Direct rule in Northern Ireland

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A NICRA pamphlet claiming that Direct Rule would change little in Northern Ireland

By the spring of 1972 the violence in Northern Ireland was out of control. Enlarged by new recruits and emboldened by public support, the Provisional IRA escalated its deadly campaign against British soldiers, Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) volunteers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers. Loyalist paramilitaries also grew in size and became more active, attacking Republican and Catholic targets. And while Loyalist and Republican paramilitary units battled each other, they also battled against other factions within their own movement. Civilians were often caught in the crossfire of these political, sectarian and internecine battles, with scores of innocent bystanders killed or wounded. Day after day, week after week, the number of fatalities climbed higher. Internment, the government’s attempt to curtail paramilitary violence, did nothing but increase public support for the IRA and other Nationalist groups.  When the Provisional IRA detonated a car bomb in Donegall Street, Belfast on March 20th 1972, killing seven people and injuring 150 more, Northern Ireland appeared at the brink of anarchy. Prime minister Brian Faulkner petitioned London for broader powers to deal with paramilitary violence, including authority to reassemble the much-loathed ‘B Specials’. Instead, the British government took matters into its own hands by placing Northern Ireland under Direct Rule.

On March 28th 1972 the British parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. This legislation gave the British government full control over major policy decisions, security matters and the justice system in Northern Ireland. Executive government in the Six Counties was dismantled; the office of the prime minister of Northern Ireland was abolished; the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont was dissolved. In their place, Westminster appointed a British MP, William Whitelaw, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Significant policy decisions relating to Northern Ireland would be made in London and handed down by Orders in Council. The people of Northern Ireland would continue to be represented by their elected members of the British parliament but they would no longer enjoy their own assembly or executive government. In theory, Direct Rule was intended to be a temporary measure, initially for 12 months. It was intended to stabilise and calm the political situation and provide solutions to end sectarian violence. In practice, Direct Rule in Northern Ireland would last another 35 years.

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The UDA’s standard containing the Red Hand and the motto ‘Who shall separate us?’

In Northern Ireland itself, responses to Direct Rule varied. A few Unionists welcomed the move but the majority considered it both unnecessary and dangerous. Supporters of Faulkner and the Unionist government felt betrayed, believing that political autonomy had been snatched from their hands. For some, the imposition of Direct Rule was evidence that Republican paramilitaries had succeeded in making Northern Ireland impossible to govern. Many Unionists became paranoid about their future. Despite British assurances that Direct Rule was temporary and the status of Northern Ireland would not change, the Six Counties seemed to many to b a state of political limbo. Future attempts to restore self government would probably involve compromises to the Nationalists, even a power-sharing government. Young Protestants, uncertain about their future and stirred by political rhetoric and propaganda, were driven into Loyalist groups. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a paramilitary organisation formed in 1971 to defend Loyalists from Nationalist violence, grew markedly in this environment of political instability.

The Nationalist response to Direct Rule was also mixed. Some moderate Nationalists welcomed it, on the basis that removing Unionists from positions of power in Northern Ireland might bring segregationist and discriminatory policies to an end. Republicans and militant Nationalists, however, were strongly suspicious and critical of Direct Rule. Radical groups like the Provisional IRA portrayed Direct Rule as Westminster’s first step towards assuming complete control of Northern Ireland. In reality the British government imposed Direct Rule as a last resort. The Heath government was alert to the potential problems of assuming control, however by early 1972 it had lost confidence in Faulkner and his bullish and often provocative approach to security issues. Fearing that Northern Ireland might turn into its own Vietnam, Westminster took control of Northern Ireland with a measure of reluctance. Direct Rule was first mooted in 1971 but as late as February 1972 government sources were still describing it as a “last resort”. The decision was only made after another round of talks between Brian Faulkner and the Heath government broke down in mid-March.

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A memorial to victims of a Loyalist bomb in Ballymurphy in May 1972

While reactions to Direct Rule varied across the political divide, the outcomes on the ground were more certain. The imposition of Direct Rule ignited an increase in Unionist paramilitary violence against Catholics, which itself fed a cycle of violence and tit-for-tat killings. By April 14th 1972 the Provisional IRA was on the attack, detonating 24 bombs across Northern Ireland and instigating violent gun battles. Less than a month later Unionist paramilitaries bombed a Catholic pub in Ballymurphy, a Catholic area of Belfast, an event which triggered a series of violent shootouts. Although the Official IRA declared a ceasefire in May, other Republican paramilitaries ignored this and stepped up their campaigns. On July 21st, later dubbed ‘Bloody Friday’, the Provisional IRA set off 22 bombs across Belfast, killing nine people. The most chilling evidence for the failure of Direct Rule can be found in the number of fatalities. In 1972 alone 467 people were killed, the highest number of any year in the Troubles.

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1. On March 28th 1972 the British government, led by Edward Heath, imposed Direct Rule in Northern Ireland.
2. The Stormont executive and assembly were dissolved and Westminster took control of the province.
3. Direct Rule was imposed due to the worsening security situation and a breakdown in talks with Stormont.
4. Though it was intended to a temporary, Direct Rule would last more than 37 years, until mid 1998.
5. Responses to Direct Rule were mixed. Most Unionists regarded it as a lack of confidence and a betrayal of their own government. Radical Nationalists and Republicans opposed it as an act of aggression by a colonising power. The imposition of Direct Rule had no impact on the level of civil disorder and paramilitary violence. These continued to increase through 1972, which was the deadliest year of the Troubles.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Direct Rule in Northern Ireland”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],