Sunningdale: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland, by Noel Dorr, Royal Irish Academy, 484 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-1908997647
On August 1st, 1969, Dr Patrick Hillery, then Ireland’s minister for external affairs, had an unpublicised meeting with Michael Stewart, Britain’s foreign secretary. The purpose was to warn London that Derry was “a powder keg” and to advise that the planned Apprentice Boys march on August 12th be banned – or at least limited in size and sensitively policed. In the course of his unreceptive reaction, Stewart offered the view that “there is a limit to the extent to which we can discuss with outsiders – even our nearest neighbours – this internal matter”.
The above comes from the Irish side’s note of the meeting. The British record notes that Stewart “reiterated that we regard the matter as one for our internal jurisdiction”. This exchange is one of many interesting and highly relevant details which Noel Dorr has mined from official documents, public statements and private briefing notes during the period leading up to the Sunningdale Conference and agreement of December 1973.
In December 1973 the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, and the British prime minister, Edward Heath, convened the conference at Sunningdale in Berkshire where the concepts of power-sharing, along with a significant “Irish dimension”, were accepted by both governments and by elected representatives from across the Northern Ireland community. The transformation of the British government’s approach from Hillery/Stewart of ’69 to Cosgrave/Heath of ’73 was dramatic and historic. The 1921 settlement was no longer set in stone and the politics of Britain and Ireland were altered irrevocably.
Noel Dorr’s book traces the tortuous and uneven progress of this transformation. The story is clearly and unambiguously told from the standpoint of the Irish government and the Irish civil service. In this lies its core value. It is not a history of Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1974. It is however, a lucid and comprehensive analysis of the way in which Irish governments reacted to the momentous developments in the North and how they influenced events at the time.
The form of the book is largely narrative, with frequent timely reflections on important milestones. The author’s assiduous research and trawling of official records bring authentic and useful insights to the turbulent history of the time. They also serve to expose some of the more egregious rewriting of our past in recent times by the dominant political forces in Northern Ireland today.
As well as covering the events of the times, Dorr also brings into focus the roles of a number of the principal actors. Politically, the outstanding portraits are of Jack Lynch and Edward Heath. This is simply because each was leader of government for the greater part of the period in question. The two outstanding Northern figures of the time, John Hume and Brian Faulkner, are on the whole rather obliquely referenced. This again reflects the government-to-government nature of Dorr’s focus. It is worth noting, however, that in the course of the narrative there are so many references in Irish government papers to Hume’s views and suggestions that we are left with the strong impression that the Irish government more or less acknowledged its role as interlocutor for the SDLP, and for Hume in particular. The British are, by contrast, portrayed as moving from staunch support for Unionist positions via a more nuanced approach towards eventual insistence on the inclusion of the minority in government “as of right” and on a significant role for the Irish government.
We are also given an interesting and informative window into the work of the backstage actors – the key civil servants and their advisers. These are mainly but by no means exclusively Irish government figures. No one who has lived through the past fifty years in the North (as has this reviewer) will be surprised to read of papers presented by leading Northern Ireland civil servants such as David Holden, Harold Black and Ken Bloomfield. Indeed Dorr cites a very far-sighted secret paper from these men to the secretary of state on September 8th, 1972 which is headed “Political Settlement: the Irish Dimension”. This advocated “ … a re-definition of Northern Ireland’s present constitutional status and possible future course to be embodied in new, internationally-registered Treaty arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland ….” The context of this paper was, perhaps wisely, kept secret at the time. However, it shines a light on the necessarily hidden world of policy formation at senior adviser and government level. The book abounds with significant and interesting notes and memoranda of this kind in the records of Ireland, Britain and the North.
Inclusion of the kind of detail cited above does not render the book tedious. Dorr’s talent lies in inserting significant detail into his narrative in a way that elucidates and enhances understanding of the particular juncture in that narrative. The names of Eamon Gallagher, Ken Bloomfield, Dermot Nally and Seán Donlon will be of interest to some of us. However, their ways of working, inter-personal channels and critical influences on their political masters are of enduring significance. Dorr brings the roles of these actors and others to life in a way that perhaps only a seasoned diplomat could.
Dorr suggests that those who know Irish history well might wish to skip his initial chapter, “History and its consequences”. Those who do so will miss a clear and coherent summary of the period from the 1798 Rising to partition, followed by a masterly, insightful and very fair outline of the history of Northern Ireland, the Free State and the Republic since partition. Two sentences in particular capture the essence of the unionist-nationalist dichotomy.
The unionist majority in Northern Ireland never seemed able to deal with the newly created nationalist/republican minority … in such a way as to co-opt them into full acceptance of what had been done. Nor have the nationalist majority on the island ever been able to offer such welcome and assurance to unionists as to induce them to consider Irish unity …
Dorr goes on to explain that the events of 1968 and 1969 and the repressive response to them caused Northern Ireland to fracture “along a fault line which, arguably, had been built into it from the outset”.
A chapter entitled “An ‘internal situation’” outlines the initial scramble by both governments to come to grips with the storm which had broken in the North after October 5th, 1968. Neither side was well-prepared. Neither the Department of the Taoiseach nor the Department of External Affairs (renamed Foreign Affairs in 1971) had a section, or even any individual, assigned specifically to Northern Ireland. British civil servants initially rebuffed Irish attempts to become involved though, by August-September 1969, a sympathetic home secretary, James Callaghan, was tentatively exploring ways of involving the Irish government.
In the ensuing chapters Dorr describes how Jack Lynch, Patrick Hillery and their advisers addressed the situation. Public emotion in the South and the more hysterical demands for intervention from some quarters were a problem for Lynch. The Arms Crisis of 1970 brought matters to a head. Lynch kept his head, acted firmly and along with Hillery and Des O’Malley “ … showed courage and good sense in standing against violence and developing a more sensible approach”. In the meantime, patient diplomatic engagement was going on. A civil servant from Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gallagher, played a critical role in advising Lynch. His work is described in detail as he became the Department’s acknowledged expert on the North. He was “deeply influenced” by John Hume. There seems little doubt from Dorr’s narrative that through Gallagher, in 1970 and 1971 in particular, Irish government policy was greatly influenced by Hume’s analysis. Specifically, two key factors were emphasised and strongly advocated. First, there must be an acknowledgement of the right of the Irish government to be politically involved in settling the North. Second, the Westminster “winner takes all” approach to elections was unsuited to a divided society – power must be shared between the communities. Much of Dorr’s book describes the painstaking process through which, after considerable initial resistance, both of those principles came to be accepted in a triumph for Irish diplomacy.
The process was not linear and a number of apparent stumbling blocks and setbacks are outlined. The Heath-Faulkner-Lynch summit of September 27th and 28th, 1971 does not, at first sight, appear to have been a breakthrough (apart from the fact that it took place at all). Faulkner would not countenance nationalists in government and Heath was not yet ready to concede this “as of right”. Lynch continued to insist on reunification as “a central objective”. He also rebuffed Heath’s persistent attempts to get him to persuade the SDLP to join home secretary Reginald Maudling’s all-party talks. Though little was agreed and the eventual communiqué was anodyne to say the least, Dorr nevertheless asserts that Heath’s public acceptance of the right of the Irish government to be politically involved was a significant turning point. Heath wanted Lynch to “say what he would regard as a reasonable solution” and to influence an SDLP return to Stormont. This was “a long way indeed from the rebuff to Hillery by Labour ministers in 1969”.
It is clear that from late 1971 personal relationships between British and Irish leaders and civil servants had warmed. This was particularly true of Lynch and Heath. However, we are reminded also of the horrific background of violence at this time. In September 1971 the Ulster Defence Association was formed. At its peak in 1972 it had nearly fifty thousand members. In December 1971 the Ulster Volunteer Force killed fifteen people in McGurk’s bar in Belfast. On January 30th, 1972 British troops killed thirteen people on Bloody Sunday in Derry. On February 9th, Bill Craig launched Ulster Vanguard, telling a crowd of sixty thousand that it might be necessary to “liquidate the enemy”. On February 22nd, the Official IRA detonated the first car bomb in Britain outside the paratroop barracks at Aldershot. Seven people were killed – five cleaning ladies, a gardener and a Catholic chaplain. On February 25th, they tried to kill John Taylor – a Unionist politician. On March 4th, a Provisional bomb at the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast killed two and injured one hundred and thirty people. On March 20th, a no warning bomb in Lower Donegall Street killed six and injured more than one hundred. “The gloom was deepening.”
It is hard to overestimate the volatile and emotional atmosphere in the North immediately after Bloody Sunday. Dorr was actively involved at the time as a civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He witnessed the burning of the British embassy in Dublin. He reminds us that even Conor Cruise O’Brien was sufficiently carried away at the time to demand a date for British withdrawal from the North. (He later resiled from this.) Dorr wrote a private note to himself on February 5th, 1972, from which he quotes.
Are we heading towards civil war? It is clear that the Unionist regime in the North is breaking up. Or rather that the North is coming apart … Something really new is coming. The optimists, who are dominant … believe it will be a united Ireland. The pessimists that it will be civil war … Who is right? I don’t know …
These private reflections of a sober, moderate diplomatic civil servant are chilling even today.
In his chapter describing the introduction of direct rule, Dorr quotes one of Heath’s biographers: “ … Bloody Sunday was the shock which convinced Heath and his senior colleagues that they must take an urgent grip of Northern Ireland before it slid uncontrollably into civil war.” The process was swift and is briskly related with extracts from cabinet papers, memoranda and one letter from Heath to Queen Elizabeth. In mid-March Faulkner was presented with a blunt fait accompli: Westminster would take control of security, judicial systems and prisons; internment would be phased out, plebiscites held and the SDLP consulted on “community government”. Faulkner felt betrayed and resigned. Stormont was suspended and direct rule was introduced with a front-line, heavyweight politician, Willie Whitelaw, as secretary of state. After fifty years the British government had come, rather expeditiously at the end, to the conclusion that the 1920-21 structures were unsuited to a divided society. Those of us who had grown up in gerrymandered Derry could hardly believe it. It is vital to point out that this historic and radical change had not been brought about by violence but by the peaceful, determined protest of the civil rights movement and the patient, calm diplomacy of the Irish government.
Several chapters deal in detail with the engagement between the two governments from the suspension of Stormont in March 1972 until the publication of the British white paper in March 1973. The big ideas of power-sharing, the Irish dimension and the British need for enhanced security co-operation are seen to be advocated, resisted, amended and re-evaluated by all of the parties. A review cannot fully reflect this process, but some things do stand out. There was a significant warming in the relationship between Heath and Lynch. They spoke and corresponded openly and frequently. A “scribbled” note by Jack Lynch giving the points he wished to have included in a Dáil speech on the British green paper of late October 1972 reflect his thinking at the time. It was given to Dorr by foreign minister Hillery and is still in his possession. Extracts include:
The Green Paper discusses structures that make a solution possible and that would guarantee rights (economic etc) and protection of the minority. Welcome steps to this end … No reasonable suggestion will be met with negative response. That will be attitude of government … Support the setting up of regional assembly in which minority would have fair representation in it and in decision making. Support also the idea of Ireland Council if it is worthwhile and evolutionary (evolutionary might be expressed in a different way) … Insofar as Green Paper points the way to a solution in all Ireland context we welcome (or some phrase less enthusiastic) …
A more sobering note lies in the scale of violence. In 1972, while people of goodwill were straining to work out a settlement, the men of violence were doing their worst. The year was described by Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie as “the most bloody year of the ‘Troubles’: 470 people were killed; 1,853 bombs were planted and 18,819 kilograms of explosives were found”.
The background to the re-emergence (after fifty years) of the idea of a Council of Ireland is dealt with in a separate chapter immediately preceding that on the white paper of March 1973. Until mid-1972 there had been little focus by Lynch on a council. Now this began to change. All parties were looking at the idea. Unionists wanted enhancement of security co-operation. Foreign Affairs in Dublin foresaw the council dealing with matters that were “fairly mundane, pragmatic and unlikely to cause confrontation”. The SDLP had a more forceful view, wanting the new structures to be directed towards the long-term aim of Irish unity. Britain should declare for Irish unity but with “no hint of coercion”. The Irish side put a great deal of work during late 1972 into examining and teasing out many of the possibilities and complexities. There appears, however, to be little hint at this stage of the trouble that the very idea would apparently give rise to within eighteen months.
The white paper published on March 20th, 1973 was one of the most significant in the history of Britain’s involvement in Ireland. Dorr sets out the details of preparatory work by Whitelaw, the principles on which he proposed to base his proposals and the need expressed by him to include “a constructive passage on the ‘Irish Dimension’”. The visit of the new taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, and tánaiste, Brendan Corish, to London on March 8th, 1973 was, from an Irish viewpoint, very well handled by Heath. The notes of the Irish ambassador to London provide an invaluable source for the detail of the two days’ discussions.
The white paper is closely analysed in Chapter 12. Even after forty-five years the principles and propositions contained in it remain relevant. For the historian, the outstanding pillars are the institution of power-sharing – the participation of the minority as of right in government – and the enshrining of the Irish dimension as a fundamental part of the settlement. A conference would be held after elections to the new assembly and the formation of a cross-party, cross-community executive. For Britain, the affairs of Northern Ireland would never again be regarded as an “internal matter”.
Dorr deals in detail with the response of the new Fine Gael-Labour government to the British proposals. He was, after all, a member of the civil service team that helped to shape that response. The reaction was broadly positive. Lynch, as opposition leader, was supportive and his policy was largely continued. Cosgrave was resolute. He insisted on an effective Council of Ireland, the Irish dimension being an essential and not a secondary aspect of the problem. Garret FitzGerald, the new foreign minister, was the most active minister, bringing “ … energy, enthusiasm and creative thinking …” to the series of proposals he brought to Cabinet in the Summer and Autumn of 1973. Conor Cruise O’Brien is reported as frequently expressing concerns about pressing the Unionists too far. Cosgrave emerges well from this account. In two speeches – in June 1973 in Dublin and at Westminster on July 2nd, 1973 – he gave a careful and balanced evaluation of the situation. Dorr characterises his speeches at this time as being “directed more to the idea of encouraging an open-ended process of reconciliation than trying at that point to achieve a final settlement …”
The process by which the Irish government and civil service developed and refined its proposals for Sunningdale makes for interesting, if rather intense, reading. The political guidance took precedence. The Council of Ireland, which now took centre stage, had to be as powerful and authoritative as possible. It should be able to evolve without restrictions on its development. Various options were studied, amended or rejected. The views of the SDLP seem always to have been in the forefront of the minds of Dublin politicians and officials. There was also thoughtful and fairly sympathetic consideration of how far Faulkner could or would move on all-Ireland structures. The “Status of Northern Ireland” was a subject which received delicate attention. Repeal of Articles 2 and 3 was felt to be out of the question. Faulkner wanted “recognition” of Northern Ireland. The Irish side eventually settled on “acceptance” in the form of an oral declaration by the taoiseach at an appropriate time. This later proved to be rather more complicated than anticipated.
On March 27th, 1973 the Ulster Unionist Council defeated a motion to reject the white paper by 381 votes to 231. During the summer and autumn of 1973 some of the storm clouds began to appear. On June 28th, elections to the new assembly were held. Pro-agreement parties won 63.2 per cent of the vote and fifty-two seats. Anti-agreement unionists won 32.1 per cent and twenty-six seats. Unionism appeared to be split down the middle. In October 1973, in an extraordinary development, certainly not known about at the time, a meeting (organised by Hume) took place at Faulkner’s home between him and two senior Irish officials, Dermot Nally and Seán Donlon. Faulkner explained his hopes and difficulties but appeared in general to be co-operative. His view of the SDLP had clearly changed. They were behaving well in the talks and confidence was building. He was trying to sell the Council of Ireland to his party and needed sensitivity from the Irish government. When the executive was formed he would move rapidly towards setting up the council. Interestingly, Faulkner asked for absolute secrecy about the meeting. He would tell no one in his party. Dublin was encouraged by his attitude.
Faulkner’s bonhomie will have been severely dented by the vote on November 20th, 1973 by the Ulster Unionist Council to defeat a motion rejecting power-sharing. The margin was tiny: 379 to 369. Nevertheless the executive was formed on November 21st, including Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP. For the SDLP, participation was conditional on a Council of Ireland giving effect to the Irish dimension. Dorr summarises the Irish government’s feeling ahead of Sunningdale as one of satisfaction. “All in all, it appeared that the British government had come to accept that, insofar as Northern Ireland was concerned, the settlement of 1920-21 had to be re-visited; and it was reasonable to hope that the issues which had been left unresolved by that settlement and which had come to a head in Northern Ireland were now about to be addressed.” This was optimistic as it turned out, but is no less significant for all that.
The preparations at government level and the Sunningdale conference itself are comprehensively covered. The viewpoint is that of the Irish side, with considerable detail on interactions with the British. These include Heath’s visit to Dublin on September 17th, 1973 – the first ever visit by a serving prime minister. The mood was positive, though there were sensitivities. On November 25th, Cosgrave sent a “personal message” to Heath assuring him of the Irish government’s co-operative attitude. However, he did include the comment that “ … our two governments will, of course, participate in it on an equal footing, as the two sovereign governments involved”.
The conference itself is well-handled. The roles of the different participants are highlighted and all emerge with credit. The core issue was the Council of Ireland, though the British and Unionists tried unsuccessfully to push for concessions on policing and security from the Irish and the SDLP. The outcome was an “Agreed Communiqué” rather than an “Agreement”. It was accepted all round that this was the end of Stage 1 of a two-stage process. Studies on various aspects of the Council of Ireland were to be presented “early in the New Year”, when a formal agreement was to be signed which both governments would register at the United Nations. This was not to happen for a further twenty-five years. Dorr’s textual analysis of the communiqué is subtle and fascinating and not just to pedants, anoraks and constitutional lawyers. It is an analysis of the detailed working out of inter-governmental negotiations. The entire book can be seen as leading up to this outcome. The Irish side was “euphoric” on the late flight home to Dublin on December 9th, 1973.
There follows a chapter entitled “How Sunningdale was received”. It is painful, even at a remove of forty-four years, to read this. There is a quote from Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA (attributed to former member Anthony McIntyre) which summarises how that organisation reacted.
There was widespread agreement within the republican movement that the IRA had better move to kill off Sunningdale before Sunningdale killed it. As a key strategist of the time recalled: ‘Our objective was to ensure that the Sunningdale Agreement would not succeed. (Dáithí) O’Conaill was pushing us to blow up … Stormont … with a massive bomb and the Belfast leadership was trying to devise a method of getting a bomb onto a ship in order to block the main channel in Belfast harbour. We wanted to make our presence felt as a force without which there could be no solution which was not to our liking.’
As an introductory explanation of the IRA and Sinn Féin strategy over the next twenty years this can hardly be bettered. Those who do not remember these times and who may have been convinced by the Provo rewrite of history should read this book and then reflect. In late 1973 we, the nationalists of the North, had seen our situation and status transformed: local government had been reformed and reorganised, housing allocation was in the hands of a neutral body, repressive legislation was largely gone (granted internment was still there but it was on the way out), our representatives were fully involved in government and our rights as Irish people were recognised by a formal, structural role for the Dublin government in our affairs. All this had been achieved in five years of peaceful protest and firm diplomacy. The phrase used by Seamus Mallon to describe the 1998 agreement – “Sunningdale for Slow Learners” – may have become a cliché but it is none the less accurate.
Of course the Sunningdale agreement was brought down in the first instance by reactionary unionism. On December 10th, 1973 (the day after the conference) loyalists formed the Ulster Army Council. However the prime movers, as Dorr points out, were the United Ulster Unionist Council (a grouping of anti-agreement parties including Paisley, Craig and Harry West) and the Ulster Workers’ Council. The February 1974 election in Britain saw eleven UUUC MPs elected. Gerry Fitt alone held out. Frantic work by Faulkner and the pro-agreement parties and the two governments came to nothing. The events of January to May 1974 are not the core of this book though they are accurately described. I was twenty-one years old at the time and can still remember the feelings of devastation and despair. Loyalists and unionists might well reflect on where twenty-five more years of intransigence have got them.
The final chapter of the book is entitled “Conclusion – Slow learners?” This provides a succinct summary of the key issues and merits close study. I was struck, however, by a quote from a letter Brian Faulkner wrote in 1976 to Roy Magee (at the time an opponent but later an active intermediary in peace talks): “Certainly I was convinced all along that the outcry against the Council of Ireland was only a useful red herring – the real opposition was to the sharing of power.”
Noel Dorr has done a great service to scholarship and to calm analysis of a critical period in Ireland’s history. This book should be read by anyone who wishes to understand in particular the processes by which governments and their advisers deal with the great issues. Above all, it demonstrates the superior value of patient diplomacy over violence, bluster, bullying and confrontation. It is a pity it took so long and cost so many lives for this lesson to be learnt. A final comment. I read this book three times. The first was a straight read-through in about four days. This is a “general reader test”, which the book passes. It is a book for everyone, easy to follow and full of interesting information not otherwise available. Recommended.
Ian Doherty grew up in Derry in the 1950s and ’60s. He read history at Cambridge from 1971 to 1974 before taking up a career in the family business in Derry/Donegal. He was active in public life in Northern Ireland from 1974 to 2016. In retirement he hopes to pursue the calling of a gentleman scholar.