Optimism tempered by lessons of the past

Northern Ireland's new government

ALTHOUGH HOPES were high last night that the new executive and assembly might eventually prove a success, similar institutions have in the past proved dismal failures.

On four occasions, such assemblies have proved to be arenas for bitterness, disruption, boycotts and, on occasion, hand-to-hand fighting. All degenerated into sectarian battlegrounds where disagreements were proclaimed but not resolved.

The Stormont parliament, which existed between 1921 and 1972, became a symbol of Protestant supremacy and refusal to share power. Although it was set up on the Westminster model - complete with prime minister, speaker, mace and other trappings - the crucial element of alternation of power was missing.

For 50 years, the Unionist party won every election and formed every government, using its permanent majority to vote down every nationalist proposal, with the single exception of one measure in the 1930s, the Wild Birds Act.

The institution proved unable to cope with the Catholic civil rights agitation of the late 1960s and the mounting violence of the early 1970s. As the security situation worsened the Social Democratic and Labour Party withdrew and in 1972 Edward Heath's government, despairing of reforming the institution, closed it down.

The Northern Ireland assembly of 1973-74 was set up by Heath as an attempt to establish a new devolved administration which would be run jointly by Protestants and Catholics. A moderate Unionist faction led by the late Brian Faulkner combined with the SDLP to form a new "power-sharing executive" drawn from the assembly. After some months of protests within the assembly, loyalists turned their attentions to other methods. Five months after the establishment of the executive, a Protestant general strike was launched by a committee which included members of paramilitary groups, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. Within weeks this brought Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill and caused the collapse of both the executive and the assembly.

The next elected body, the constitutional convention of 1975-76, was less violent but nevertheless also failed to produce political progress. In the chamber itself there was no actual violence but a generally mistrustful atmosphere, with walkouts, much heckling and angry exchanges.

The failures of these bodies meant many years passed before the path was tried again with the Northern Ireland assembly, which lasted from 1982 to 1986. While the SDLP and Sinn Fein contested the election both refused to take their seats.

When London and Dublin signed the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985, Unionists suspended normal business and transformed the assembly into a vehicle of protest. In 1986 it was formally dissolved, but 21 Unionist members refused to leave the chamber and were forcibly ejected by police.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

Gossip girl comes of age

Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

Goat cuisine

It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
14 best coat hooks

Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?