British government policy post 1974
Learning slowly between Sunningdales?
in Sunningdale, the Ulster Workers’ Council strike and the struggle for democracy in Northern Ireland
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This chapter seeks to examine the impact and legacy of the failed Sunningdale initiative on British policy in Northern Ireland. At a superficial level British policy towards the problem oscillated markedly in the 25 years between the Sunningdale and Belfast/Good Friday Agreements. The approach of seeking to build a power-sharing devolved government with a strong Irish dimension proved unattainable in 1974. Over the subsequent years the British appeared to toy with: Irish unity; full integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom; devolution without an Irish dimension (or indeed much power to share); and a variant of joint authority with the Irish government without power-sharing in Northern Ireland, before returning successfully to the Sunningdale model in the late 1990s. This chapter will question the reasons for this oscillating approach. Was it a result of a disillusion with Sunnningdale amongst British policy-makers; a reflection of their pragmatism; a desire to insulate wider British politics from the Irish question; or an indication of a lack of ideological commitment and interest in Northern Ireland in wider British political circles? Drawing on the available archival sources, and interview data from British policymakers, the chapter will argue that it was not slow learning that delayed the ‘return’ to Sunningdale for the British, but the realities of events on the ground in Northern Ireland and the political attitudes of those involved in the conflict. The British were key players in this conflict but their ability to control events and outcomes was severely limited. Sunningdale represented what the British believed would be the most acceptable solution to the problem in 1973, but the conditions were not conducive for almost a quarter of a century.

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