Forty years ago this month Britain shut down Northern Ireland’s parliament, changing politics here forever. David McKittrick reports

David McKittrick
Belfast Telegraph
20 March 2012

When two prime ministers, Edward Heath and Brian Faulkner, lunched together in Downing Street in March 1972, the menu included scallops and roast beef along with a particularly fine wine, Chateau St-Pierre Sevaistre 1955.

Heath also offered a dessert of cold orange souffle, but in political terms he offered cold comfort to Faulkner, the wily unionist politician regarded as Stormont’s last chance.

When the Northern Ireland prime minister pressed for a continuing tough security approach, Heath broke the news that he intended to strip Stormont of its law and order powers. Faulkner warned he would resign if this happened, but Heath went ahead.

Faulkner then promptly quit and the institution which had been the central focus of Northern Ireland’s politics for a half-century was brusquely shut down.

It was a hugely emotional and traumatic moment for unionists, who always regarded Stormont as their chief bulwark against nationalism and republicanism.

The Protestant sense of betrayal was deep and palpable: so, too, was their fear that unionist control had gone forever and their worry that the Union with Britain was being weakened.

In this they were correct. The mothballing of Stormont did not reduce violence, or bring stability, as Heath hoped. Nor did it result in a durable new political settlement: it would be many years before that took shape.

But its removal did establish the central fact that the days of one-party government were over and that never again would one community be allowed to govern the other: the days of majority rule were consigned to the past.

It took years years for unionists to grasp that majority rule would not return, but in the long term the idea took root after many twists and turns and it eventually led to the modern compromise arrangement.

The politics of the early-1970s were a different world from those of today, where unionism and republicanism share power. In 1972, unionism was adamant that there was no place in government for figures such as Gerry Fitt and John Hume.

The years before the fall of Stormont were turbulent, with civil rights marches giving way to riots and widespread violence and the appearance of the Army on the streets.

Faulkner had assumed office as Northern Ireland’s last prime minister in March 1971, attempting to achieve stability by combining minimal political concessions with a tougher security approach.

But the continuing violence simultaneously produced a rising death toll and a poisonous atmosphere, leading the SDLP to boycott Stormont.

In something close to desperation, Faulkner persuaded Heath to agree to introduce internment without trial in August 1971.

It was something close to a last throw of the dice, but the move proved disastrous, sending the death-rate soaring as the IRA and loyalists escalated the violence.

In addition, there was a dramatic increase in general nationalist alienation.

Senior Belfast civil servants, who carried out a review, concluded that ‘a breakdown in government might occur in a matter of weeks’.

The sense of crisis deepened after Bloody Sunday in January 1972, causing Heath to cast around for radical approaches. He considered, but rejected, ideas such as repartition, joint rule of Northern Ireland with the Republic and an eventual united Ireland.

The Army was extremely nervous about the idea of introducing direct rule, warning that unionists might not co-operate with it.

A military document warned the government of a nightmare scenario ‘in which the Army was either fighting both sides in the middle of a civil war, or having virtually to run Northern Ireland’.

Heath, nonetheless, judged that something dramatic had to be done. He noted in his memoirs: ‘The atmosphere had now grown more poisoned than ever and I feared that we might, for the first time, be on the threshold of complete anarchy.’

Faulkner, meanwhile, continued to resist the idea of sharing power with nationalists, histrionically arguing this would result in “a bedlam cabinet, a kind of fragmentation bomb virtually certain to fly apart at the first meeting”.

His objection was to having the SDLP in government: we can only wonder what he would think of governing along with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, who, in those days, were wanted men on the run.

Finally, Heath, concluding that Faulkner could deliver neither security success nor political progress, decided to close Stormont as an irreformable institution. His conviction was that a power-sharing government had to be put together and that, in his words, “only direct rule could offer us the breathing-space necessary for building it”.

Considerable upheaval followed the closure, with a two-day protest bringing Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill, up to 200,000 workers downing tools.

Around 100,000 people made their way to Stormont for a rally at which Ulster flags outnumbered Union flags – a sign of Protestant anger with London.

Meanwhile, in the back streets, working-class Protestants were banding together in paramilitary groups, such as the UDA and UVF. In 1972, they were responsible for 121 deaths, while the IRA killed 277.

In all, almost 500 people lost their lives that year, which was both the most lethal of the Troubles and an important turning-point which changed the face of Northern Ireland politics forever.