Ulster Politics under Direct Rule

views updated

Ulster Politics under Direct Rule

Direct rule was imposed by a Conservative government in late March 1972 as a very last resort, and for the first time in fifty-one years Northern Ireland was governed solely from London. It had been an option since 1969, but successive governments balked at taking over control of Northern Ireland because they were uncertain of how the indigenous security forces and civil servants would react. Prime Minister Edward Heath introduced direct rule only after international outrage at the events of Bloody Sunday and because there was growing uncertainty over the division of control in security matters between the army and the police. The government and parliament of Northern Ireland were prorogued, and henceforth the region was to be ruled like any other part of the United Kingdom so that Northern Ireland policy and legislation harmonized with the rest of the United Kingdom. But the measure was meant to be temporary while local politicians reached a political accommodation.

Administration, Politics, Legislation

Northern Ireland Office (NIO) was established to administer the new regime, and William Whitelaw was appointed as the first secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He took political control with the support of a small ministerial team. From the outset he faced massive administrative and political problems. Administration was partially a question of structure: two locations, Belfast and London, which meant two sets of departments and two civil services coexisting within one ministry. By 1982 the head of the Northern Ireland civil service was responsible for the coordination of the work of the then six Northern Ireland departments, and the Belfast end of the NIO concerned itself mainly with the administration of reserved and excepted matters, especially law and order. The NIO in London looked after political and constitutional matters as well as security and acted as liaison between the Belfast and Whitehall departments. Politically the imposition shocked the whole of the unionist community and failed to assuage the IRA. Unionist political leaders supported a two-day general strike, and there was a huge increase in the numbers joining the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA). In anticipation of direct rule, Ulster Vanguard had been formed at the beginning of 1972 as a pressure group within unionism to transcend the weakness of party division. The year 1972 was to be the worst for political violence in the history of the "Troubles."

The government was aware that direct rule imposed a democratic deficit on Northern Ireland. It was to be governed under a Temporary Provisions Act—made more permanent by the Northern Ireland Act (1974)—that had to be renewed annually. In addition, William Whitelaw established an eleven-person advisory commission composed of local notables. It met until an assembly was elected more than a year later; in any case, it made little impact. Northern Ireland legislation was now processed by way of Orders in Council that could not be amended on the floor of the Commons. Direct rule also saw an increase in the power and growth of quangos: one study traced almost 150 such bodies with members being appointed by ministers. To address these deficits, a new Northern Ireland Committee was set up at Westminster in 1975, and a Speaker's Conference in 1978 accepted the case for extra Northern Ireland representation at Westminster. This pleased the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) because they believed that it brought Northern Ireland more closely into being wholly integrated into the United Kingdom. As a result of unionist demands, a Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee was appointed in 1994.

Direct rule may have brought institutional stability, but it imposed constitutional uncertainty. All attempts to restore power to local politicians failed. An elected constitutional convention in 1974–1975 could not muster the requisite cross-community support and thus collapsed. The most intriguing constitutional innovation was the attempt at "rolling devolution" after the election of a new Northern Ireland assembly in October 1982. The seventy-eight-seat body was to have a consultative and scrutinizing role. It could discuss local legislation and set up scrutiny committees for each of the six Northern Ireland departments. It was to be governed under the use of a weighted majority, whereby power could be devolved to any department that exercised cross-community agreement in which 70 percent or fifty-five members agreed. But the assembly failed from the outset because nationalists boycotted its proceedings. Instead it became the instrument of the unionist parties (with the reluctant assistance of the smaller Alliance Party), and it was converted into a platform of protest after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in November 1985. The assembly was dissolved in June 1986.

Anglo-Irish Agreement and Belfast Agreement

The dissolution of the assembly showed how the nature of direct rule had changed. Initially direct rule had been imposed to create an internal political settlement, but by the 1980s the Northern Ireland problem had become internationalized, as was evident in the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the growing concerns of successive U.S. administrations. The British government had moved from a managerial phase to one of exasperation and admonition. It accepted that the failures of the 1974 power-sharing government, the 1975–1976 constitutional convention, and the 1982–1986 Northern Ireland Assembly made it less likely that local politicians would cooperate across the sectarian divide. It recognized too that there would be no security solution without the closest support of the Irish government. The first fruit of this policy was the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. It fundamentally challenged unionist certainty about its place inside the United Kingdom and the IRA's invincibility. When that agreement was reviewed and confirmed in 1989 some of the protagonists began to review their own mindsets. Unionists, who had retreated to a form of internal exile after 1986, began to engage with the secretary of state. Republicans entered into a dialogue with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1988 and began to participate more fully in electoral politics. The result was the growth of attitudinal change in both communities.

Such change was not apparent for some time. The Conservative government at Westminster was increasingly reliant on UUP support to maintain its majority, and the international community did not pay sustained attention to the Northern Ireland problem until William Jefferson Clinton became U.S. president in 1992. He used the weight of his office to mobilize the political actors into taking risks for peace. The first result was the republican and loyalist cease-fires of 1994. The second was to engage in a twin-track process of moving the political process forward while dealing simultaneously with the issue of arms decommissioning. The outcome was elections to a Northern Ireland Forum in May 1996, which allowed for a more inclusive process. This was stimulated by the return of a Labour government, led by Tony Blair, in May 1997. With an overwhelming parliamentary majority of 179, Blair was not beholden to any Northern Ireland party. The IRA responded by calling a complete cessation of violence on 20 July 1997, and less than three months later Tony Blair became the first prime minister since 1921 to enter into negotiations with Sinn Féin. This led to a period of intense discussions (under the tutelage of Senator George Mitchell) that culminated in the signing of the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998. It was endorsed in referendums in both parts of Ireland in May and entered into law as the Northern Ireland Act in November. In the meantime, a new assembly met in July and elected David Trimble (UUP) and Seamus Mallon (SDLP) as, respectively, first minister and deputy first minister.

Direct rule remained in operation in 2003 because the parties had not dealt successfully with all aspects of the 1998 agreement, especially that of decommissioning. But the fact remained that the nature of direct rule had changed fundamentally. Whereas once it was concerned solely with Northern Ireland, it now recognized that three strands of the problem had to be dealt with in parallel: relations within Northern Ireland, relations among the people of Ireland, and relations among the United Kingdom and Irish governments.

SEE ALSO Adams, Gerry; Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 (Hillsborough Agreement); Faulkner, Brian; Hume, John; Hunger Strikes; Irish Republican Army (IRA); Loyalist Paramilitaries after 1965; Paisley, Ian; Trimble, David; Primary Documents: Anglo-Irish Agreement (15 November 1985); The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998)


Arthur, Paul. Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Problem. 2001.

Wilford, Rick, ed. Aspects of the Belfast Agreement. 2001.

Paul Arthur

About this article

Ulster Politics under Direct Rule

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article