In January 1974, while the institutions of the Sunningdale Agreement were newly formed, co-founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, close friend of Ian Paisley and leading barrister, Desmond Boal QC, announced his support for an end to the union with Britain and the creation of a federal Ireland.
At the time unionism was badly divided and traumatised. Less than two years previously in March 1972 they had lost Stormont at the stroke of Edward Heath’s pen.
Then in June 1973 elections were held to the new power-sharing government under the Sunningdale Agreement giving seats in government to the nationalist SDLP and a role in the affairs of Northern Ireland to the Irish government within the Council of Ireland. While pro-agreement unionists won a majority of unionist votes (36% of total vote), a substantial number of unionists voted against (24%).
Simultaneous to Boal’s announcement about a federal Ireland, Brian Faulkner, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Chief Executive (First Minister) of the new Northern Ireland government, resigned as unionist leader, further destabilising unionism as well as the fragile new administration.
The proposal of a federal Ireland was not new. It had been first mooted by Provisional Sinn Fein in 1971 under the title, Éire Nua. The proposal was for four regional assemblies based on the four provinces of Ireland – Ulster (nine county), Leinster, Munster and Connacht – and a federal government in Dublin.
This made Boal’s proposals all the more unusual. He appeared to be advocating an Irish republican strategy.
Boal’s response to this was blunt:
“So what? I can see no reason in principle why one should reject a theory, if it is otherwise unexceptional, simply because one’s political foes appear to be going in the same direction – particularly if it could conceivably lead to the reconciliation of apparently irreconcilable extremes.”
He was similarly blunt when challenged about the potential a federal Ireland had for breaking the union:
“…it involves a break in the union with Britain. Of course it does. But we have just got to understand that the connection is at this moment in the process of being broken….
“….sentimental attachment to Britain has recently evaporated even to be replaced sometimes by bitterness and hostility.”
Boal was clear about his aim:
“to educate [northern Protestants] into an understanding of how their essential interests may best be served by the creation of [a federal Ireland]. Then to negotiate our way into it as a united and informed community from a position of strength.”
Boal’s idea of a federal Ireland differed in one significant way from Sinn Fein’s. He wanted the boundaries of the northern region known as Northern Ireland, to remain unchanged from partition: unlike Sinn Fein who wanted the old nine county boundary of Ulster to be reinstated. This would give Catholics a majority in the northern parliament.
Boal made no bones about his motives :
“I am concerned fundamentally with the Protestant community……..a provincial parliament as the guarantee of our essential liberties and social values whose preservation we would secure simply by being a majority.”
To Boal’s way of thinking this would preserve majority rule in Northern Ireland. Something that the British had removed under the Sunningdale Agreement. He believed that an end to the union and Irish unification would assuage Catholic opinion and end republican violence; something he believed that Sunningdale could not do.
Surprisingly the UVF gave guarded support to Boal’s proposals:
“At present we are totally powerless. Effectively we are in a united Ireland, but we have no voice. Dublin has a say over what we do and there is nothing we can do about it. But a federal solution, with our own parliament, there would be a Protestant majority and a guarantee of our religious liberty being maintained.” (Belfast News Letter 8 January 1974)
- Would Irish nationalists have compromised on the definition of ‘Ulster’ and allowed Boal his six county majority rule for the sake of ending the union and obtaining the longed for united Ireland?
- Would northern Protestants have compromised and come to a power-sharing arrangement with northern Catholics within a federal Ireland that would have taken the edge off ‘majority rule’?
With the benefit of hindsight in the long run it wouldn’t have mattered because of the demographic shift since 1974 giving Catholics a slender majority by 2020..
- However Boal did not press his case. He had already resigned from the DUP and having dropped his bombshell, he left public life to pursue his lucrative legal career becoming one of the UK’s leading barristers.
Ian Paisley distanced himself from Boal’s proposals. But he did not excoriate Boal, in contrast to his behaviour with so many others who had transgressed unionist orthodoxy in his view. Boal and Paisley remained close friends. Boal would still help Paisley behind the scenes.
- He met Harold Wilson with Paisley later that same year during the UWC Strike.
- In 1976 he facilitated secret talks between Republican and Loyalist armed groups. The talks broke down when they were exposed by Conor Cruise O’Brien anxious to prevent a coming together of the working class in Ireland.
- In 1986 he got DUP Deputy Leader, Peter Robinson out of an Irish jail for his invasion of Clontibret.
Incredibly, and without a touch of irony, the friendship ended when Paisley went into government with Sinn Fein in 2007 with Boal later declaring without a hint of irony,
“I could never accept what he did going into government with so many of those guys I defended in court. No I cannot accept that, I will not accept that.” (Eamonn Mallie, 25 April 2015) [my emphasis]
Boal never spoke to Paisley again. They died within six months of each other.
The rest of unionism at the time described Boal’s proposals as ‘mad’.
Events very quickly conspired to remove the focus of Boal’s unease – the Sunningdale Agreement – when the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike caused the collapse of the institutions and a reintroduction of Direct Rule. The danger of a united Ireland and domination by Catholic Dublin receded in Unionist minds and with it the soul searching that had prompted Boal’s ‘blue sky thinking’.
UDA advocate an end of the union
The only other unionist proposal for radical change involving the end of the union came after the failure of the second loyalist strike in 1977. The failure of this attempt to regain control convinced many working class unionists that it was no longer possible or even desirable to return to the old days of majority rule in Stormont. The UDA’s ‘Beyond the Religious Divide’ in 1979 was the work of several loyalists, who unlike Boal had no university education or legal training.
The New Ulster Political Research Group drafted a blueprint including a detailed Bill of Rights and written constitution for what they saw as a compromise between Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism – an agreed independent Northern Ireland.
Initially there was widespread media interest. John Hume gave it some tacit support, but the unionist establishment worked to bury it. By the time of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 the idea was dropped by the UDA due to the failure of the idea to achieve any significant public support.
Since then unionism or loyalism has advanced no new ideas: content to repeatedly react to events. Unionism was overtaken by the Hume-Adams talks which led ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998: a proposal that split unionism and caused the demise of the once monolithic Ulster Unionist Party.
Given that the north of Ireland finds itself once again without any local accountability and in a period of prolonged political stalemate and instability is there any merit in either of these proposals?