Back to main menu
History of Ireland BACK

1972 - 1984: The Sunningdale Agreement and the Hunger Strikes
< Previous History Menu Next >
In March 1973, the British announced the new way Northern Ireland would be governed. It was to be an assembly where Unionists and Nationalists would share power. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Faulkner, reluctantly agreed to the new arrangements although he said he would never share power with anyone whose objective was to 'break the Union'. Many Unionists left the party in protest and formed the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party which was totally opposed to power sharing. For them, anything short of a return to Stormont was unacceptable. The elections were held in June 1973. 33% of the vote was for the Vanguards with 29% for the pro-power sharing UUP. The rest of the vote went to other, pro-power sharing parties.

After the elections, all the parties which supported the power sharing were consulted and agreed in November 1973 to the makeup of the overall governing Executive of Northern Ireland. Although the number of Nationalists was much higher than in Stormont, many Nationalists still felt that Unionists were over-represented in the Executive. Before the Executive could take over running Northern Ireland, the role that the Republic of Ireland was to play had to be defined. Representatives from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and London met at Sunningdale, in Berkshire, England to discuss this. Anti-power sharing parties were not invited, and this caused alot of resentment in Northern Ireland. After much heated discussion, a Council of Ireland was finally agreed which would work to improve relations between the two states. The UUP and the other delegates signed the Sunningdale Agreement on 9 December 1973. It appeared to please all sides at the talks, and Faulkner believed he could persuade the Unionist people that it was a good thing. The Executive took over the government of Northern Ireland on 1 January 1974.

However, there were serious problems for the Executive. There was a lot of disagreement between parties in the Assembly and the role of the Council of Ireland was not made clear. Additionally, terrorist activity in Northern Ireland was ongoing and, although the police were controlled from London, the Northern Ireland Executive got the blame. The anti-power sharing Unionists were outraged that the Republic was to have a say in Northern Ireland and demanded that the agreement be scrapped. In the March 1974 general election, anti-Sunningdale parties won 11 of the 12 Westminster seats. The head of the executive, Gerry Fitt, claimed that people did not yet understand Sunningdale and pointed to opinion polls that still showed majority support for the Agreement from both sides of the comunity. Despite the election results, no changes were made to the Sunningdale agreement or the Executive.

By now, the anti-Sunningdale Unionists realised that democratic means were not going to get them their demand for the abolition of the Agreement. In 1974 the loyalist paramilitary groups and many of the anti-Sunningdale politicians joined the small Ulster Workers' Council. The Council began to organise action against the government. They warned the Assembly that if they refused to abolish the Sunningdale agreement, then they would hold a strike. On 14 May, 1974 the Assembly voted to ignore the UWC's demand and a general strike was called. Known as the "General Workers' Strike", it was the worst economic event in Northern Ireland in recent years. Power stations were closed as workers left and as a result, no other industry could operate either. Petrol workers went on strike, the province ran out of oil, and soon cars became useless. The strikers also blocked roads and travel became impossible. Social security offices shut and it was often impossible for people to get unemployment benefit. Only a handful of businesses in the province remained open. After a week, the government began to realise how serious the situation was and began attempting to get the workers to return to work. The strike, however, soon got the backing of most Unionists. When the UK Prime Minsiter, Harold Wilson launched a scathing attack on the strikers in a speech on 25 May, demanding to know 'who do these people think they are?' it served only to increase Unionist resolve. Even the army was unable to break the strike.

Eventually the Executive agreed to delay the introduction of the Council of Ireland, but the UWC said it was too little too late and continued the strike. On 27 May, the Executive ordered the army to commandeer the petrol stations and oil facilities in Northern Ireland. The UWC response was to close every last business, that had remained open, in Northern Ireland. The province came to a complete standstill and even food was getting scarce. When Faulkner appealed in failure to the Secretary of State to negotiate with the strikers, and faced with economic ruin, all the Unionist Executive members resigned. The Executive had collapsed and Northern Ireland was ruled again directly from London. On 29 May, the UWC called off their strike in triumph.

During the rest of the 1970s, the IRA campaign of terrorism, and the loyalist responses, continued. Between 1973 and 1980 1,398 people were murdered in shootings, sniper attacks, bombs, land mines and booby-traps. There were many attempts to bring about a settlement. A second IRA ceasefire collapsed in 1975, despite the efforts of various groups, such as the Peace People. As the army became wise to the IRA, the terrorists were forced into being more and more secretive. Many of them went underground, while others joined political parties, in particular Sinn Féin.

Most terrorist prisoners at this time were held in the Maze Prison, in southwest Belfast and were classed by the British as 'Special Category'. In 1976, however, the British announced plans to remove this Special Category status and would instead treat them like any other criminal. This meant that they had stricter rules and had to wear prison clothes. Many IRA prisoners, and a few others, refused to wear prison clothes. They sat in their cells with a blanket round them and refused to wash or clean their cells. Some also spread their faeces on the walls and urinated on the floor and their matresses. It was known as the 'Dirty Protest'. A visiting Catholic Priest said he would not even let an animal live in the conditions the prisoners were living in. Despite their attempts, the protest did not get much public attention and it slowly died away.

In 1980, a number of Republican prisoners decided to go on hunger strike to attempt to re-instate the Special Category status, and refused food. This time, there was widespread Nationalist support and marches were organised. The strike was called off in December 1980, when the strikers believed they had been granted their demands. They were wrong, however and a second hunger strike began in March 1981. Its main member was Boddy Sands, a Maze prisoner. Despite his convict status, he stood in the 1981 UK General election and won a spectacular victory. Despite the fact that the hunger strikers had such massive support, the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher did not make any concessions and Bobby Sands, and nine others, died of starvation. Eventually the hunger strikers' families called a halt to the strike. It was not a total failure for the Nationalists, however. Sinn Fein had been able to use the strike to re-launch itself into the public gaze once more and its first MP, Gerry Adams, was elected in 1983. Over the same period the IRA increased its violence yet again.

From 1969 to 1984, terrorism claimed the lives of over two thousand people, some in horrific and excruciating circumstances. Click here for a list of the worst massacres. Warning: Do not let younger children follow this link, as some of the descriptions of the killings may upset.

< Previous History Menu Next >