State Papers – 1977: Lack of recognised leader creates political vacuum in the North

THE North was in a virtual political vacuum throughout 1977, as there was no single recognised political leader within either the Nationalist or Unionist communities. The Dublin government had a twin policy designed primarily to ensure the British protected the rights of the minority in the North and encouraged agreement on a power-sharing basis.

“Northern Ireland is probably as far away from a settlement as ever,” the Department of Foreign Affairs informed the cabinet in January. “This has inevitably led to a significant element of disillusion with the democratic political process.” Leadership in both communities was fractured.

On the unionist, or loyalist side, people like Harry West, James Molyneux, Ian Paisley, William Craig, Ernst Baird and even Enoch Powell were vying with one another.

The Catholic community was almost as fractured between Republicans, the Westminster independent MP Frank Maguire, and the SDLP, divided itself.

Gerry Fitt was the SDLP leader, with John Hume as deputy, but Seamus Mallon was calling for the British to declare intent to withdraw from the North.

The Cosgrave government viewed this as a recipe for civil war.

An SDLP conference only narrowly defeated a motion backed by Mr Mallon that was critical of Dublin’s policy and advocated calling on “the British government to declare its intention of withdrawing” from the North. The motion was defeated by 26 to 24, only after a recount.

After the SDLP met with Northern Secretary Roy Mason, the Deputy Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office informed the Irish Ambassador in London he had “never seen Paddy Devlin in more restrained form. He [Devlin] didn’t utter a singly four-letter word throughout.”

On April 19 Ian Paisley announced the United Unionist Action Council was launching a campaign to restore Stormont and exterminate the IRA.

The UUAC called a general strike similar to the Ulster Workers Council strike that brought down the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974.

Dr Paisley was seen as the main leader of the UUAC, which was backed by at least six Loyalist paramilitary forces. The strike began on May 3 with the twin aims of restoring majority rule at Stormont and compelling the British army to launch a significant offensive against the IRA.

A public opinion poll conducted by the BBC found the strike had the support of only 15% of the people of the North, while 78% were opposed to it. There was massive intimidation, especially against power workers, but two thirds of them continued to work.

The UUAC’s comparatively small support evaporated when a Protestant bus driver and a UDR soldier were killed in the intimidation on May 10.

The strike, which was called off on May 13, was an utter failure, but no political progress was made during the remainder of the year. Unionists would not hear of power sharing with Nationalists, while the latter were unwilling to accept anything less.

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