionists didn’t. And one of their committee members was Roy Bradford and one of the SDLP’s was Paddy Devlin – now everybody got on the best and there was no real problem except there was huge friction between Devlin on the one hand and Bradford on the other, partly personality, I think it was very substantially personality, but secondly Devlin would have always seen himself as a man of the hard left and Bradford always saw himself as a decent conservative and between those two positions there was a fairly wide gulf and the committee used to break up into screaming and yelling matches between the two of them. Eventually a form of words was agreed which was less than Devlin wanted and a good deal more than Bradford wanted, but we compromised. The agreement was then reached between the parties and that would have been, I think, around the end of November of 1973. I’m not good on dates without any paper but it’s about that time.
The SDLP’s position was then that they were only agreeing provisionally to a power-sharing Executive subject to agreement at Sunningdale on the Irish dimension. They were saying our agreement is provisional. We went therefore to Sunningdale, where as well as the three Northern Ireland parties involved in the Stormont Castle talks there was also involved the British Government and the Irish Government. The SDLP indicated quite clearly from the start that they needed to have an acceptable form of Irish dimension – that just an ad hoc situation wasn’t enough, like if we have problems across the border the ministers in respect of each party will have a chat and try to sort it out – they needed structures, they made it quite clear that they needed structures. As far as the Faulkner unionists were concerned, I don’t know what their attitude to an Irish dimension was – a structured Irish dimension. Prior to Sunningdale my party took the view that while we were not opposed to some fig leaf of Anglo-Irish dimension we were not pushing for it in anyway – we were in favour of a power sharing Executive in Northern Ireland and I think we would have gone as far to say that cross border matters could be dealt with on an ad hoc basis but if the price of the SDLP was some kind of an institutionalised fig leaf we’d go along with it. But before going to Sunningdale I had a chat with Willie Whitelaw and Willie Whitelaw said, ‘You will find Brian Faulkner very, very easy to deal with at Sunningdale,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Oh well, he’ll wear a structured Irish Dimension,’ and I said ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Well, that was the deal in giving him the majority in the Executive.’ So obviously there had been some talks between Faulkner and the British Government on what the kind of structures at Sunningdale would be and I took out of it that what had basically been said was, ‘Okay, you will have an overall majority in the Executive in Northern Ireland provided that you are,’ in inverted commas [laughing], ‘reasonable at Sunningdale.’ There was something and I wasn’t party to it. We went there and the Faulknerite negotiating position was incredibly weak – incredibly! And our negotiating position was much tougher – much tougher – and during the course of those negotiations quite a number of the ‘pledged’ unionist persons who were there were coming over to me and saying ‘you’re fighting our case much better than our leader is.’ But really Faulkner didn’t really function at all in the Sunningdale talks, for reasons which, as I say, I can only guess at. In fact, on one occasion the Alliance Party said, ‘Look, we think negotiations should be broken off and that we should all go home and reconvene in a week’s time,’ because there were two points that we were fighting. And one of them was we wanted extradition agreed now, as part of the whole thing we wanted clear agreement that there would be extradition. And the second thing that we were opposed to was two different formulae on recognition. What the Government of the South was saying was, ‘Well we can only go that far.’ The Alliance Party had only two fundamental points – apart from policing which I’ll mention in a moment – we wanted extradition now and we wanted clear de jure and de facto recognition of Northern Ireland full stop.
AJM: You’re saying you wanted Articles Two and Three dealt with?
Napier: Yes. We wanted recognition set about and we basically said – they were taking about changing Constitutions by referendum – look, if you’ve got a good deal you can go immediately, put the whole damn thing to your electorate. But they were incredibly reluctant to do that. Then I remember about four o’clock in the morning, we were sitting in our room, and we had proposed that we all go home and Ted Heath came in [laughing] and said, ‘A little party like yours’, he says, ‘is not going to eff up the entire procedure of Anglo-Irish agreement and if you attempt to do any such thing I will see that you are destroyed, utterly destroyed,’ etcetera, etcetera – all sorts of threats. They then set up instead of extradition a panel of judges from both sides, which came up with a tenth-rate compromise in my view. They were arguing, on international law, that they couldn’t agree to extradition and I was saying that my reading of international law is that that is a load of crap, the reason you don’t want to do it is because of political reasons – politics. We were fightin’ our corner very hard on these things but Faulkner wasn’t.
The other area where we had substantial disagreement with the SDLP, or particularly with John Hume, was on the question of policing. What John Hume wanted was there to be one all Ireland Police authority to which the police force North and South would both be accountable as it were. We said no. The support we had there was from the Irish Government because there was no way they [laughing] were going to have the police force no longer reporting and accountable to the Minister of Justice but to some cross-border institution – so the answer to that was no. Anyway we were pushed into a corner, which I very much regret, but in hindsight really there was nothing we could do, because if we said we were going home we brought the whole thing down – it was over. But anyway, we finally signed up to the agreement.
I knew that I did not have a problem selling Sunningdale to my constituency – I didn’t have a problem. The Council of Ireland that was set up was fifty-fifty from North and South and it had to act unanimously, so any one minister could say no. The unanimity factor I thought a sufficient guarantee to sell it to my constituency, I had the gravest doubts as to whether Brian Faulkner could sell it to his constituency, but he thought he could. We went home and the power-sharing Executive commenced January 1, 1974.
Now from almost the start of that I recognised that the problems we had outlined at Sunningdale – the South was not going to give an inch, not an inch – and in fact I wrote an open letter to the people of the Republic at around about that time, it was clear that the way they were going to sell recognition: we hadn’t really recognised Northern Ireland at all, you know, wink wink, nod nod, it doesn’t really say anything does it chaps and we didn’t give an inch on extradition. The Boland case was almost immediately after that and the defence which was put into it was basically, ‘What are you talking about, we didn’t recognise Northern Ireland at all’ – it was a cleverer defence than that but the politics of the defence was we didn’t really recognise it at all. Even at Sunningdale but certainly immediately after Sunningdale I had the gravest doubts as to whether Brian Faulkner could sell it to his constituency, I knew I could sell it to mine, the SDLP had no doubt that they could sell it to theirs, and the southern government weren’t going to sell anything to anybody. So, the bottom line was we all thought that we could sell it and one of us couldn’t.
AJM: Where did Faulkner? – I mean you’re centring on Faulkner – he seemed to have got his calculations wrong.
Napier: Yep, I think he got his calculations wrong on the saleability. Faulkner had an obsession that if the Official Unionist Party had a majority in the Executive then that was what assuaged moderate, centrist unionist opinion – talking now about the time of the Stormont Castle talks, Sunningdale, the early months of ’74 – that was his total view and that really the Sunningdale agreement was very much a fig leaf – and it was actually. I mean there’s no way that the SDLP today would accept Sunningdale as part of an Irish dimension – no way – nor would any southern government, I mean they’d want to go far further than that. In a way Sunningdale was the appearance of power and influence as far as the south was concerned without it actually happening. And when it came, for example, in the early days of the Northern Ireland Executive, to a reallocation of ministerial powers to the Council of Ireland it was really a joke [laughing] because no minister, SDLP, Alliance, or Unionist, wished to give anything out of their department to the Council of Ireland. When SDLP ministers were asked, I mean, could you not – John Hume – give over such and such? – No, you see, that’s an integral part of the running of my department. They ended up with a few things like the eradication of certain livestock diseases, which were common to the whole island and the operation of a few waterways which straddled the border and things like the Foyle estuary and Carlingford Lough and there really were very little things that were of any import which were handed over to the Council of Ireland and again it had to operate with unanimity.
AJM: So what you’re saying is Faulkner overestimated the sophistication of his constituency?
Napier: Correct. And he had this hook up – ‘Rest assured, sleep in your bed at night, the Official Unionist Party have a majority in the Executive and nothing can happen because we’ll see it doesn’t happen and the Council of Ireland anyway is a fig leaf,’ which in my opinion it was, and anyway, you see, he was arguing back in time and saying in 1921 we – the Unionist Party – had no problem in appointing our ministers to a Council of Ireland set up in the 1920 Act. Which is true, it was the south that didn’t appoint anybody to it, but fifty years had passed, times had changed, and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that the Council of Ireland was anathema to hard-line unionists and frightening to moderate unionists. I think you could say that to hard-line unionists even power-sharing was anathema to them, you know, ‘Look at those rebels up there, who do they think they are?’ and certainly the Council of Ireland was anathema to them. But centre unionism, the ordinary, moderate, middle of the road unionist, to which power-sharing was not anathema – it was something, he was going to have to get used to it, but he was prepared to get used to it – but the Council of Ireland frightened him and obviously it was extremely shrewdly built up by the treble UP – all the fears, like ‘Dublin is only a Sunningdale away,’ and that kind of thing. But there was a genuine concern in mainstream centre unionism that this was a vehicle trundling towards a united Ireland. Nothing that Faulkner said or did in anyway watered that down.
Mr. Heath was having his own problems with the miners. When the Election – the General Election – was called, the three parties forming the powersharing Executive really couldn’t coalesce around one candidate. It was theoretically possible that ourselves and the Faulkner unionists might have been able to coalesce around one candidate, it was impossible that the SDLP and the Faulkner unionists might have coalesced round one candidate and in practice, basically, each of the parties fought their own corner. First of all, we didn’t get a majority of the votes anyway. Would they have if they had been able to form a united front? Maybe – nip and tuck. But because they were split every way, they had no chance. The only seat that they won was Gerry Fitt in West Belfast and Gerry won: A, because he was Gerry and; B, because it was just the usual sectarian headcount, you know, you simply say to people on the Falls road, ‘Well, if you don’t come out and vote for me you know what’ll happen? You’ll have a unionist representing you in the morning.’ Elsewhere, those who were supporting the power-sharing Executive saw that there were three candidates appealing for their votes in this constituency, and that obviously reduced the vote of the proExecutive members. But what are you going to do about that? There was just no way they could have a common platform when it came to issues like the
constitutional position of Northern Ireland, there was no way that the SDLP and
the Faulkner unionists could have cobbled that together. Therefore, if we had put up just a pro-Executive candidate the question that was going to be asked – because of the peculiarity of Northern Ireland politics – ‘Do you support the constitutional position of Northern Ireland or not, Mr. So and So?’ Therefore, that was a hiding to nothing situation.
The eleven to one drubbing that the Executive got in that Election turned the tide on it completely. In other words, up to then, very, very slowly it was beginning to gain some credibility because it had the reins of power in its hands. I was finding, for example, that members of the treble UC were asking to speak to me quietly and privately, saying, look I have a wee constituency problem, I’m not supposed to be talking to you, but there’s a fella in my constituency who’s been arrested in the Republic and been charged with arms smuggling and membership of the UDA and you name it – at that time there wasn’t even legal aid in the South – and I made telephone communication with the Department of Justice and they did co-operate on that basis, you know, they co-operated on that basis, they said, ‘Okay, right, no problem, tell him to get a solicitor and we’ll confirm the solicitor and pay the tab, right enough.’ Once the Election took place it was downhill all the way. You see, we had a moral authority, we had the reins of power and secondly we had been elected and we had a majority in that Assembly. The only argument which could be put by the opposition was: if the electorate had known what Brian Faulkner was going to do and get involved with these rebels, they wouldn’t have voted for him – [laughing] which may well be true. They were making those kinds of arguments which were theoretical and hypothetical whereas once the election took place, they were no longer theoretical or hypothetical – an election had taken place and more people had voted against the power-sharing Executive than voted for it. ‘Get out!’ We therefore lost moral authority. Then an attempt was made to try to get the SDLP to put the Council of Ireland on hold for a year or two. A great deal of argument took place between the Official Unionists and ourselves on the one side and the SDLP on the other. We were saying, ‘Put it on the back burner,’ and the SDLP refused to do that until the very last minute, after the Ulster Workers Crisis, etcetera, etcetera.
Then if I can say to you how the power-sharing Executive operated – on social and economic, on the ordinary – leaving the Council of Ireland to one side for a moment – on the ordinary day to day running of the power-sharing Executive, there were almost no problems, there were occasional F-words between Paddy Devlin and Roy Bradford. I used to sit beside Paddy Devlin and Paddy would turn round and say – in about five minutes I’m going to lose my effing temper here. All of it was personal, part of it was political orientation or social policy orientation and part of it was personality – they just didn’t like each other. Apart from that, which was very, very occasional, there were no divisions in that power-sharing Executive based upon party lines. Even when Paddy Devlin and Roy Bradford were at each other’s throats, it didn’t divide along party lines, Brian would come in and say – well look Roy I know you feel strongly about this but actually I am more sympathetic to Paddy’s position or whatever it was – it never split down party lines at all and it worked very well.
The strain started – and there was a bit of a strain – but it referred only to the Council of Ireland when we asked the SDLP to put the Council of Ireland on the backburner. The first reaction was that there was no way they were going to do that and then very gradually and very reluctantly, at the very last minute, and when it was far too late anyway, they did. But at that time the situation was out of control.
Once the Ulster Workers Strike was declared, very largely because of the total surrender of the British Government, it was all over. We didn’t know at that time that the British Government was just going to throw us – the power-sharing Executive – to the wolves, we were not aware of that. That’s a hindsight matter – it was at least a week into the Strike before it was becoming clear that we were going to be thrown to the wolves. I went over with Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt to Chequers to meet Wilson and his team in the early days of the Strike and there was no problem about the provision of petrol etcetera, etcetera, the army would operate the power stations. We left there being told this was no problem and Mr Wilson was going to speak to the nation. None of the things that were promised actually did happen and secondly Mr. Wilson called us all spongers [laughing], which was not what was the intended thing, you know. There’s a story there which I don’t know the answer to, either at the meeting at Chequers we were being deliberately fed lies or the Government, at that time, intended to do what it said it was going to do and that after we left they were persuaded otherwise, perhaps by the army generals. I suspect that it was by the army generals.
AJM: If the Executive had had control of the police, would that have made a difference during the Strike?
Napier: That’s a very difficult hypothetical question to answer. The view that I have is that for the first two or three days, if a firm hand had been taken – in relation to demonstrations on the street and closing roads, intimidation, close-down your shop, that kind of thing – in the first few days by the police then the Strike would not have got underway. That is not simply my view, it is also the view of people like Glenny Barr, because I’ve talked to Glenny about it. People like Harry Murray – Harry Murray was a figurehead, Harry Murray and his nice boys from the shipyard were puppets on a string, the people who were pulling the strings and calling the shots were the loyalist paramilitaries. Glenny Barr has told me a number of times that that was the position – and that they didn’t think it had a pup’s chance in blazes, and that they were extremely surprised that they found no resistance. Once they found no resistance and that they were, in fact, the power on the street, the vast majority of people just went along with it.
So, I think the power-sharing Executive in 1974 had a lot of work to do to persuade middle unionism that it was not a threat. But I think that if they had had control of the police that the police would have almost to the man obeyed orders and I believe that the Strike would probably have failed.
AJM: Heath was very anti giving the Executive powers over the police during Sunningdale?
Napier: During Sunningdale he was very much against it. The SDLP wasn’t enthusiastic for it either – their concept was that policing would be controlled by the Council of Ireland, on both sides of the border.
AJM: It’s hard to understand how that idea got so much momentum at Sunningdale – the common law-enforcement idea.
Napier: Well, the Southern Government was terrified, I think, of any concept that the Gardaí should be controlled, or should have to account to, a Council of Ireland, or a joint police authority. Therefore, they weren’t going to fight flat out with the SDLP but they wanted to sideline that issue. The things that were done – I think that senior police appointments would be discussed in the Council of Ireland. I don’t know, I think that certainly the British Government was against any question of policing being under the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive. I think – this goes back to about 1970 – they wanted to keep policing apolitical. Therefore, it wasn’t that this was an executive that they didn’t want to have powers in relation to police, it was that they didn’t philosophically want any Northern Ireland administration having any say in policing. It was the idea that you would have a police force, like an English shire police force with a chief constable, who decided to do what he was going to do and a police authority which provided him with the resources to do it, but that nobody political ever even spoke to him – because if they did he would put the phone down on them. That was the concept that they had. The concept the SDLP had I’ve already explained to you and to the southern government the SDLP’s thing was anathema to them. Therefore, anything that didn’t affect the Gardaí being accountable to the Minister of Justice they would have gone along with.
It is fair to say that at Sunningdale there were a number of people who believed that Faulkner was being pushed far too far. I was one of them. Paddy Devlin believed that Faulkner was being pushed too far and Conor Cruise O ‘Brien believed he was being pushed too far. And Conor and Paddy and I went to see Liam Cosgrave, who was then Taoiseach, and Garret Fitzgerald was there too, and we told Liam that in our view he was pushing his boat out far too far for the unionists. He was prepared to take that aboard but Fitzgerald wasn’t. Fitzgerald said, ‘Brian Faulkner is the shrewdest, long-standing politician that Northern Ireland has ever had and he knows the unionist population backwards and who are you – three taigs – to tell us we are pushing Faulkner too hard?’ It was obvious to the Alliance Party, to Faulkner’s group, but they couldn’t get him to dig his heels in.
AJM: But Faulkner wasn’t a stupid guy.
Napier: No, he was anything but. He had certain superb qualities, but he had blind spots. I had great admiration for Brian Faulkner.
AJM: There’s been no other unionist…
Napier: No, I’ve great admiration for Brian Faulkner, but he had blind spots. The first time I ever had a real conversation with Brian Faulkner was a day or two after internment. I went up to see him at Stormont Castle at his request because I had criticised him and it. And I said to him, ‘Look Brian, I want to explain to you why this isn’t going to work [laughing] I’m not talking philosophically about the rule of law, I’m just going to tell you why it won’t work.’ And we sat there for maybe an hour and a half and he listened and we argued etcetera, etcetera. But I left knowing he didn’t see the point. What I was basically saying to him was why this will not work is as follows: you haven’t got the leadership of the Provisional IRA; secondly, if it isn’t done on both sides of the border at the same time there is no reason why it will work and it won’t work; and thirdly, you have created a recruiting agent for the IRA – because the boys that you’re liftin’ at the present time are people who the local community are going to say, ‘if he’s guilty of anything, why don’t you charge him? If not, this is an attack on the nationalist community’ and when it was subsequently brought in, sorry, applied to loyalists also, the loyalists reacted in exactly the same way. I mean, I represented East Belfast at that time, I had them queuing up outside my door. He couldn’t see that and he had this hook up that an overall majority in the Executive was all he needed. He was a very clever and shrewd man in many ways, but two or three blind spots. In the blind spot he couldn’t see and he was, thankfully enough, a determined little man and if he couldn’t see he wasn’t going to be pushed around and wasn’t going to change his mind and he wasn’t going to be influenced by people who he thought didn’t know as much as he did. Therefore, as far as his team at Sunningdale was concerned they couldn’t move him half an inch.
AJM: You think they were more on the ball than he was?
Napier: Yes. They weren’t thinking, they were feeling. He was thinking and they were feeling. And they were saying, ‘Holy God, how are we going to sell this to our constituents? They’ll go baldy’ …[ End of tape] … But they were right and he was wrong, when they looked into their hearts and asked how the unionist population – the unionist population that we represented, not the DUP, not the hard-liners – were going to react, they simply didn’t have to think about it, they said, ‘We can’t sell this.’
I didn’t think Faulkner could sell it, that’s why I joined with Paddy Devlin and Conor Cruise O’Brien and went to see Liam Cosgrave. Paddy didn’t think he could sell it, obviously Conor Cruise O’Brien didn’t think he could sell it, and his own party didn’t think he could sell it and it’s just the different way in looking at it. Remember also that in Brian’s team at Sunningdale, he was, by far, the senior, experienced politician – he was, by far. There were people there like John Baxter like ah …
AJM: Herbie Kirk.
Napier: Herbie was the only person who had a long-ish stint in government but hard-hitting dynamic Herbie he never was [laughing]. Herbie was an accountant who gave every impression of being small time. There was absolutely nothing wrong with him but he had no charisma and he had no political opinion and therefore he wasn’t going to influence Faulkner. He had a lot of very decent people who were there, most of whom had been elected in the last few years who were backbench material and when they went to Brian they didn’t have clout. In a funny kind of way that was the only party in which there was a head and a tail and no body. The SDLP, the leader at that time was Gerry Fitt, and Gerry used to sit in front of the fire, gin in one hand – in those days he smoked like a train – cigarette in the other, saying, ‘Oliver, have we reached any agreement yet [laughing]?’ But Hume, if Hume said something which Currie didn’t agree with, Currie said, ‘Hang on John, that’s a load of rubbish, I don’t agree with that.’ They had articulate people who counted. Paddy Duffy was there, Paddy would have been more Republican than most of them, and he would have taken a line which if they didn’t like it they would just have to listen to it anyway. We had myself and Basil Glass and Bob Cooper, Judge McCollum was one of our advisors. I might have been the leader of that delegation but I was an equal among equals [laughing] when it came to what strategy do we adopt. I didn’t dictate that but that was the structure in the Unionist Party – a head and tail and no body. And at Sunningdale Brian got it wrong, he went too far.
Whether the result of that would have been that the whole power-sharing thing would have collapsed I can’t answer. You see the SDLP were going in there saying we have provisionally agreed the terms at Stormont Castle which are subject to the agreement on the Council of Ireland. It was the Council of Ireland that frightened middle unionism, if you took the Council of Ireland out of the equation would the SDLP have gone along? Ahm, I can’t answer that, l just don’t know. I think you might well have been able to construct something which said we will have a Council of Ireland that will be put in referendum to the people in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland in five years’ time, we might have been able to do it via that way. If Dublin and to some extent the SDLP, but mostly Dublin, had given on extradition and recognition, a significant slice of middle unionism which felt it got nothing would have felt it got something. And my judgement is – and I’m relatively sure about this – that if we had come home with recognition, de facto and de jure recognition and with immediate extradition that Faulkner’s party would not have returned five members or whatever it was to the power-sharing convention – that if such a situation had arisen they would have been in there with twelve or fifteen. The big effect of not getting extradition and not getting clear recognition didn’t affect the SDLP, it affected us marginally but only marginally, what it crippled was the Faulkner unionists. I have absolutely no doubt that if they had got that, that the voting, not necessarily the seats, but the voting in the February General Election would have been significantly different – that the Faulkner unionists would have polled very significantly better. There was still no way that there could have been one candidate as a coalition candidate in that type of situation. I mean it just wasn’t possible, therefore the seats might have been still a bit awry but the voting wouldn’t have been.
But for reasons which I think were emotional and due to prejudice, that’s my view, the Southern Government wouldn’t move at all on extradition. The answer was, ‘We will not send decent Irishmen to British courts which would treat them unjustly and would send them away without a fair trial.’ I mean it was as brutal and gutty as that. People, for example, like Garret Fitzgerald always had an emotional reaction to it. Every time I mentioned extradition to him he emotionally over-reacted, because what he was saying was, ‘It doesn’t affect your constituency,’ and I said, ‘No, [shouting] but it affects Faulkner’s!’ I didn’t make any secret of the fact ever to the Southern Government that extradition only marginally helped us and that we could live without it. But it meant an enormous amount to middle unionism – and recognition, which they said they just couldn’t agree to, [that] both of these things were unconstitutional also, they said under international law they couldn’t agree to extradition. Crap! But those two things were crucial to the success or failure of Sunningdale, as to whether or not it was going to be accepted by a significant slice of middle unionism or not.
AJM: So you’re saying there was no give from the Irish Government but there was take on the Council of Ireland?
Napier: Correct. Okay, Faulkner had to go along with a Council of Ireland but he got nothing in exchange – absolutely nothing. As I say, I knew that at the time but I was threatened by the British Government. Going around East Belfast afterwards – I’m talking about people who would be Official Unionist voters, middle of the road, pro-Faulkner, that constituency would be very significantly pro-O’Neill, you’re not talking about people who would have been hard-line bigots. They knew they got nothing, all give, no take. Also, it meant that they didn’t trust Faulkner anymore to negotiate. Therefore his – our – majority in the executive meant nothing because to them he had, if not sold out at Sunningdale, sold a lot and got nothing back. Those factors were critical. I knew it then, I know it now. What has happened since? I’ll tell you what has happened since. Full recognition and extradition without any constitutional referenda or anything else because what we were being told was a load of crap – or the reasons we were being told were a load of crap. Extradition is now fully recognised – the only problem is that in England they can’t get their papers correct [laughing]. So that when they make applications for extradition, usually they have left a few of the necessary documents at home. Subject to that, in legal principle, there’s no problem. People are extradited across the border and the concept of a political offence – which we went on and on talking about at Sunningdale – was then clearly defined by the Supreme Court. It isn’t a political offence if you kill somebody or shoot at them or blow up their business, a political offence is something that is done were a crime is a crime of what you believe in or say, not do. There’s no great difficulty about that, so was it true that it was against international law to give extradition? No way, no way.
Now, anything else you want to ask me?
AJM: Yeah, quickly, I want you to differentiate between the type of guy Faulkner was and the type of guy O’Neill was. I know you weren’t close to O’Neill.
Napier: I got closer to O’Neill after he retired. O’Neill was a gentleman, he really didn’t understand Northern Ireland at all, I don’t think so. I think his heart was in the right place, he wished to move forward with a programme of reform, it moved incredibly slowly, he raised a lot of expectations among the nationalist population which did not come to fruition, he took the lid of the kettle and let the steam out but he wasn’t able to control it in anyway. But was he a straight honourable guy? Yes, he was. Totally out of his depth, totally out of his depth.
And in retrospect, I wouldn’t have said this at the time, but in retrospect it probably was an enormous mistake that the Unionist Party, at that time, would not go for the person we called the little shirtmaker. And it was purely on class, Brian Faulkner wasn’t at Eton and wasn’t of the kind of people who would send their sons to Eton. Faulkner, in a way, was an enigma, he was very hooked up, a very strong believer in the union. If you asked me, had Faulkner any beliefs? I would say, I would say, only one and that was that Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. He was a fixer. In the Unionist Party he rose through the ranks as an operator, a fixer, a man who did his homework, who had been a considerable success as Minister of Commerce, a modern man among dinosaurs. Most Unionist ministers in the nineteen-fifties and sixties couldn’t have run a sweetie shop much less a government. But Faulkner wasn’t in that type at all, Faulkner was a modem politician, a modem minister, he wanted his briefs, he read his briefs, and if he had problems about his briefs or questions he wanted to know the answers. And when he became the leader of the power-sharing Executive he believed in the power-sharing Executive and would have done anything to support it but I think that was part of his belief, fundamentally, in the union. I know Brian believed that power-sharing was the price of the union. I don’t know whether he was right or not. He believed that the price of Northern Ireland remaining in the union was major reform and that power-sharing was part of that reform. He was a pragmatist in everything except the union.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.