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.

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