SUNNINGDALE: the search for peace in Northern Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Royal Irish Academy,
ISBN 9781-908997647

By Cillian McGrattan

Cillian McGrattan lectures in Politics at the University of Ulster.

Former Irish senior civil servant Noel Dorr revisits the increasingly well-furrowed ground of the Sunningdale period (1973–4) in this autobiography-cum-history. Although Dorr’s perspective on events was rather limited at the time owing to his being on the margins of negotiations and policy direction in the Dublin government’s public relations arm, his memory is supplemented by his own notes and a thorough excavation of the Irish state papers.

This is important, as his aim is to set the record straight on the Irish state’s role. He frames that role as the fostering of a peaceful settlement to what he calls the ‘Northern Ireland problem’. The Irish were successful in this by moving London towards a ‘deeper understanding’ (p. 49), thus establishing the foundations for the talks process leading to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. His central argument is that while the Sunningdale initiative

‘… marked an important turning point in the approach of both the British and Irish governments to the problem of Northern Ireland … ideas and concepts that were developed around the time of Sunningdale—on issues such as power-sharing and north–south relations—remained relevant and some were drawn on as building blocks [in 1998]’ (p. 4).

More specifically, Dorr points to the September 1971 summit between Lynch, the Ulster Unionist leader and Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner and the UK premier Edward Heath. For Dorr, this marked the

‘first explicit public acceptance by a British prime minister that, beyond facilitating cross-border security cooperation, the Taoiseach and the Irish government had a part to play at the political level in relation to Northern Ireland … it was the first step on a new path’ (p. 117).

As Dorr goes on to point out, ‘I did not see the full picture’ (p. 338), and his thesis cannot hold without a degree of wilful blindness. Firstly, for a historical path to unfold, a specific trajectory has to be held in place—once-viable options become redundant and meaningless as time passes owing to institutional lock-in or perhaps preference-based buy-in. Dorr does not specify how this ‘new path’ was constructed. The direct-line version of history he opts for ignores obvious stumbling blocks such as Ulster unionism or impasses in later inter-governmental relations. Examples of the latter are numerous: the hunger strikes; the Falklands war; border security cooperation. Even during the 1990s peace process arguments occurred over decommissioning or the nature of consent in the 1995 Frameworks Document.

Dorr on unionism is perhaps even more instructive of a certain ideological disposition. ‘[W]hile unionist fears were important’, he avers, ‘and rightly needed to be taken into account, they were still only one aspect of the complex problem of Northern Ireland’ (p. 222). At one level this is almost a truism: a redundancy that seeks to cover bases. Nevertheless, the admission itself belies Dorr’s belief that in conceding ground on the principle of consent (that the people of Northern Ireland—or Ireland (see p. 355)—ought to have a say over any constitutional change) Dublin had made real concessions and taken real risks for peace. A little more attention to the secondary literature on this issue might have suggested a rethink. Had Dorr taken longer than the two years he purports to have set aside (p. 467) to explore that literature, he might have found that many of the documents he uses have already featured in more nuanced analyses.

Or he might have taken a little longer to ruminate on the nature of his project, for hints at the fissure in his understanding are ever-present—and no more clearly than when he writes of his former colleague Eamonn Gallagher. Unlike elected representatives, the ethics of mandarin autobiography are not simply a case of settling scores; their job was, after all, not to make decisions but to provide advice. Yet there seems to be a kind of responsibility that attaches to that provision—a drafting that prioritises the methodology of source criticism. In this regard Dorr avoids the question of whether it was problematic for Gallagher to cultivate contacts in Northern Irish nationalism (particularly John Hume and the SDLP (p. 66)) beyond his brief. And, although he argues that Lynch had begun to turn away from the ‘hard-line’ advice of Gallagher by ‘mid-1972’ (p. 152), the strongly confrontational anti-partitionist path—to borrow from Dorr’s lexicon—had been laid down and made its presence felt, not least in Northern nationalism.

Dorr’s book connotes something in the Sunningdale period itself in that it’s something of a missed opportunity. It feels hastily put together and is littered with repetitions: the Irish government was ‘not … well organised’ with regard to Northern Ireland (p. 2); it was ‘poorly prepared’ (p. 36) and ‘ill-prepared’ (p. 37); it was ‘not well organised at the time to deal with the new demands the Northern Ireland issue was to make’ (p. 41). Dorr was ‘relatively junior’ (p. 2), ‘relatively low-level’ (p. 37). More careful editing might also have excised the Santayana cliché (p. 10).

Apart, then, from the personal reminiscences, which decline as the text proceeds, and his contemporaneous notes, Dorr’s book adds little to the existing literature. The Royal Irish Academy, however, ought to be congratulated on its publication, representing as it does an insight into an emerging narrative of self-exculpation on the part of the Southern Irish political class regarding its role in the Northern conflict, supported by the unsubstantiated notion that Britain somehow evolved in its thinking on the matter.


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