A Failed Hope for Peace
By 1972, Northern Ireland was in chaos: the body count from paramilitary violence was rising daily, British soldiers were patrolling the streets, and the entire state was divided along seemingly unbridgeable social lines. The British government, faced with governing this mess, began proceedings to restore Northern Ireland home rule on more stable grounds.
It was a gargantuan political puzzle. Negotiators had to bring together Catholic and Protestant politicians who were increasingly at each other's throats. They had to find some way to neutralize the paramilitaries without actually asking them to the talks. And they had to include the views of the Republic of Ireland and England, who had still not exorcised the ghosts of their own dispute from fifty years before.
An Attempt to Compromise
Despite these tough conditions, the negotiators ironed out an agreement in December 1973 in Sunningdale, England. The principal point was the restoration of Northern Ireland home rule, with power shared between Catholics and Protestants. It called for the creation of a Council of Ireland to promote cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The English agreed to release political prisoners and reform the RUC, while the Irish agreed to suppress the IRA and to scale back their claims to Northern Ireland. People hoped that the compromise agreement would lay the ground for lasting peace.
No Compromise Here
Sadly, it was not to be. Unionist groups felt that the arrangement ceded too much to Catholics. The Ulster Workers' Council, a working-class Loyalist group, called a general strike in Belfast that lasted for thirteen days. The strike — and the paramilitary violence that accompanied it — brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. The local government decided to withdraw from the Sunningdale Agreement. The United Kingdom concluded that if it couldn't reform Northern Ireland, it would try to contain it. For the next two decades, Britain treated the Troubles as primarily a security problem with the IRA.