Unpromising history of disruption and violence

David McKittrick outlines the failure of past attempts to secure agreement
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The Independent Online
While the Government hopes the new forum will help progress, such bodies in the past proved not to be vehicles for agreement but arenas for disruption, boycotts and even hand-to-hand fighting.

All four were wound up in failure. One factor was the competition for support within Unionism. While David Trimble's Ulster Unionists are the largest party, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists regularly win a third of the Unionist vote. Mr Paisley has proved the most prominent figure in elected bodies, his appetite for theatrical protests often heating the atmosphere.

The widespread belief among nationalists is that a new elected body would be under Unionist control, and encourage the Unionist instinct towards majoritarianism rather than consensus. Thus Sinn Fein is to boycott the new forum, while the Social Democratic and Labour Party has made it clear that it will be wary about taking part.

The Stormont parliament, which existed between 1921 and 1972, became a symbol of Protestant supremacy. Although it was set up on the Westminster model, the crucial element of alternation of power was missing.

For 50 years the Unionist party won every election and formed every government. When Stormont nationalist MPs complained of anti-Catholic discrimination, they were told by British ministers that such matters were Stormont's responsibility.

The institution proved unable to cope with the Catholic civil-rights agitation in the late Sixties and the violence of the early Seventies. As the security situation worsened the SDLP withdrew from Stormont and in 1972 Edward Heath's government, despairing of reforming the institution, closed it down.

The Northern Ireland assembly (1973-74) was set up by Mr 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.

Loyalists, finding themselves in a minority in the assembly, disrupted the proceedings. An assembly official, Maurice Hayes, recalled: "Ministers, especially Faulkner, were abused verbally on every occasion and sometimes even physically. Faulkner was spat upon, jostled, reviled and shouted down."

One account gives a flavour of the time: "The loyalists entered the executive at 2:30. There were shouts and howls. Some climbed up and danced on desks. Other loyalists leaped upon the table beside the dispatch box, removed the mace, and began a parade about the chamber. One danced upon the speaker's table and shouted, 'We have driven the money changers from the temple.' He then chained and padlocked himself to a bench."

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 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 1975-6, was less violent but also failed to produce political progress. In the chamber there was no actual violence but a mistrustful atmosphere, walkouts, heckling and angry exchanges.

In his memoirs Merlyn Rees described one incident during the institution's life: "Thirty-five convention members, including Paisley, had come down to my office demanding to see me. They were not allowed in because they had not made an appointment. However, they forced their way in and there was a scuffle in which a policeman had his arm broken. One of the members also managed to break a table - and these were elected representatives."

The final session ended in uproar after Mr Paisley verbally attacked David Trimble.

The failures of the previous elected bodies meant that 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.

The assembly was attended principally by Mr Paisley's party and the middle- of-the-road Alliance party, with the Ulster Unionists displaying only limited enthusiasm.

The Alliance party withdrew, leaving only Unionists in the assembly. 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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