1) The first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under Direct Rule was William Whitelaw. He gathered representatives from then Nationalist and Unionist parties to a conference in Sunningdale, Berkshire. He tried to reassure Unionists that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom, as long as the majority of the Northern Irish people wanted this. He hoped to appease the Nationalists by giving them some control over major decisions in Northern Ireland and allowing the Republic of Ireland a small say in the running of the country.
Following weeks of tense discussions, the ‘Sunningdale Agreement was signed on the 9th December 1973. The terms of the agreement were as follows:
~ A Northern Ireland ‘power sharing executive’ would allow major decisions to be decided by both the Nationalists and the Unionists. This gave both a say in how the country was run
~ Representatives from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland formed a Council of Ireland. They would meet regularly to discuss any issues of concern and to agree on appropriate action.
2) The Agreement was greeted with much hope and optimism amongst moderate Nationalists in Britain and across Ireland. Unionists were totally against any form of agreement that was to lead to joint government with the Catholics and the Republic of Ireland. The IRA maintained that any agreement that stopped short of a united Ireland and the withdrawal of all government from England was totally unacceptable. In the early months of 1974, Brian Faulkner (leader of the Ulster Unionist Party) became increasingly isolated and unpopular amongst fellow Unionist politicians and voters because of his apparent support for the Sunningdale Agreement. Unionists became afraid that the Agreement was the first step to a united Ireland and many simply could not agree to any sharing of power with Catholics. Elections in February 1974 revealed Unionist voters were against the Agreement by a majority of three to one.
In May 1974 increasing hatred of both the power-sharing executive and the council of Ireland amongst the Unionist communities lead to a general strike, lasting two weeks. This strike, organised by the Protestant Ulster Workers Council, resulted in road blocks, demonstrations and power cuts across Northern Ireland. The strike began with little support and might have ended quickly, if it had not been for the intervention of the Ulster Defence Association, who actively encouraged, even pressurised, workers to join the strike. However, by 27th of May, with most of Northern Ireland in standstill, Brian Faulkner and the entire power-sharing executive resigned. Direct Rule from London was reintroduced and the search for a peaceful settlement continued.
3) ‘Sinn Fein is commonly regarded as the political wing and ‘voice’ of the IRA’. In a top secret IRA document known as the ‘Staff Report, the IRA claimed they controlled Sinn Fein and ordered members to ‘agitate around social and economic issues which attack the welfare of the people’. Sinn Fein’s role was to win support for the IRA amongst all Catholics in Northern Ireland in particular. Sinn Fein’s leaders consistently deny that they are the leaders of the IRA, but many of their political opponents in Northern Ireland claimed that the 2 organisations are the same.
4) In the 70’s Sinn Fein did not take part in any elections. Both Sinn Fein and the IRA did not believe the British government would cut its ties with Northern Ireland through agreement. They believed that he only thing that would force the British to withdraw would be violence. However, in the early 1980’s Sin Fein began to change his strategy by entering local and national elections for the first time.
This major decision to enter politics in an attempt to bring about a united Ireland followed a series of hunger strikes amongst IRA prisoners. On 1st of March 1976 all newly convicted paramilitaries lost their ‘special category status’. This meant that they were no longer classified as political prisoners, but as ordinary criminals. This change in status meant that the new IRA prisoners were no longer permitted to wear their own clothes, refuse prison work or associate freely within their prison block. In addition, visiting rights and parcels became restricted.
Against the wishes of its leadership, IRA prisoners began to refuse to wear prison clothing and instead only wore their prison issue blanket. By 1978, some 300 IRA prisoners began a ‘no-wash’ protest that meant that prisoners refused to wash, shave, brush teeth or empty their slop buckets each morning. It was at this point that prisoners embarked on the most unpleasant stage of the campaign with the ‘dirty protest’. IRA prisoners daubed their own excrement on their prison walls in a strategy that successfully attracted world wide horror and ultimately sympathy. The prison authorities responded with forced showers, shaves and haircuts and the cells were disinfected. The IRA went further by embarking on a murder campaign against the prison warders that resulted in the deaths of 19 warders between 1976 and 1980.
By 1980 the ‘dirty protest’, or the ‘battle of the bowels’ as it became known, had begun to lose momentum and instead IRA prisoners began hunger strikes in an attempt to regain ‘special category status’. The first wave of hunger strikes was led by Brendan Hughes in 1979, but failed to alter British policy.
By the end of January 1980, Bobby Sands, leader of all IRA prisoners at Long Kesh Prison, called for a second hunger strike. IRA prisoners were unhappy that their demands for ‘special category status’ still had not been met. On 1st March 1980 Bobby Sands was the first of ten prisoners to go on hunger strike. One month into his hunger strike, Bobby Sands stood as an independent MP in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election, winning a seat in the Westminster convincingly. Sinn Fein and the IRA were certain that Margaret Thatcher would not allow a fellow MP to die. Another hunger striker, Keiran Doherty, stood for and won a County Cavan seat in the Dublin Parliament. On the 5th of May Bobby Sands was the first to die, 66 days into his hunger strike. 100,000 mourners lined the route of his funeral procession.
On the 3rd of October the last of the ten hunger strikers finally died, after 217 days. The strikes had failed to shift British Policy on prisoner status. However, there was now an increased wave of support and sympathy for both the IRA and Sinn Fein, not just within Ireland, but across the world. The public sympathy created by the hunger strikes was not lost on Sinn Fein (led by Gerry Adams), which in the following years set about challenging the Social and Democratic Party (SDLP) as the main nationalist political party in Northern Ireland. The SDLP has consistently condemned the use of violence, and now Sinn Fein and the IRA began moving towards a belief that the solution could be achieve through political agreement rather than through terrorist campaign.