Policy Papers

What can the 40th anniversary of Sunningdale reveal about dealing with Northern Ireland’s past?

Cillian McGrattan |

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Executive Summary

  • Recent talks in Northern Ireland concluded with the suggestion that a ‘civic vision’ for dealing with the legacies of the Troubles and building a shared future could be based on investigations that respond to historical ‘themes’ or ‘patterns’. Suggested themes include ‘alleged collusion between governments and paramilitaries’ and the ‘mistreatment of detainees and prisoners’.
  • The fortieth anniversary of the first devolved power-sharing experiment - the ‘Sunningdale assembly’, 1973-1974 - and its collapse during the May 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council Strike provides an opportunity to assess how policy makers should approach the past in Northern Ireland.
  • Traditionally, politicians have engaged with the Sunningdale experiment by repeating lessons they and their predecessors took from its failure. Ulster unionists highlighted what they perceived as continued attempts by nationalists to weaken the Union rather than work with unionists; nationalists focused on what they perceived as unionist obduracy to radical political change.
  • Sustained historical investigation challenges these lessons and highlights the inadequacy of an understanding of history shaped by contemporary policies aimed at facilitating reconciliation.
  • Historical analysis based on the critical examination of source material can instead open up rigorous and transparent debate about Northern Ireland’s past. It is likely to undercut rather than reinforce accepted wisdoms, and in so doing may help to move both sides beyond their entrenched positions.


The 40th anniversary of the first experiment in democratic power-sharing in Northern Ireland (1973-1974) provides an opportunity to consider the lessons the public and politicians draw from history in light of ongoing debates over the legacy of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

A devolved, power-sharing assembly was established following the Communiqué signed in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in December 1973 between Northern Irish political parties - the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Alliance - and the British and Irish governments. It collapsed amidst a general strike against the power-sharing executive that was largely organised by the loyalist paramilitary-backed Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) in May 1974. The Communiqué provided for devolved administration in Northern Ireland for the first time since the London government under Prime Minister Edward Heath had prorogued the local, unionist-dominated parliament at Stormont in March 1972, following an increase in violence and Catholic distrust of political authorities. Controversially, the Communiqué also provided for a Council of Ireland that would bring together ministers from Belfast and Dublin to ‘harmonise’ laws.

Situating Sunningdale

The Northern Irish political commentator Alex Kane (2014) has suggested that Sunningdale represents a great ‘what-if’ of Irish history: if the British General Election of February 1974 hadn’t been called and the anti-Sunningdale United Ulster Unionist Coalition had not won 51 per cent of the vote in Northern Ireland, the pro-Sunningdale forces may have had time to consolidate their position.

Arguably, this counterfactual speaks to issues beyond the actual agreement. By 1973-1974, Northern Ireland was engulfed by violence - 1972 would become the most bloody in the history of the Troubles, with almost 500 deaths (McKittrick and colleagues, 2012,). Thus it could be said that the ‘Sunningdale experiment’ was not equipped to deal with such issues. Sunningdale was a political settlement designed to provide for decision-making by elected representatives, and while policing and justice would eventually fall under the auspices of the institutions agreed in 1973, the initiative was not driven by the security concerns of cross-border collaboration between British and Irish forces that spurred Margaret Thatcher in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In part, the focus on political decision-making over that of security policy gave rise to the dual problem of a continued threat from terrorists to the political process and a lack of public confidence (particularly among unionists) in the potential of that process to guarantee peace. Political scientist Jonathan Tonge has alluded to these problems, stating that, ‘even if greater unionist support had been forthcoming, continued republican violence would have placed the agreement under great strain’ (2000).

Whether or not Sunningdale was a great missed opportunity, the period sheds light on important democratic and political questions that continue to haunt contemporary Northern Ireland. The differing and divergent lessons taken from Sunningdale by politicians exemplify the type of ‘thematic’ or ‘patterned’ history that is, in part, offered as a way of working through Northern Ireland’s violent past.

The idea of dealing ‘thematically’ with that past was mooted by the American diplomat Richard Haass and the Harvard scholar Meghan O’Sullivan who chaired recent political talks on the legacy of the Troubles in the autumn/winter of 2013. Haass and O’Sullivan had been appointed by the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a roadmap for dealing with critically important issues, which were creating deep fissures within the Assembly and Executive. These issues related to public symbolism and parading and the legacy of the past, including how best to meet the rights and needs of victims and survivors. In the subsequent consultation process, Haass and O’Sullivan held over 100 meetings with various civic society and victims’ groups across Northern Ireland. A negotiation phase followed (termed the Panel of the Parties) in which Haass and O’Sullivan chaired talks with representatives from each of the five main parties in the Northern Ireland executive. While a final agreement proved elusive, Haass and O’Sullivan published their recommendations in a 39-page document at the end of December 2013. At the time of writing, party leaders are holding further (intermittent) talks on taking forward those recommendations.

Prior to the Haass/O’Sullivan intervention, it was the issue of dealing with the past that many commentators felt would be the most difficult to resolve. However, when the recommendations were published, the section on ‘legacy issues’ (entitled ‘Contending with the past’) was the only part to gain widespread political support. Haass and O'Sullivan proposed tackling the different historical perspectives on Northern Ireland’s past via a special group of ‘lawyers, historians and other academics’, in consultation with a body of civil society actors,  the Implementation and Reconciliation Group, which would  report on several historical issues or what the authors called themes. For example, questions concerning collusion between British state security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, of particular concern to nationalists and republicans, would be scrutinised. Parity in reporting and research could be achieved – it is implied in the Haass/O’Sullivan recommendations – by research into other issues that are of particular concern to unionists such as the targeting (or ethnic cleansing) of Protestants from areas around the border by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. As Haass and O’Sullivan explained, themes should:

  • Offer meaningful insight into the political and strategic context of events during the conflict
  • Involve serious human rights violations or
  • Have left a legacy that is particularly important for the work of reconciliation.

I wish to use the Sunningdale example to question the notion that a thematic approach to the past can aid policy, in this case reconciliatory policy, in the present. My argument does not reject the possibility that benefit to society can accrue from the thematic approach, but rather, to point to some of the limitations in expecting historical research to fit contemporary objectives and to suggest instead some other opportunities for pursuing the Haass/O’Sullivan ‘civic vision’.

Learning slowly

Together with the continued terror campaigns and hard-line military responses from the British security forces, the lessons that political organisations took from the Sunningdale period contributed to maintaining divisions and forestalling efforts at negotiation and dialogue for years (if not decades) following the UWC strike. Unionists, for example, drew the conclusion that Irish nationalists were fixated on securing an executive role for Dublin in Northern Ireland, which they believed would spell the end of the constitutional link with the UK. The unionist leader, Brian Faulkner, later remarked on the almost traumatic affect that the beginnings of the Troubles had on the unionist collective psyche, creating a culture of suspicion regarding nationalist politics. Unionists, Faulkner held, perceived nationalism to have ‘indulged for so long in the politics of boycott, obstruction, and wrecking that when a genuine urge for participation arose [within nationalism] it was treated merely as a new ploy from those irreconcilably opposed to the very existence of the state’.

Nationalists, on the other hand, drew the lesson that unionists would never share power and that any attempt at a political settlement would be met by obdurate and reactionary forces within unionism and a supine London establishment. An Irish government official reporting from the SDLP’s August 1974 party conference, for example, described how the party had ‘arrived at a position where their policy is to achieve a united Ireland in not less than two years. They appear to have lost faith in the possibility of cooperating with the majority within the framework of Northern Ireland alone’.

Furthermore, paramilitaries seemed to assume that the main political leaders could not be trusted and that dialogue offered little hope for securing their end goals - for republicans, a removal of what they saw as the British presence from Northern Ireland; for loyalists, a cessation of republican violence. Meanwhile, politicians in London  concluded that everyone was as bad as each other and found themselves in the position expressed by Harold Wilson’s press secretary, Joe Haines: ‘We were not even refereeing the fight, only holding the coats while the religious factions get on with it’.

The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, notoriously characterised the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which echoed much of the 1973-1974 agreement, as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Mallon suggested that what the anti-Sunningdale forces (both paramilitaries and unionist rejectionists) signed up to in 1998 and subsequently was not that much different from 1973. His comment was not entirely accurate – between 1973 and 1998 the cross-border institutions lost their executive and hence expansionist potential. While the Ulster Unionist leader, Brian Faulkner believed that he could maintain a veto and control the Council and that it was a ‘necessary nonsense’ to keep the SDLP on-board, the Irish government saw it as an ‘embryo and a symbol of our working towards unity based on consent’.

The 1973-4 Sunningdale experiment was under threat from the start: rejectionists in the form of unionist politicians such as Ian Paisley and extremist nationalist paramilitaries in the IRA continued to mobilise against the arrangements. The Irish government could not ameliorate unionist suspicions due to a legal objection regarding the Communiqué’s constitutionality that had been lodged in the High Court by a hard-line republican politician. After the defeat of a vote condemning power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14 May 1974, the Ulster Workers' Council called a strike, which quickly escalated due to pressure from loyalist paramilitaries to close offices, roads, factories, schools and places of business. Executive politicians felt that the recently-elected Labour government in Britain did not have the same commitment to the power-sharing executive as the Conservatives who had negotiated the agreement.

As the historian Alvin Jackson has pointed out, the virulence of the disparate historical understandings that protagonists took from Sunningdale created a kind of blame-game that presents difficulties for anyone setting out to analyse the period. Yet, arguably, many of these ‘historical’ perspectives remain at the heart of contemporary Northern Irish politics in the form of post-hoc rationalisations of ideologically shaped policy positions.

Patterned history

Following Jackson’s argument, there is an inherent danger of reproducing ethnic myths by reading Sunningdale according to pre-established patterns, such as unionist obduracy, nationalist manipulation, or British untrustworthiness.

Historians working on the period try to avoid that methodological trap. Although their conclusions may lend credence to particular points of view, the starting point is not primarily ideological but rather a process of deduction based on the available evidence.

The emphasis on the Council of Ireland in political debates during 1973 and 1974, for example, has led some to conclude that nationalists believed that the consent of unionists to reunification could be manufactured through successful North-South cooperation. The political historian Henry Patterson quotes the senior civil servant, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, to the effect that the Council ‘represented the crossing of a significant Rubicon’. Patterson concludes that the Council was evidence of a tendency within nationalism to ignore unionist fears and reach for an executive role for Dublin. The effect, Patterson argues, was the destruction of ‘reformist unionism’s prospects for two decades’.

Other scholars have pointed to divisions within Irish nationalism, both North and South of the border, which meant that the Council was seen in different and contradictory ways. Historian Shaun McDaid has highlighted reluctance among key Irish departments of government to hand over powers to the body: ‘The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sought a strong Council with the potential to become an all-Ireland government. The DFA, however, was isolated and to a large extent ignored by other Irish departments’. Political scientist P.J. McLoughlin, on the other hand, has suggested that events such as internment (1971) and Bloody Sunday (1972) radicalised Catholic opinion and led the SDLP to overstate the potential of the Council of Ireland to facilitate reunification. This was infamously captured in the SDLP’s Hugh Logue’s defence against republican hecklers that the Council was a ‘vehicle that would trundle unionists into a united Ireland’. McLoughlin explains that the effect of that misrepresentation was to debase the concept of cross-border cooperation at a ministerial level within the popular unionist imagination.

The empirical approach is at odds with recent proposals to ‘contend with the past’ by highlighting appropriate, pre-ordained themes, with reconciliatory potential. This is the core of Haass and O’Sullivan's approach:

Society, too, has an interest in learning about these overarching patterns or themes. They are what tie individual events or actions together into a comprehensible and meaningful history of those years. They also provide a vehicle for facilitating acknowledgments by perpetrators of violence, as they permit a broader level of accountability than do individual cases.

The sharply divergent lessons drawn by politicians about the Sunningdale period make it extremely difficult to fit them into a pattern that could facilitate reconciliation – perhaps beyond the cliché of agreeing to disagree. But it is precisely here that the value of historical research becomes apparent, because, it takes the need to engage in historical debate out of the hands of politicians and hands it over to those who work with the past on a daily basis (as Haass and O’Sullivan put it, ‘lawyers, historians, and other academics’). In other words, if contemporary politics is hamstrung by disagreements over historical interpretation, then robust and empirically driven research may provide avenues for circumnavigating the impasse. However, the fundamental point remains that that circumnavigation cannot be plotted in advance according to the dictates of ‘reconciliation’ simply because historical ‘truth’, like any kind of ‘truth’ may be less a balm than a way of unpicking a discomforting scab.

In fact, a historical consensus is forming around the idea that Sunningdale was not really a ‘missed opportunity’ but, as Gillespie has pointed out, was more simply indicative of the inability of the political class to ‘make the compromises necessary to make such a political settlement work’. The value of the types of historical analyses referred to above lies not simply in their differing emphases, however sharply those appear. Those differences open up ground for debate, but more fundamentally, they reveal the complex context in which politicians were attempting to make peace.

This is not simply to say that peacebuilding is difficult. Rather, grasping this historical complexity provides us with a range of perspectives and approaches to working with the past.

The acceptance of the historical complexity of Sunningdale has implications for the study and practice of contemporary politics in Northern Ireland, which could produce useful lessons for governance today. In part, politicians' inability to make the compromises necessary for such an agreement stemmed from unionists’ and loyalists’ belief that power-sharing in the absence of security and/or peace was illegitimate. This idea could be developed to explore differing views at the time about democratic legitimacy and the inability of institutions to cultivate a belief in their legitimacy.

Notions of voicelessness or lack of recognition were asserted by nationalists who sought to compensate for this with an executive role for the Irish government in the running of Northern Ireland. The origins of these claims and lessons regarding groups who continue to feel marginalised might be developed. These groups might include dominant political communities (nationalism and unionism) along with migrant groups and victims’ groups.

Political violence and terror remain in Northern Irish society, despite great improvements made during the peace process. Such violence was prevalent at the time of Sunningdale and lessons could be learnt about how it was dealt with or ignored then and what consequences that had and continues to have today. The Labour adviser, Bernard Donoughue, for instance, remarked that after Sunningdale ‘[o]ur policy became one of consolidation, trying to contain terrorism and just get through from year to year’. The absence of a balance between what might be termed politics and security, suggests that Sunningdale was less a missed opportunity than something more complicated. Scholars could usefully examine the lessons that the British government took forward (an area that remains hugely contested in explanations of the 1990s' peace process).

Many of the themes that characterised the Sunningdale period resonate in Northern Ireland today. Tackling these themes in their historical context is a radically different approach than reading pre-established (and perhaps under-articulated) notions of reconciliation back into history. In this way, historical research acts as a kind of interruption: it troubles contemporary ideas about progress and counters political cherry-picking or reworking of the past. Although historical research can identify themes, these are located in the past rather than the present; they may continue to resonate, but that resonance is constrained by available evidence rather than politically prescribed ideas about what may be beneficial to reconciliation.

So, for example, Haass and O’Sullivan speak of the importance of ‘acts of acknowledgement’ by perpetrators of violence. They also praise the ‘methodology of storytelling’ that allows individuals and groups to share their experiences and thus ‘provide a powerful catharsis and validation’. In pushing this policy Haass and O’Sullivan seem to draw from the cross-community organisation Healing Through Remembering which advocates storytelling as a means of healing, affirmation and acknowledgement. While storytelling may be beneficial at an individual level of psychological well-being it risks reproducing ideas about the past that have no basis in evidence. Valorising ‘experience’ at the expense of historical accuracy may entrench myths rather than challenge them.


Nationalists and unionists drew ‘lessons’ from the failure of the Sunningdale experiment that entrenched divisions and worked against any potential for reconciliation, sharing, and dialogue. These seemingly intractable differences can easily feed a sense of resignation that working through the past is futile. This sentiment underpins Kane’s phlegmatic assertion that ‘[f]orty years on and politics and community relations are still pretty much the same’. If anything can be learned from history, it is that nothing can.

Certainly, some of the resonances that the Sunningdale period have for contemporary Northern Ireland continue to manifest themselves in drastic and dramatic forms: loyalists continue to feel marginalised and sections within loyalism and (dissident) Irish republicanism remain wedded to the idea that violence is a legitimate means to pursue change. However, much has also changed since the early 1970s – devolved government seems to be slowly bedding-in and, despite the potential for dissident republicans to cause murder and mayhem, the rate of killings from political violence and terror has fallen to a tiny fraction of the earlier period.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the continuities, the Sunningdale anniversary can help us understand how best to approach the past. Whereas Haass and O’Sullivan argue that a thematic approach can lead to accountability and eventually reconciliation, Sunningdale exemplifies the danger of cherry-picking the past to buttress political lesson-learning. Such an approach is likely to recycle received ethnic wisdoms that forestall dialogue about what actually occurred, resulting in the indefinite deferral of accountability and reconciliation. Haass and O’Sullivan emphasise the value of history, but ignore the value of the methodology developed by historians. The Sunningdale period demonstrates that working through deeply divided pasts requires a commitment to a rigorous process of historical enquiry. 

Further Reading

Aaron Edwards and Cillian McGrattan (2012) The Northern Ireland Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld).

Brian Faulkner (1978), Memoirs of a Statesman (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Gordon Gillespie (2004), ‘The Origins of the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike: Structure and Tactics’, Études Irlandaises, 29(1).

Shaun McDaid (2013), Template for Peace: Northern Ireland, 1972-75 (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, and David McVea (2012), Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Edinburgh: Mainstream).

P.J. McLoughlin (2010), John Hume and the Revision of Irish Nationalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Henry Patterson (2006), Ireland Since 1939: The Persistence of Conflict (Dublin: Penguin.)

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