Sunningdale at 40

PEYE 140911KB1 114Peter Cheney looks back at the December 1973 deal which led to the first example of power-sharing but faltered over the level of North/South co-operation.

The stops and starts of power-sharing can make it seem like a relatively new idea. Northern Ireland’s first cross-community administration, though, briefly held office just five years into the Troubles. The Sunningdale Agreement, which marks its 40th anniversary this month, led to its establishment but may also have contributed to its fall.

Stormont had been suspended on 30 March 1972 and power was then transferred to the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw. That year is remembered as the worst year of the Troubles with 480 lives lost to violence.

Remarkably, though, Whitelaw was able to secure a political deal in just under one year. In the summer of 1972, UUP leader Brian Faulkner concluded that power-sharing was the only viable way forward.

The white paper, entitled ‘Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals’, was published on 20 March 1973 and supported by the UUP, SDLP, Alliance Party and Northern Ireland Labour Party.

A Northern Ireland Assembly would consist of 78 members, elected by the single transferable vote. Any Executive would need to include more than one party and represent both communities.

“These proposals,” it stated, “are designed to benefit the law-abiding majority in both communities, who may have conflicting views on the ultimate constitutional destiny of Northern Ireland, but who seek to advance those views by peaceful democratic means alone, and have strong mutual interests in making social and economic progress.”

Parliament swiftly passed the necessary legislation and the Assembly elections took place on 28 June.

The UUP was split between pro-white paper and anti-white paper factions, led by Faulkner and Harry West respectively. A separate Loyalist Coalition had been formed by Bill Craig’s Vanguard movement and Ian Paisley’s DUP; all anti-white paper unionists voted en bloc in the Assembly.

After lengthy talks, the pro-white paper parties agreed that the Executive would comprise six UUP ministers, four from the SDLP and one from Alliance. Brian Faulkner would be Chief Executive and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt Deputy Chief Executive.

The Government also favoured “institutional arrangements for consultation and co-operation” between Northern Ireland and the Republic but these would be considered at a later date. The conference on North/South arrangements started at Sunningdale in Berkshire on 6 December 1973. Faulkner wanted a ‘win’ to sell the agreement to unionists and sought the removal of the Republic’s claim over Northern Ireland. Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refused to move on this, wary of republican opposition, but was prepared to publicly endorse the consent principle.

Cosgrave, Heath and the SDLP also pressed for a cross-border Council of Ireland which – controversially for unionists – would be consulted on appointments to the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. An outnumbered Faulkner secured a commitment that police powers would eventually be returned to the Executive.

The Sunningdale Agreement was announced on 9 December and loyalist hostility immediately increased. The Executive was formed on 1 January 1974 but the Ulster Unionist Council voted to reject the agreement three days later. Faulkner was replaced as party leader by West but continued as Chief Executive in the Assembly.

The crisis came to a head five months later in the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. The Executive fell on 28 May 1974 and it would be 25 years before another devolved government was formed.


Dermot Nesbitt was Brian Faulkner’s election agent in the 1973 election. He found him quiet and reserved “but put him in front of a camera, put him in front of an audience and he could do the business.”

They were once watching Ian Paisley on television, criticising the UUP leader. “You could see a little twitch in his face but he said nothing,” Nesbitt says of Faulkner. “And those are the little things you remember. I’m sure he was thinking plenty but he said nothing.”

Nesbitt recalls: “The Westminster Government then offered voluntary coalition, effectively – de facto – although in reality is any coalition voluntary?” David Cameron, for example, would ideally prefer a majority in Parliament rather than governing with the Liberal Democrats.

“What was offered then more than 40 years ago,” he adds, “would be precisely what a lot of the unionist parties – if not all of the unionist parties – over this past number of years would want to achieve.”

Brian Faulkner was “genuinely a leader ahead of his time” in his pragmatism. “Politics is not so much the art of the possible,” Nesbitt reflects. “It’s choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

The security situation was rapidly deteriorating and Faulkner recognised that both communities had to find a way of working together. Before Stormont had fallen, he had appointed GB Newe as Northern Ireland’s first Catholic government Minister.

“A good leader is ahead of the pack but if you’re too far ahead of the pack, you can lose the pack,” Nesbitt adds. “He was ahead of his time but perhaps too far ahead of his time.”

The white paper made clear that Northern Ireland would determine its relationship with the Republic whereas Sunningdale made this more of a joint venture.

Nesbitt “vividly” remembers the Ulster Unionist Council’s discussions at the time. He adds: “Unionism would have accepted power-sharing, I believe, within Northern Ireland and it would have occurred. It would have been difficult but it could have worked and would have worked.” Gerry Fitt was “an honourable gentlemen” and was keen to deliver that outcome as well.

In his view, the Irish Government – and to a certain extent nationalists – “pushed Faulkner too far” on the Council of Ireland. Under the Belfast Agreement, North/South Ministerial Council meetings are attended by unionist and nationalist ministers and there is now more “collectivity”.

Nesbitt surmises: “The Belfast Agreement was better than the overall Sunningdale Agreement but if we take in what the Government offered us [initially], it was better than the Belfast Agreement.”

In 1973, unionists were effectively being asked to move from majority rule to a power-sharing i.e. giving up an element of power. By comparison, in 1998, unionists were moving from a position of having no power towards one of sharing power.

The question of ‘what if?’ naturally arises when looking back on that time. Nesbitt notes that Bill Craig opposed voluntary coalition in 1973 but was advocating a form of it in 1975. Therefore, if most unionists had backed the white paper and the SDLP had held back on the Council of Ireland, history could have been different. The white paper “was pragmatic, it was possible and therefore it could have been permanent.”

Some unionists, it is put to him, would only have accepted majority rule. “Yes, but there’s a hard core in every element,” he replies, “and Martin McGuinness would say there’s a hard core in republicanism.” Nesbitt adds: “What you had to do was lead from the front, be pragmatic, realise what was possible not what was impossible.”

The Northern Ireland crisis was also taking place against a “rather chaotic backcloth” in national and international affairs and any review of those years also has to consider their human cost. A young person in today’s Northern Ireland “could not imagine 480 people killed” which, by another reckoning, was almost ten fatalities per week.

Reflecting on the time, SDLP MP Mark Durkan remarked: “The Sunningdale Agreement should be remembered, fundamentally, as a lost opportunity with its core features of power-sharing, a strong all-Ireland dimension and human rights.”

Durkan added: “The tragedy for everyone was that Sunningdale was opposed and brought down by intransigent unionism and violent republicanism – indeed by some of the same people who now say they uphold the principles that were at its core.”

Gerry Adams, who was interned at the time of Sunningdale, claims that Sinn Féin has made more progress for nationalism in the current peace process. Peter Robinson has said that Sunningdale failed because the arrangements “did not have sufficient consent” among unionists.

The Alliance Party looks back at the 1974 Executive as a more genuine example of power-sharing than the current structures. David Ford has praised Gerry Fitt as “one of the few politicians who could attract votes right across the community” and welcomed him back to Parliament Buildings in 2004.

“As we reflect on the fortieth anniversary of the Sunningdale Agreement, the sense is of an opportunity missed,” Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore told agendaNi. “However, we need now to look forward and build on the success of the Good Friday Agreement and its related agreements.”

Gilmore continued: “A distinguishing strength of the Good Friday Agreement lies in its endorsement by the people in referenda in both parts of the island. This unprecedented backing provided a bedrock for the transformational change to relationships, North/South and east-west, across these islands.

“Twenty-five years after Sunningdale, we were finally on a path to peace, prosperity and reconciliation. Fifteen years on from that, the journey continues.”

Photo Credit: Victor Patterson

The 1973 Assembly

Pro-white paper


Anti-white paper


UUP (Faulkner)


UUP (West)










Northern Ireland Labour


West Belfast Loyalists


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