Dear Dr Haass, the front page headline in bold type in the newspaper proclaims ‘It’s Ulster’s Greatest Chance’. Is it referring to your reconvened talks, hopefully edging towards an agreement on outstanding issues in the peace process? No, it’s a reminder of the political situation in Northern Ireland forty years ago. The date on the paper is Friday July 6 1973. The story written by Donal Magee in Belfast appeared in the Catholic newspaper, The (Irish) Universe, a tabloid rival to the Catholic Herald (edited by my father from 1962-66). Both papers had their main office in those days in Fleet Street and I remember when this was the hub of all journalism in England.
The story was about the election results for ‘The new Assembly’: yes, there was a power-sharing administration between unionists and nationalists for a short while. But the Council of Ireland provisions in the Sunningdale agreement reached between the British and Irish governments in December 1973 were opposed by the majority of unionists and loyalists and led to the downfall of Brian Faulkner’s administration in May 1974. So here is a reminder to a younger generation of what Northern Ireland politics was like in those days, when the S.D.L.P. emerged ‘convinced that at the next election they could emerge as the largest party’……..
“The new Assembly . . . IT’S ULSTER’S GREATEST CHANCE Donal Magee: Belfast
THE Assembly election results which disappointed the official Unionists, hardline Unionists, Republicans and Liberals, but not the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which represents the majority of Catholic opinion, has given the most optimistic prospect for the building of a new Northern Ireland.
This assessment may come as a surprise to many in Britain, where the Press has been universally pessimistic about the results.
But it is the view of the keenest observers of the Northern Ireland scene. Add to this the healthy political climate now being created between Dublin and London as a result of the Cosgrave-Heath talks this week, and it can be understood that this optimism is not without foundation. The full effects of this new understanding will, it is said here (Belfast), be seen by the end of the year when the new Assembly takes shape and is put to the test.
The political climate has so improved that a visit of a high-ranking member of the British government to Dublin – even Mr Heath himself – for further talks with the Irish government is on the cards. But by that time the political shape and constitution of the new Northern Ireland Assembly will be known and the way prepared for tripartite talks. I understand that the Faulkner – Craig – Paisley parties fear a quickening of the comings and goings between London and Dublin as a result of the favourable interpretation now taken of the Assembly poll. The result reveals that the most united party to emerge from the election is the S.D.L.P. One of the party’s executive told me that they intend to set the pace and that they are now convinced that at the next election they could emerge as the largest party. He said: “Our assessment may seem exaggerated post-election optimism. It is not”. Strengthened by the over – * To Back Page
CHANCE FOR ULSTER * From Page 1
(over-)whelming rejection of violence by the electorate, the 19 S.D.L.P. members are meeting early next week to review their position. In the meantime no statements of their intentions are forthcoming and talk of an alliance with the official Unionists, which really would make history, is premature though not discounted. In this connection, any alliance would depend on who leads the official Unionists. It is absolutely certain that the S.D.L.P. would not form a coalition with Unionists led by Mr. Faulkner, who is heartily distrusted by Catholics. They may, however, be prepared to come to terms with a party lead by a more “acceptable” politician and the name of Mr. Roy Bradford has been mooted. Mr. Bradford had one of the largest majorities of any candidate in the election.
His was a remarkable achievement when one considers that he stood in the supposedly militant dockland constituency in which one of his opponents was the U.D.A. leader Tommy Herron. Bradford has also shown conciliatory tendencies towards Catholics. He has taken a more liberal view than most mainstream Unionists both towards the minority in Ulster and towards the proposed Council of Ireland. And his political thinking is geared toward the European dimension. An alliance between the official Unionists and the Craig-Paisley coalition is certainly out of the question. No church leader has made any official pronouncement on the result of the election. Cardinal Conway and the other Catholic bishops are in Germany at a conference of the European bishops but I understand that the Cardinal has privately expressed satisfaction”.
There was a leading article headlined ‘A Vote for Moderation’ inside on page 10:
“A VOTE FOR MODERATION
The experience of the last three years has shown that political investment in Northern Ireland, in terms of time, labour, patience and perseverance, produces very little dividend. So it was no disappointment to find that the election for the assembly has not noticeably transformed a situation that has shown itself almost invincible against efforts to rationalise it. But if we are resigned to measuring progress towards peace in that embattled province on a micrometer gauge, we have some reason for hope as we contemplate the indecisive and as yet ambiguous results of the poll. We can be thankful, for a start, at the unexpectedly high success of the Social and Democratic Labour Party (sic.), to which Catholics have rallied. Then again, the IRA’s failure to get more than a handful of the electorate to boycott the election or invalidate their papers is a healthy rejection symptom, the more so as the more notorious of the Protestant militants were also sent on their way”.
Much will depend in the coming weeks on the attitudes of Mr. Gerry Fitt, the S.D.L.P. leader, and Mr. Brian Faulkner, both of whom are guardedly prepared to give the White Paper a trial. A short time ago neither would think of doing a deal with the other. But both are being forced by the march of events into new attitudes. Mr. Fitt finds his party for the first time in a position to exercise considerable power and this is not likely to be effectively exploited by a negative policy of intransigence. Mr, Faulkner, who is noted for political finesse and pragmatism, is fighting for survival. As a return to Protestant ascendancy through alliance with the anti- White Paper unionists is out, he has come round to viewing the possibility of power-sharing with the S.D.L.P. There is a danger here, however, that he may not carry all his supporters with him. It has even been suggested that he might lose as many as one-third. If this prospect is real his dilemma could usher in a new era of stalemate. Despite all this, the really significant fact is that the overall vote came down heavily on the side of moderation. This is more important than the rejection of the White Paper by a majority of unionists”.
Even after forty years with an entirely different political party balance and a new power-sharing government, it seems Dr Haass still has many difficulties to face as he attempts to find a way through the competing demands of unionists and loyalists, nationalists and republicans.