We thought we had learned them in 1998 but we hadn’t really, or not enough. To find out why, we have to go back in time. Just over 50 years ago, Brian Faulkner the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland rang WD Flackes BBC NI’s political correspondent from an outer office in 10 Downing Street to inform him that the game was up for the Stormont Parliament. Billy’s scoop led the national 9 O’clock News. Ted Heath had made Faulkner an offer he was bound to refuse: his government could continue exercising ordinary domestic powers, but they had to surrender law and order to Westminster for a year. In theory it was quite a good offer; for how could politics continue when one side was lording it over the other with security powers as drastic as internment that had clearly failed? But the offer was essentially bogus. The settlement that emerged from the first Troubles was killed off by the second. The Ulster Unionists’ Union was dissolved overnight and a new fragile Union of uncertain character had taken its place. Even though it came as little surprise after three years of political disintegration and rising violence, the shock was palpable. It produced anger and betrayal among unionists; emotions ranging from relief to rejoicing among nationalists and a mixture of apprehension and hope among the sensible of all sides. To turn de Lampedusa on his head, while everything has changed in 50 years, that much remains the same.
This is not the place to rehearse again the slide to chaos of which the abolition of the Stormont Parliament was only an episode. Although it was tacitly accepted that the underlying problems of politics could not be solved when violence was raging, sharply different conclusions were reached. Unionists and a sizable slice of the British establishment thought that violence has to be suppressed first. It took another 25 years to learn that politics and violence had to be solved together.
On the day of prorogation, small groups of unionist MPs wandered about the members bar like zombies, a few of them getting quietly pissed. On the whole these weren’t hardliners (who were of course teetotal). They were mostly in politics to exercise the powers of government, the professional class of men (all men) who might give up active politics after a few years. Rarely were they the unionist movers and shakers who pulled the strings. And that was their problem. Real politics was very local and was less about government than control .They were detached from their roots. They were the liberal unionists for whom the drumbeats of 1912 and the symbols of the Orange Order were frankly passé and embarrassing. They saw themselves as modern people who quietly applauded gestures like the sudden visit to Belfast of the taoiseach Sean Lemass an Easter Rising veteran , who was stretching out his hand across the border for Terence O’Neill to shake . They were just old enough to remember the old form of a united Ireland. Some of them even contemplated a new unity without the British link. Sectarianism was – well- frankly silly, out of date. But they would tell me all this in private, nothing too out loud. Nor were they were prepared to do anything too active to challenge it. It would just – somehow – wither away. It was not a profound analysis. But on that day in the bar, on the whole they felt they’d done their best. In later years some of them would wring their hands and lament. “if only we’d gone further when we could,” they might have staved off disaster.
The O’Neill government had at first believed that reform could happen more or less apolitically. Planning borrowed from Labour in Britain was all the rage. The Matthew stopline for Belfast. The Copcutt plan for the new city of Craigavon, championed by the progressive minister of Development Bill Craig. A programme of industrial incentives replacing dying linen with modern synthetic fibres, led by the dynamic Commerce minister Brian Faulkner. But there were problems; the logic of planning seemed to favour concentrating development in the mainly Protestant east. But although that was the reason given to deny Derry a university, the failure was put down to sectarianism – a failure exposed not by nationalists but critical unionists who denounced the “ faceless men” among Derry unionists who had helped kill it.
The career of Brian Faulkner is eminently instructive. He waged a sort of trade versus land class war against his nominal chief Terence O’Neill more typical of late 19th century. Asked if he supported the PM, Faulkner would say only “I support the policies of the government. “ By 1968 much wider reform was in the pipeline but the government was in poor shape to deliver it. The Macrory report was promising the end of the gerrymander and housing allocation by councils the boring way, without the need for civil rights pressure.
The police assault on the Derry civil rights march on October 5th gave us our Bastille moment. Fair employment rules and Macrory were introduced within three months and were irreversible. But O’Neill’s government could not take the strain. I remember hearing on the radio Paisley guldering absurdly. “We give thanks to Almighty God- for the resignation of the minister of Health!” O’Neill found himself in an election with pro O’Neill candidates fighting others from the party he himself led. When his cousin the bumbling Jimmy Chichester Clark succeeded him it was already too late. Finally Faulkner, generally distrusted by now for playing with both sides of a bitterly divided party although the only one of them who could have aspired to British cabinet rank, was unable to prolong the old regime after his last throw of internment.
But the story doesn’t end there. Within only 15 months of the abolition of the parliament Faulkner, ever the man of government bounced back briefly as the unionist champion of power sharing before his final eclipse at the hands of his nemesis Bill Craig his former ministerial ally. In his turn Craig, chastened by what he had let out of the box in the UWC strike recommended a voluntary coalition before suffering oblivion himself at the hands of the young Peter Robinson.
Why did these men after tacking to the right, feel impelled to turn again towards the centre they had at first rejected? It was because they realised that institutions of government of some kind provided better guarantees for stability and the Union than a permanent 1912 style revolution in the streets. Despite falling off it, they were familiar with a path later followed by Trimble and Paisley and along a very different route by Adams and McGuinness.
Why do their successors keep going off road? One reason is that many of the people able to keep the show on the road either left politics long ago or had always avoided it like the plague.
The Troubles were mainly a working class war albeit featuring middle class fellow travellers. I venture the unfashionable view that unless you have strong middle class backing you cannot have political stability or effective government. What is now called populism, an appeal to simplistic solutions, leads to a dead end. The middle class can supply skills and talent good government simply can’t do without. From the early 70s the unionist middle class wouldn’t have been seen dead voting for the DUP. The same applied in spades to the burgeoning Catholic middle class towards Sinn Fein. Behaviour has since changed although I suspect it’s still not always quite respectable to admit it. And in a less deferential age, Sinn Fein have cleverly bucked the trend. Although their working class image has modified, their embourgeoisement is far from complete.
With all respect to Alliance, the SDLP and perhaps the Ulster Unionists, there remains a vacuum of commitment that remains to be filled. For me the crucial period of collapse was in the late 1960s, a time of comfortable unionist majority when reform could have taken hold and developed. The road might still have been bumpy but not what it became. With the opportunity lost, the outbreak of the Troubles ensured that single party rule even with a communal unionist majority became unviable. Events since 1998 shows we have yet to find the formula for concentrating the forces for effective government.
Liberal unionists gravitated to the Alliance party or out of politics altogether, leaving a large husk floundering, now trying to create a 1912 over the Protocol while achieving only a 1972. Militant unionism is serving only to stiffen support for Sinn Fein and holding back a tradition in government that the SDLP is trying to build.
The solution is obvious. What was missing in the old Stormont Parliament still eludes us today; the ability reliably to form a cross community government and replace it with an opposition. This can only come in the form of a voluntary coalition that unites its members more than it divides them and appeals to the many of ability who today shun politics altogether.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London