In 1998, after the signing of the Good Friday accord in Belfast, which promised a power-sharing executive to include all the elected Northern Ireland parties, Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP memorably referred to the deal, as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Those of a certain age nodded sagely in agreement and chuckled knowledgeably at his phrasemaking abilities, while many more, particularly in the Republic, wondered why Seamus had invoked a posh English golf course in the context of the Belfast Agreement.
But they probably got distracted by the sheer joy of the complexities of the previously unheard of d’Hondt method of ministerial selection and just put it all down to Mr. Mallon’s legendary fondness for the game of golf.
But the soon-to-be Deputy First Minister didn’t actually have a sporting context in mind at all. He was referring to the December 1973 Sunningdale agreement which, lo and behold had established … a power sharing executive, almost a quarter of a century before the Good Friday deal.
The background to Sunningdale was the attempt by the British government to end direct rule of Northern Ireland from London. The Stormont Parliament, established under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, had been suspended on 30 March 1972. That institution had almost, but not quite, been described by Sir James Craig- first Northern Prime Minister – as ‘A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. So it wasn’t greatly missed by Northern nationalists.
In March 1973 elections took place for a new Northern Ireland assembly and this was followed by negotiations between the SDLP and a divided Ulster Unionist party with a view to forming a power-sharing executive and bring about the ending of direct rule. In November, the UUP leader, Brian Faulkner, agreed to take his increasingly fractious party into government with the SDLP, under Gerry Fitt, and the Alliance party, led by Oliver Napier.
The next step was the negotiation of a North-South arrangement, with the formation of a Council of Ireland that had actually been envisaged by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, but had never come to pass. Talks were held in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale, which does indeed have a championship golf course. This led to the establishment of a cross-border Council which would include a 60 member North-South Assembly and would have 32 county responsibility for ‘tourism, conservation and animal health.’ But the right wing of the Ulster Unionist party wasn’t even prepared to countenance ‘Rome rule’ over hotels, exhaust fumes and deadly clostridial diseases and the day after the agreement was signed by British Prime Minister Edward Heath and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave all hell broke loose.
In January 1974 Brian Faulkner was forced to resign as UUP leader but remained in position as Prime Minister at the head of the executive. In May of that year loyalist opponents of the deal formed the Ulster Worker’s Council and called a general strike. This was seen at its most effective in the closing down of the main Northern Ireland power station in Ballylumford. A 1974 poll, which helped shepherd the power-sharing executive towards oblivion, included the use of an election poster bearing the pithy slogan ‘Dublin is just a Sunningdale away – vote Unionist’
The Executive collapsed on 28 May 1974 and Sunningdale returned to being the home of two picturesque 18 hole parkland golf courses.
It took almost twenty-five years and three thousand deaths for the Good Friday agreement – the grown-up big sister of the infant casualty Sunningdale – to start to bring an end to the politics of violence in Northern Ireland. Something which, of course, it has yet to achieve completely.
The Sunningdale agreement – which promised much but delivered little – was signed forty-three years ago, on this day.