The Re-Introduction of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland: 24 March 1972

Forty years ago on this day, the British government reassumed direct control of the province of Northern Ireland, thus ending one half of an early British experiment with devolution. (The other half, the establishment of a semi-independent ‘Dominion–style’ government in Dublin, can be said to have ended officially with the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1949.)

Home Rule in Northern Ireland

‘Home Rule’, as devolution was called back then, had been proposed for Ireland in the 1860s as the best way of keeping the United Kingdom (and the British Empire) together while satisfying the aspirations for independence of Irish nationalists. Nevertheless, this compromise suggestion had been met with utter rejection on the part of a large minority in Ireland who saw their status, economic well-being, and religious and civil liberties threatened by any loosening of ties to London and to the Empire. These opponents were named ‘unionists’, because they wished to maintain the union between Ireland and Great Britain. They were overwhelmingly Protestant (unlike the majority of the population of Ireland, who were Catholic) and concentrated in one geographical area — roughly, the Province of Ulster in the north of the island.

Two attempts to introduce Home Rule in the late nineteenth century failed, while a third, just before the First World War, met with such strong opposition that civil war seemed a distinct possibility. The issue was, however, shelved while Britain concentrated on the war against Germany.

The geographical concentration of unionists suggested a way around the problem: in 1920 the island of Ireland was divided in two and each part given its own home-rule government. The British government hoped in this way to keep both sides happy. Ironically, Ulster’s unionists, having attempted to prevent any home-rule government, ended up causing the creation of two!

The Northern Irish parliament building at Stormont, East Belfast]

The Northern Irish parliament building at Stormont, East Belfast

Although initially opposed to Home Rule, the Ulster unionists grew to value it as the best way to protect their interests. The six counties of Ulster that made up the new entity of Northern Ireland had a sizeable minority (about one third of the population) of Irish nationalists who desired integration into an independent Ireland. The unionists’ numerical superiority and the polarization of politics around the ‘national issue’ allowed the Official Unionist Party to rule single–handedly for over fifty years. Contrasting his administration’s policies with the predominantly Catholic ethos of Southern Ireland, the first Northern Irish Prime Minister, James Craig, candidly admitted his was ‘a Protestant government for a Protestant people’. All his and later governments’ actions stemmed from a wish to preserve the status quo. This was achieved by abolishing proportional representation for elections, gerrymandering, and discriminating in allocating housing and jobs. Despite these and other abuses of power, the British government consistently refused to interfere in Northern Ireland’s domestic affairs. This was in line with the division of powers laid down in the legislation that had set up the Northern Irish parliament, but it was also politically convenient: Ireland had been always been a political powder keg and the government in London was happy to keep it at arm’s length.

The Lead-Up to Direct Rule

However, a series of events since the mid-sixties had seemed to show that the Unionist Party was no longer able to govern effectively:

  • civil rights protests, led by young, educated Catholics, which focused worldwide attention on discrimination and inequality in the province
  • Unionist refusal to contemplate compromise or concessions
  • increasing IRA violence
  • loyalist retaliation, often violent
  • the controversial and ineffective policy of internment (indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without trial)
  • policing and military failures such as Bloody Sunday
  • the boycott of Stormont (the Northern Irish parliament) by Nationalist MPs
Mural in Derry memorializing the Bloody Sunday massacre of civil rights protesters

Mural in Derry memorializing the Bloody Sunday massacre of civil rights protesters

By 1972 the situation had become so serious that the British government was forced to act. Prime Minister Edward Heath consulted with Brian Faulkner, the new Northern Irish PM. (He had recently replaced James Chichester-Clark, who — like Terence O’Neill before him — had been thought by his own party to be too soft.) Faulkner, in fact, soon lost the support of the British PM through his unwillingness to reconsider the Ulster Unionists’ policies. He believed that continued internment and even tougher security measures were the answer. Furthermore, he was adamantly opposed to allowing Nationalists into government.

Suspension and Abolition

On 22 March Faulkner flew again to London to see Heath, who told him that the British government wanted an end to internment, control over security matters and Unionist/Nationalist power–sharing. When the Unionist cabinet was informed of this they resigned en masse rather than agree.

At first, the Northern Ireland parliament was ‘prorogued’ (suspended). It was officially abolished in 1973. From then on Northern Ireland was governed from London, with a Secretary of State being appointed by the government to take charge of Northern Irish affairs. The first was William (Willie) Whitelaw.

Effects of the Abolition of Stormont

The legislation required to abolish the Stormont parliament began by stating:

It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of Her Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom, and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part of it cease to be part of Her Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1 to this Act.

This was the exact wording of earlier legislation (the 1949 Ireland Act) with one significant alteration. The earlier act had stated that no change to Northern Ireland’s status could be made ‘without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland’.

Thus, direct rule in a way reinforced partition by:

  • removing a discredited and partisan government
  • reintegrating Northern Ireland politically into the United Kingdom
  • making the unification of Ireland dependent on the democratic will of a majority of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland

However, the short–term result was an upsurge in violence. The British government had abolished Stormont unwillingly and without a definite plan for the future. This uncertainty fuelled the hopes and fears of the various groups in Northern Ireland, causing more dissension and violence. The IRA viewed the fall of Stormont as a first victory on the road to full British withdrawal, while loyalist paramilitaries determined to show the world that a united Ireland would not happen without a fight. The terrible events that followed in the next decades are well known across the world.

(This blog post was originally posted here. Photo credits: public domain from Wikimedia Commons.)

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