Thoughts on the ‘Ulster’ Convention

by C. Desmond Greaves

Labour Monthly, June 1975

ON May 8, 1975, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention met at Stormont. The United Ulster Unionists hold an overall majority, and before the proceedings began the redoubtable Mr Ian Paisley had ensured that the Union flag should spread its wings above. After forty minutes, Mr Glen Barr, one of the knights of last year’s stoppage, walked out in protest against the holding of ‘loyalist’ prisoners in Scotland, when ‘republican car-bombers’ had been repatriated to the six counties. The United Ulster Unionists are a loose alliance whose leaders, Craig, West and Paisley, compete for the limelight and combine for the sake of the dance. How long it will go on nobody can say. The first shots have been fired by their side. If they all walk out, the Convention may pass into history before these words are in print. But there are substantial emoluments for somebody at the end of the pipeline, favours to be given, patronage to be bestowed. They may prefer to rock the boat rather than to sink it.

Against the 47 seats of the UUUC, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) can muster only 17. This party occupies much the same position as the old Nationalists. Their poll stood up well in spite of ‘provisional’ Sinn Fein’s advice to the voters to abstain. Republicans and socialists have perhaps understandably blamed them for excessive moderation, but it is impossible to withhold sympathy from the representatives of a cruelly oppressed minority who might be excused almost any folly or excess, but who have preserved traditions of decency and sanity under impossible conditions. The Alliance Party, composed of moderate or liberal Unionists who have reacted against sectarianism, won eight seats, while Mr Faulkner’s Unionist Party of Northern Ireland won only five. The Alliance Party fought out of conviction. Mr Faulkner’s were believed to be turncoats who fought out of convenience. There are two independent Unionists, one a supporter of the Ulster Volunteer Force, who are included in the 47. And one member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. To this degree was it possible for oftentimes class conscious workers to put behind them all considerations of class.

The supporters of Mr West have 19 seats, those of Mr Craig 14, and those of Mr Paisley 12. Those skilled at counting heads and devising permutations will be speculating over how long they will continue to row in one galley. That will depend on Westminster policy.

So what is that policy? It is derived from the Sunningdale Conference, from which arose the Assembly established last year. Two decisions of this conference disquieted extreme Unionists: first the establishment of an Executive based on power-sharing, that is to say members of minority parties should hold ministries and sit in the cabinet; and second, the setting up of a Council of Ireland to which administrative powers could be transferred. It was this last which so incensed the extremists that they staged last year’s counter-revolution, wrecked the Assembly with Westminster’s condonation if not connivance, and ended Mr Faulkner’s tight-rope walking in the role of honest broker. It is, as said above, derived from Sunningdale. But how much of Sunningdale survives?

Mr Merlyn Rees is definite that Westminster will accept no proposition which rejects the SDLP aim of power-sharing. While the SDLP insists also on what was described as an ‘Irish dimension’, that is to say, a special relation between the six and the twenty-six counties, Mr Rees does not seem quite so convinced. Mr Airey Neave, a Tory MP, has declared that power-sharing cannot be ‘imposed’, but his party claim to be continuing their policy of bipartisanship with Labour, and it is implied that if the UUUC reject power sharing, then direct rule will continue indefinitely. The Dublin government and the Fianna Fail opposition also profess to stand by Sunningdale, but the ebullient Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, whose colleagues cannot keep him off the subject of Northern Ireland, has dismissed both planks as unrealistic. And it was noticeable that the SDLP spokesman on Radio Eireann complained not that this impertinent intervention involved a proposition that they could not accept, but that it weakened their bargaining position. Some of the Unionists are known to be willing to accept power sharing if the ‘Irish dimension’ goes by the board. Others would be prepared to have the minority parties attached to ministries through advisory committees, and one can imagine some measure of this sort being passed off as a form of power-sharing. It is taken for granted that the SDLP will be forced to compromise.

All this is being mulled over when over three hundred men (all from the Republican side) are interned without trial, when sectarian assassinations take place almost daily, and when army harassment of the nationalist population is only marginally less oppressive despite the ‘provisional’ IRA ceasefire, and while the Emergency Provisions Act remains seemingly irremovably embedded in the Westminster statute book. The decisions facing the SDLP will not be easy ones. Many of their supporters will be saying: ‘How long, Oh Lord, how long?’

At this point a Lancashire MP who, to the best of my belief, has never previously ventured into the Irish arena, has suggested that the British government should ‘set a date’, for example six months from now, by which time agreement must be reached, after which, if it is not reached, British troops will be withdrawn from the six counties and financial support cut off. The notion was of course first mooted by the late Richard Crossman, who did not conceal its coercive, its punitive aspect. For whatever legal and political nonsense the proposition makes, which side can least afford to stand firm ? Obviously the weaker side. So here is one more inducement to the SDLP to accept whatever the Unionists are prepared to concede, and thus release the English government from its promise.

Much of the feeling for the withdrawal of British troops stems from an awakening realisation that the British presence in Ireland is imperialistic. But it is necessary to see clearly wherein the imperialism resides. Ask any schoolboy what is democracy. He will reply government by the majority. But that is not the end of it. ‘Majority of whom ?’ The majority of the Irish people reside in the twenty-six counties. Even if every man jack in the north was a Unionist, they are still the majority. But English imperialism has denied them the exercise of their majority rights in six counties by putting a border round them and keeping them out. If the proposition is that England now relinquishes her claim to sovereignty in Ireland, then the rest of Ireland is involved and should be consulted. And so should those members of the majority of the Irish people who have been turned by the border into an artificial minority. So should the trade unions. A change of this magnitude cannot just be slapped on a country, however sound the principle it is based on.

But if the proposition is that British troops should be withdrawn while the sovereignty is either still at Westminster, or in Westminster’s gift, to be bestowed on the Unionists if it is so desired, while oppressive legislation is still on the statute book, while elementary civil rights are denied, while the economic, political and military power of Unionism is still available for the oppression of the ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant, then what is being contemplated is as irresponsible as was the deliberately provocative Belgian withdrawal from the Congo, in hope that in the resulting chaos the colonial power would be called back.

The Communists and Republicans did not do well in the Convention election. It should however be appreciated that there exists in the six counties a massive progressive potentiality which is frustrated and stultified by political conditions it is in the power of Westminster to change. Their demands for the withdrawal of troops from security duties, pending complete withdrawal, the ending of internment, and a serious attempt to remove the grievances of the opponents of the Unionists, would be more widely echoed than the poll shows, and once tolerable political conditions are restored we can expect the creative activity of the ordinary people to begin the reconciliation of a divided working class. A key role will be played by the trade unions.