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Pragmatists versus dogmatists: Explaining the failure of power-sharing in Northern Ireland during the 1970s

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This article argues that the failure of Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing executive, and subsequent attempts to restore power-sharing during the 1970s, was the result of conflicting attitudes towards devolution among Northern Ireland’s politicians. Traditional ideological divisions between nationalists and unionists were not the primary barrier to creating and sustaining cross-community institutions, as stressed in accounts of this period premised on consociational theory. Drawing extensively from archival sources, it argues that the split between the pragmatists from both communities, who were prepared to compromise their core principles and accept power-sharing devolution within a UK framework, and the dogmatists (both nationalists and unionists) who refused to contemplate any compromise to their core position, prevented a consensual political settlement emerging during the 1970s.

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  1. McGarry and O’Leary (2006) have themselves highlighted shortcomings in ‘classic consociational theory’, but are ‘critical consociationalists, not anti-consociationalists’ (pp. 249–277).

  2. Consociationalism has also been critiqued for both its conceptual fluidity and tendency to reinforce division rather than promote integration (see for example, Dixon, 2005, pp. 357–367).

  3. Alliance was, de facto, a moderate unionist party that attempted to bridge the sectarian divide. The other non-sectarian party was the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which was pro-power-sharing. However, it attracted even less support than Alliance, an average of 1.7 per cent support in all elections it contested during the 1970s, and failed to make a significant impact in debates about Northern Ireland’s future.

  4. The DUP, by contrast, was unencumbered by the UUP’s anomalous structure, and its policy was firmly under its leader, Ian Paisley’s, control (see Bruce, 2007, pp. 103–105).

  5. ARK, Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention Elections, 1975. Available from: (accessed 1 March 2014).

  6. Faulkner had resigned as UUP leader in January 1974 having lost an Ulster Unionist Council vote on the ratification of the Sunningdale Agreement. However, he remained in post as Chief Executive until May 1974.

  7. There were suggestions, in December 1975, that Craig’s power-sharing proposals were merely tactical. He ‘still wanted the form of government advocated in the UUUC report, but was prepared to accept a voluntary coalition with SDLP for a few years in order to get it’ (see PRONI, CONV/1/ 9, Maurice Hayes to Ian Burns, 5 December 1975).

  8. The motion was opposed by John Hume (see McLoughlin, 2010, p. 82). The Southern opposition party, Fianna Fáil, called for such a declaration the previous year, thus the SDLP policy towards Irish unity was officially more moderate than that of a party in the Irish Republic, (Irish Times, 30 October 1975). Gerry Fitt chided the Fianna Fáil leader, Jack Lynch for advocating withdrawal, claiming Lynch had ‘put himself in the Provisional I.R.A. camp’ in so doing (Irish Times, 3 November 1975).

  9. Fianna Fáil’s ambiguous position towards the SDLP can be seen in their chiding of Jack Lynch for pushing the Irish dimension ‘into the background’ in 1979 (Irish Times, 23 November 1979). There was a gulf between Fianna Fáil’s rhetoric in opposition and their Northern Ireland policy in government. The Irish government’s European Court of Human Rights case against the British government regarding the torture of detainees in Northern Ireland arguably masked covert improvements in British–Irish relations, particularly security, under the 1973–1977 coalition government (Patterson, 2013). And it did not equate to a desire for British withdrawal. It was regarded by the British as an irritant, and difficult to reconcile with Dublin’s largely helpful approach on other matters (TNA, PREM 16/520, North–South security co-operation, minute by ROI department, 10 September 1975).

  10. Dickson replaced Faulkner as UPNI leader, following his untimely death in 1977.

  11. See also Bew and Patterson’s (1985, p. 99) critique of the ‘agreed Ireland’. Their critique is valid at the ideological level, but it ignores the party’s willingness to work within a UK framework.

  12. The following year a briefing note for Atkins, prepared before his meeting with US Vice-President George H.W. Bush, confirmed this was government policy. It stated that ‘The unionists would like us to revive the devolved system – with a permanent unionist majority – which prevailed for 50 years before 1972; but that we will not do, since it would be totally unacceptable to the Catholics’. Likewise, the government was ‘not prepared’ to move towards Irish unity ‘against the will of that [unionist] majority’ (see PRONI, NIO/12/197A, draft note, Vice-President Bush, 3 July 1981).

  13. For a critique, see O’Kane (2010) and Wilson (2010).


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I am grateful to Dr Catherine McGlynn (University of Huddersfield) for comments on an earlier draft of this article, and the anonymous readers for their valuable suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies.

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McDaid, S. Pragmatists versus dogmatists: Explaining the failure of power-sharing in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Br Polit 11, 49–71 (2016).

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