Why Was Stormont Dissolved in 1972?
Why was Stormont Dissolved in 1972? Eighty- seven years have passed and partition within Ireland still remains the island’s defining feature. Since the six county country of Northern Ireland was formed under the umbrella organisation of the United Kingdom in 1921, Northern Ireland has experienced two periods of its history that are so extreme in their differences. For the first fifty or so years of Northern Ireland’s existence the situation between both sides of the community, the Protestants and the Catholics was peaceful and there was very little hostility or violence between them.
Northern Ireland was essentially governed by peaceful co- existence as the government at Stormont ruled with relative ease. However, towards the late 1960s, the history of Northern Ireland changed, as what was to become the darkest period in the country’s short history, ‘the Troubles’, ensued between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the community and threatened to destroy Northern Ireland.
In a period that lasted around thirty years, Northern Ireland became a war zone, characterised by bombings, shootings and sectarian violence as the two communities fought to defend their beliefs and protect one another from the so- called ‘other side’. However it is the first three years of ‘the Troubles’, from 1969- 1972 and the dissolution off Stormont that will be the focus of this essay. The dissolution off Stormont in 1972 ended fifty years of Home Rule in the province and led to over two decades of Direct Rule from Westminster.
But why was Stormont dissolved in 1972? In this essay I will answer this question but it is important to note that there is no single reason why. The dissolution off Stormont was a multi- causal event brought about, by what I see, as five key causes; the failures of the Unionist Government to reform and control security; the formation of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and its escalation of violence; Internment and the subsequent PIRA backlash; the formation of the UDA and its systematic killing programme and finally Bloody Sunday and its aftermath.
The failures of the unionist government’s to provide sufficient reform, satisfying to both sides and their failure to control the security situation within Northern Ireland from 1969- 1972 was an important factor in the eventual dissolution of Stormont in 1972. During the latter part of Terence O’Neill’s premiership the failure of unionism was on the cards, even then, as his attempted ‘five oint programme’ of reforms was greeted with scepticism by both unionists and nationalists “and the Paisleyites were fired by what was seen as a concession to militant pressure…while others- as events demonstrated- saw only a mixture of weakness and begrudgery.  In February 1969, O’Neill’s failure to secure an indisputable mandate showed that the collapse of unionism was beginning to develop because as he suggested, “old prejudices were too strong for people to break out of the mould of sectarian politics once and for all,” His successor James Chichester- Clark inherited what was a difficult situation, that became worse during the marching season of 1969.
The failure of the unionist government to successfully control security and the devastating riots, which spread to Belfast following the annual Apprentice Boy’s demonstration in Derry in August, showed just how incapable they were of protecting the people of Northern Ireland and forced Chichester- Clark to request the support of the British army. This was a humiliation, and it underlined the failure of the Stormont administration to deal with either the political or the policing challenges of the popular uprising that was occurring: the decision added a military dimension to the complete financial dependence of the regime on London, and thus paved the way for direct rule. The army was a last desperate measure and although welcomed by Catholics at the beginning, the GOC Lieutenant- general Sir Ian Freeland warned that “the Honeymoon period between troops and local people is likely to be short lived”.  Indeed it was as Catholics lost faith in the army’s ability to protect them, due to “the failure to ban the 1970 Orange parades, and the massive arms search and curfew of the Lower Falls Road” and directed their support towards the increasingly more militant PIRA. 5] By bringing in the British army, the Unionist Government aroused “great fear and passion…and many Catholics believed that the Unionists had neither the will nor the capacity to make the changes the British Government proposed”, therefore alienating the Nationalist community and gave fuel to the PIRA’s rise because of its inability to bring in reforms that would have a positive affect on them. 6] Together with an inability of the unionist party to rule itself, as a “vote of no confidence by the Unionist Party executive in the Government’s law and order policies” illustrated in 1970, these factors showed the weak and futile nature of the unionist Government. Further more, alongside later factors which will be discussed later in the essay, such as Internment, these unionist failures helped to pave the way for Stormont to be dissolved in 1972. The formation of PIRA in 1970 proved to be a major downfall of Stormont.
The nationalist community left alienated and feeling unsafe under the Stormont administration increasingly turned their support to Sean MacStiofain and the PIRA and its military policies allowing it to gain momentum in its aims, “to provide all possible assistance to’ or people’ in the North, left defenceless against the violence of ‘sectarian bigots” and free the Irish people from British rule.  The strategy of PIRA was in three phases, designed to eventually bring about the eventual overthrow of British rule in Northern Ireland.
Phase one was of a purely defensive nature, avoiding confrontation with the army and “providing material, financial and training assistance for Northern PIRA units. ” “As soon as it became feasible and practical, the Provisional IRA would move from a purely defensive position to a phase of ‘combined defence and retaliation. ” The final phase, therefore, was “launching an all- out offensive action against the ‘British occupation system’. ” The PIRA came into action after Orange Order parades in June 1970, which Catholics saw as a “demonstration of Protestant power”. 11] The riots which followed saw the killing of five Protestants by the PIRA. Unfortunately for the people of Northern Ireland, the Falls Road curfew imposed by the Chichester- Clark government following this PIRA involvement only served to increase the paramilitary movement’s support base and lose support for the British army and it led to the escalation of violence within the province. The PIRA’s “campaign was stepped up from the bombing of economic targets to attacks on British army personnel” and on February 6th 1971 the first member of the regular British army was killed. 12] The violence only escalated further during 1971, as the Stormont administration struggled to cope with the unprecedented ferocity of the PIRA’s violence. “By July 55 people had died violently; In the first seven months of 1971 there were over 300 explosions and 320 shooting incidents”, which heaped an enormous amount of pressure upon Stormont, that it ultimately was not able to cope with and as we will see later in the essay this led brain Faulkner to undertake what became one of the defining nails in the coffin of Stormont, the introduction of ’Internment’. 13] The aspect that strikes you the most about Internment is the scale on which it was a failure, not to mention just how bias it was. It was a major blunder by the Unionist Government under Brian Faulkner “because it failed to bring about the seizure of the leading members of the Provisional IRA” simply because it lacked the necessary and relevant intelligence that was needed. “Internment was entirely one- sided. No attempt was made to arrest loyalist suspects despite the UVF’s record of violence…There was not a single person on the army’s list of 452 names who was not an anti- partionist.  The result of Internment “was massive alienation among the minority, and mounting enthusiasm for the PIRA. It exacerbated the levels of political violence within the region as “from 1 January to 8 August 1971, thirty- four people had been killed…but from the introduction of Internment until the end of the year139 people died as a result of political violence. ” Internment also underpinned the SDLP’s boycott of Stormont, and therefore destroyed Faulkner’s very tentative move towards power- sharing. 16] It was a world- wide disaster for unionism. It portrayed unionism as being sectarian and bias and brought the collapse of Stormont into its home straight as PIRA lashed out against it with a ruthless offensive. “During August 1971 there were 131 bomb attacks, 196 in September and 117 in October. It seemed that the PIRA was making a concerted attempt to destroy Northern Ireland’s economy, with the short- term aim of drawing the security forces away from Catholic enclaves and the long- term objective of forcing Britain to abandon the region.  It seemed to be working as the economy was only rising by one percent in 1971 and British opinion was that it was willing to ditch Northern Ireland. The PIRA were it seemed successfully bringing about the British withdrawal from the region. The protestant reaction to this enormous offensive being carried out by the PIRA was to fight fire with fire, as they formed their own paramilitary group, the ‘Ulster Defence Association’ (UDA).
The formation of the UDA in September 1971 was the crystallisation of the fears of working- class Protestants, who believed that the threat which the PIRA posed was too great and was not being dealt with by Stormont or Westminster. Instead they saw both governments as giving in to Nationalist pressure and giving them too many concessions. Just like Republican paramilitarism, “the growth of loyalist paramilitarism was related to the increasing levels of violence and the perception that the security forces could not contain violent republicanism.  The Unionist community did not feel safe or protected by the Unionist Government under Faulkner, and like Nationalists sought protection from a paramilitary organisation that could fight the PIRA. At the same time, however, the UDA’s formation served to add to the already hostile situation that was raging within Northern Ireland and as a result put another nail into the coffin of the Stormont administration. By now Direct Rule was inevitable, and it was a question of when not if it would be introduced.
The UDA’s formation and systematic outbreak of violence did nothing but heighten the tension between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the religious divide. “The UDA’s long- term aim was the ‘DEFENCE of ULSTER against ALL who would destroy her’; its short- term aims were the ‘restoration of law and order to every street in N. Ireland,’ to ‘prevent further disintegration of our society,’ and to ‘begin rebuilding our Community both materially and spiritually. ”Throughout late 1971 and 1972, when it killed over one hundred Catholics, who were seen as being disloyal to Northern Ireland, the UDA, along with around another forty loyalist paramilitary groups carried out unplanned and usually spontaneous and unjustified attacks upon Catholics in a response to the IRA’s campaign of violence. As a result the violence within the province reached an all time high heading into 1972, widely considered to be the worst year of ‘the Troubles’.
This violence came to a head on the 30th January 1972, or ‘Bloody Sunday’ as it is known. It was this day and its aftermath that would become the final nail in the coffin of the Stormont administration. By the end of 1971 Northern Ireland was in danger of disintegrating into a state of anarchy due to the failures and “break- up of the traditional unionist party, the alienation of the SDLP, and the growth of the PIRA and the Protestant paramilitaries.  With Northern Ireland entirely reliant upon the security forces of the British Government in 1972, the reality of just how committed it was in the province was beginning to hit Britain. “The events of Bloody Sunday brought home both the extent of this involvement and the price being paid. ” After thirteen people were shot dead by the army in the Bogside area, Nationalist and Catholic Ireland exploded with anger. For the first time, the South ecame emotionally involved in the crisis occurring in the North and indeed it became occasionally violent (the British embassy in Dublin was burnt down on 5th February 1972). The PIRA and the Official IRA (OIRA) began a violent and bloody bombing campaign in both Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, as it bombed “the officers’ mess of the 16th Parachute Brigade at Aldershot on 23rd February 1972” as well as the crowded Abercorn restaurant in Belfast on 4th March 1972, one of the cruellest of many violent incidents that took place in the country. 22] Such incidents, proved to be the final straw for the British Government, after what had been a disastrous three years for both Stormont and Westminster. Northern Ireland was a war zone, incapable of ruling itself and Britain recognised this, declaring an end to Home Rule on 24th March 1972. Alvin Jackson asks the question, ‘Why did Stormont fail? and although the question might seem irrelevant given what precedes it, it is still important to sum up just why it happened and what the main causes were. In his book ‘Ireland 1798- 1998: Politics and War’, Jackson concludes that “in terms of proximate causes, Stormont failed because it was no longer compatible with the exigencies of British policy , and because it showed no signs of being able to cope with the street violence and organized terror.
In the longer term, it had been unable to represent any other than Unionist opinion, and had been at best grudging towards Catholic aspirations. ” The Stormont administration under Unionism was quite simply incapable of organising its own security, as its decision to request the support of the British army in 1969 showed, and it was entirely one –sided, as policies such as Internment showed (a policy that had a massive part to play in the failure of torment. Along with these causes, the rise of the UDA and other loyalist paramilitaries and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ contributed largely to its failing, by creating more political violence and alienating the Nationalist community further. However, perhaps, “the underlying cause…was Irish Nationalism. ” Thomas Hennessey writes that “the single most disastrous decision that produced the next two and a half decades of conflict was the decision of the PIRA’s Army Council in January 1970 to begin a war- their war- against the British state.  In many ways, Hennessey is totally correct, for had it not been for the bombings and killings of the PIRA within Northern Ireland, then Stormont may well have survived because it would not have had to rule a country that was virtually in a civil war, a country that was in effect untenable. ———————–  Alvin Jackson, ‘Ireland 1798-1998:Politics and War’ (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1999) p373  Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000’ (Profile Books Ltd. Great Britain, 2004) p620  Alvin Jackson, ‘Ireland 1798-1998: Politics and War’ (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1999) p374  Jonathan Bardon, ‘A History of Ulster’ (The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1992) p672  Thomas Hennessey, ‘A History of Northern Ireland 1920-1996’ (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1997) p174  Henry Kelly, ‘How Stormont Fell’ in John Magee, ‘Northern Ireland: Crisis and Conflict’ (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1974 ) p121  Thomas Hennessey, ‘A History of Northern Ireland 1920-1996’ (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1997) p173  Ibid p173 9] Ibid p173  Ibidp173  John Whyte, ‘Interpreting Northern Ireland’ (Oxford University Press, New York, 1990) p31  Thomas Hennessey, ‘A History of Northern Ireland 1920-1996’ (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1997) p175  Ibid p193 14] Jonathan Bardon, ‘A History of Ulster’ (The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1992) p682  Patrick Buckland, ‘A History of Northern Ireland’ (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1981) p156  Alvin Jackson, ‘Ireland 1798-1998: Politics and War’ (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1999) p376  Jonathan Bardon, ‘A History of Ulster’ (The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1992) p685  Thomas Hennessey, ‘A History of Northern Ireland 1920-1996’ (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1997) p201  Ibid p201 20] Patrick Buckland, ‘A History of Northern Ireland’ (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1981) p156  Ibid p156  Ibid p157  Alvin Jackson, ‘Ireland 1798-1998: Politics and War’ (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1999) p376  Thomas Hennessey, ‘Northern Ireland: The Origins of the Troubles’ (Gill and Macmillan Ltd, Dublin, 2005) p385  Ibid p394