Why Was Stormont Dissolved in 1972?

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  • Topic: Northern Ireland, Belfast, The Troubles
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Why was Stormont Dissolved in 1972?

Eighty- seven years have passed and partition within Ireland still remains the island’s defining feature. Since the six county country of Northern Ireland was formed under the umbrella organisation of the United Kingdom in 1921, Northern Ireland has experienced two periods of its history that are so extreme in their differences. For the first fifty or so years of Northern Ireland’s existence the situation between both sides of the community, the Protestants and the Catholics was peaceful and there was very little hostility or violence between them. Northern Ireland was essentially governed by peaceful co- existence as the government at Stormont ruled with relative ease. However, towards the late 1960s, the history of Northern Ireland changed, as what was to become the darkest period in the country’s short history, ‘the Troubles’, ensued between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the community and threatened to destroy Northern Ireland. In a period that lasted around thirty years, Northern Ireland became a war zone, characterised by bombings, shootings and sectarian violence as the two communities fought to defend their beliefs and protect one another from the so- called ‘other side’. However it is the first three years of ‘the Troubles’, from 1969- 1972 and the dissolution off Stormont that will be the focus of this essay. The dissolution off Stormont in 1972 ended fifty years of Home Rule in the province and led to over two decades of Direct Rule from Westminster. But why was Stormont dissolved in 1972? In this essay I will answer this question but it is important to note that there is no single reason why. The dissolution off Stormont was a multi- causal event brought about, by what I see, as five key causes; the failures of the Unionist Government to reform and control security; the formation of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and its escalation of violence; Internment and the subsequent PIRA backlash; the formation of the UDA and its systematic killing programme and finally Bloody Sunday and its aftermath. The failures of the unionist government’s to provide sufficient reform, satisfying to both sides and their failure to control the security situation within Northern Ireland from 1969- 1972 was an important factor in the eventual dissolution of Stormont in 1972. During the latter part of Terence O’Neill’s premiership the failure of unionism was on the cards, even then, as his attempted ‘five point programme’ of reforms was greeted with scepticism by both unionists and nationalists “and the Paisleyites were fired by what was seen as a concession to militant pressure…while others- as events demonstrated- saw only a mixture of weakness and begrudgery.”[1] In February 1969, O’Neill’s failure to secure an indisputable mandate showed that the collapse of unionism was beginning to develop because as he suggested, “old prejudices were too strong for people to break out of the mould of sectarian politics once and for all,”[2] His successor James Chichester- Clark inherited what was a difficult situation, that became worse during the marching season of 1969. The failure of the unionist government to successfully control security and the devastating riots, which spread to Belfast following the annual Apprentice Boy’s demonstration in Derry in August, showed just how incapable they were of protecting the people of Northern Ireland and forced Chichester- Clark to request the support of the British army.

“This was a humiliation, and it underlined the failure of the Stormont administration to deal with either the political or the policing challenges of the popular uprising that was occurring: the decision added a military dimension to the complete financial dependence of the regime on London, and thus paved the way for direct rule.”[3]The army was a last desperate measure and although welcomed by Catholics at the beginning, the GOC Lieutenant- general Sir Ian Freeland warned...
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