Slow Learners: The Sunningdale Agreement & Unionist Opposition

The signing of the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973 proved to be the culmination of a significant diplomatic effort on the part of both the British and Irish governments, as well as the three most popular constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. However, the agreement was met with vehement opposition in various factions of Unionism, and this essay will explore both the causes of Unionist suspicion in the months leading up to Sunningdale and the sources of outrage within the agreement itself. It will also attempt to balance what can be misinterpreted as irrational Unionist opposition by expressing the numerous valid concerns the politicians and ordinary people had over its introduction, exemplified by then Irish foreign affairs minister Garret Fitzgerald: “On any objective assessment the Irish government and the SDLP have gained the most and the unionists least.”[1]

Before going into detail over the particular clauses of Sunningdale which faced loyalist scrutiny, it is important to provide a context to the events leading up to late 1973 which fanned the flames of Unionist discontent. The first of these was the collapse of the Northern Irish parliament in March 1972 and the subsequent imposition of direct rule from London by the Conservative government which, according to Paul Dixon, “provoked unease among loyalists, who feared their position within the Union was becoming undermined.”[2] Direct rule had brought to a shuddering halt half a century of monolithic Unionist control in Northern Ireland, and its introduction had serious ramifications on the ability of Unionists to trust that the British government would protect at all costs Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. David McKittrick and David McVea suppose that there was ultimately begrudging tolerance of direct rule within the Unionist community, that “there were no serious signs of mutiny among the Protestants who predominated in the civil service and the RUC. The acceptance of direct rule may have been surly, but it was nonetheless acceptance.”[3]

Another event which became a bee in the bonnet of Unionists in the summer of 1972 was the revelation that Northern Ireland Secretary of State William Whitelaw had been engaging in political talks with senior members of the Provisional IRA. Although no agreements had been reached, the talks, widely criticised across many circles, enticed once again Unionist paranoia, “stirring as it did their traditional fear that Britain might betray them.”[4] It cannot be denied that the aforementioned events of 1972 contributed strongly to the increased membership of and violent attacks of loyalist paramilitary organisations, and had a hand in the William Craig-led United Loyalist Council strike in February 1973, the main aim of which was “to re-establish some kind of Protestant or loyalist control over affairs in the province.”[5]

It was the increase in violence, of both the republican and loyalist variety, alongside the mayhem caused by the loyalist strike, which provoked Whitelaw into seeking a political solution that all strands of the Northern Irish political spectrum could agree on. A government White Paper, published in March 1973, laid the groundwork for what would become the terms agreed at Sunningdale nine months later, which “reaffirmed that the concepts of power-sharing and an Irish dimension were to be mainstays of a new settlement.”[6] By mid-1973 political Unionism had fragmented to an unprecedented extent, with Unionist Party leader and White Paper supporter Brian Faulkner defiantly swimming against an ever-stronger current of opposition from within his party and voter base. The reasons for Faulkner’s loss of support can be traced back to the introduction of direct rule, as McKittrick and McVea explain: “He was advancing the problematic policy of negotiating with a British government which had, in the eyes of most Unionists, been guilty of a betrayal in removing the Stormont system.”[7] It is important at this point to tie in all the aforementioned points that had led to the division of Unionism and the growing fear of British withdrawal from the province; each successive event fostered yet more unparalleled distrust of what the British government was capable of, that on their own would not nearly have provided the same level of impetus for protest.

Moving towards a discussion of the terms agreed by the parties present at Sunningdale, there were a plethora of clauses within the agreement that stirred suspicion in the Unionist camp, as Gordon Gillespie describes: “The deal seemed likely to face its toughest challenge in trying to win the support of Unionists, whose initial reaction was, at best, cautious.”[8] Cautious is perhaps too mild a term to encapsulate the wariness with which Unionists approached Sunningdale, with negotiations over the Irish dimension to become, in the words of Don Anderson, “the fishbone in the gullet for Unionists, even many Faulkner Unionists.”[9] By all accounts the Council of Ireland, the resultant body of negotiations around the Irish dimension, was the most contentious point of the whole four days of the conference. The Council was, in principle, to allow the Irish government a greater say and stronger authority in the day-to-day running of the Northern Irish state; however, Faulkner comments in his memoirs that in practice the Council would have very limited scope: “All our efforts were directed towards ensuring that the Council of Ireland meant nothing in practice, however many tiers and secretaries the Council might have, it remained essentially propaganda.”[10]

Faulkner found this fact very difficult to sell to anti-Sunningdale Unionists, believing as they did that the symbolism of the Council’s existence superseded any real-life powers it was to exercise. The significance of how loyalists viewed the Council can be understood by their suspicion of the motives of both the British and Irish governments. In the latter’s case the controversy over Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution dominated, which confirmed in paper the Irish government’s claim to the six counties as the “national territory,”[11] and Unionists saw this as a direct attack on the status of Northern Ireland within the UK, with those opposed to Sunningdale horrified that Faulknerite Unionists could agree to such terms. Don Anderson identifies how problematic the process of compromise was in Northern Ireland politics, that instead of the British method of using compromise as an important bargaining tool, “in Ireland, in particular among Northern Ireland loyalists, it has connotations of betrayal.”[12] Sunningdale was by no means the first or last example of this attitude’s prevalence, with Unionist reluctance to compromise dating as far back as the Home Rule question in the early twentieth century.

It is my belief that loyalist opposition to what would become the Council of Ireland was not entirely unfounded and born out of sheer paranoia. The main argument to support this comes from the British government’s change in tack over what powers the Council would supposedly exercise, with Paul Dixon describing how it “shifted from giving it ‘some executive functions and a consultative role’ to having ‘executive and harmonisation’ functions. The Council of Ireland could be interpreted as having the makings of an all-Ireland parliament.”[13] This is an important point in understanding the psyche of anti-Sunningdale Unionists, as they saw the quick positional change as a microcosm of how the British government perhaps wished to wash their hands of Northern Ireland in the longer term, and their fear of becoming a minority demographic in a unified Irish state appeared increasingly imminent. Dixon puts forward the interpretation that “power-sharing collapsed because of the Irish dimension.”[14] Within that he argues that Faulkner and his divided party were exploited by the British and Irish governments to enshrine unpalatable terms into the Agreement, the ramifications of which were that “the Irish government did not deliver its share of the settlement and as a result the Northern Ireland prime minister was unable to sell the package to the unionist community.”[15]

The other major talking point of the Sunningdale Agreement which aroused Unionist opposition lay in the issue of security and policing policy. Faulkner and his party had hoped for increased powers over extradition, namely the transfer of all terror suspects to Northern Ireland, however the matter’s referral to an inter-governmental commission came as a “significant blow to Faulkner. He had hoped to return from Sunningdale with… a new extradition deal which he could present as political and security gains.”[16] This outcome significantly undermined Faulkner’s position and only harboured further Unionist distrust of his ability to represent the position of Unionism to the British government. On the subject of policing, Faulkner had also failed to come out on top of negotiations, with the failure of mainstream Unionists once again to grasp the importance of the practical over the symbolic. The Council of Ireland was, at the behest of the SDLP, to have a certain degree of power over how the RUC would be run, and while once again the Council would not become as powerful as agreed in principle at Sunningdale, “the mere existence of a council was objectionable.”[17]

In summary, it is surely easy to identify how the events in the months leading up to the Sunningdale Conference fostered the defensiveness and stubbornness of the Unionist community over what was perceived as a continual erosion of their autonomy and control over affairs in Northern Ireland. Indeed, subsequent events such as the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council strike of May 1974 were the physical manifestation of such frustrations. A perhaps poignant note on which to leave a discussion of the first ‘peace process’ would be to draw comparisons to its 1990s successor, the culmination of which was the Good Friday Agreement, with some of its primary architects being vicious opponents of Sunningdale. It was this unmistakable irony which prompted senior SDLP figure Seamus Mallon to describe the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.”[18]

[1] Fitzgerald, G., All in a Life, Gill & Macmillan, 1991, p. 220.

[2] Dixon, P., Northern Ireland: The Politics of War & Peace, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 116.

[3] McKittrick, D., McVea, D., Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict, Viking, 2012, p.96.

[4] McKittrick & McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, p. 98.

[5] Anderson, D., 14 May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974, Gill & Macmillan, 1994, p. 4.

[6] McKittrick & McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, p. 106.

[7] McKittrick & McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, p. 104.

[8] Gillespie, G., Years of Darkness: The Troubles Remembered, Gill & Macmillan, 2008, p. 84.

[9] Anderson, 14 May Days, p. 7.

[10] Faulkner, B., Memoirs of a Statesman, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978, p. 229.

[11] (Accessed 20 January 2016)

[12] Anderson, 14 May Days, p. 5.

[13] Dixon, Northern Ireland, p. 139.

[14] Dixon, Northern Ireland, p. 149.

[15] Ibid.

[16] McKittrick & McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, p. 112.

[17] McKittrick & McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, p. 112.

[18] Dixon, Northern Ireland, p. 267.


Anderson, D., 14 May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974, Gill & Macmillan, 1994.

Bloomfield, K., Stormont in Crisis: A Memoir, The Blackstaff Press, 1994.

CAIN Website, Constitution of Ireland, Accessed 20 January 2016;

Dixon, P., Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Faulkner, B., Memoirs of a Statesman, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.

Fitzgerald, G., All in a Life, Gill & Macmillan, 1991.

Gillespie, G., Years of Darkness: The Troubles Remembered, Gill & Macmillan, 2008.

Loughlin, J., The Ulster Question Since 1945, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

McKittrick, D., McVea, D., Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict, Viking, 2012.