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, violence in Northern Ireland was out of control. Emboldened by new recruits and growing 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 became more active, attacking Republican and Catholic targets. 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, the number of fatalities climbed higher. Internment, Stormont’s attempt to curtail paramilitary violence, only increased support for the IRA and other Republican groups.  When the Provisional IRA detonated a car bomb in Donegall Street, Belfast on March 20th 1972, killing seven people and injuring 150 more, the country seemed on the brink of anarchy. Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner petitioned London for broader powers to deal with paramilitary violence. Instead, Edward Heath’s Conservative government took matters into its own hands and Northern Ireland under Direct Rule.

London takes control

Direct Rule was imposed by the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, passed by the British parliament on March 28th 1972. This legislation gave the Westminster full control over major policy decisions, security matters and the justice system in Northern Ireland. The executive government in the Six Counties was dismantled; the office of the Northern Ireland prime minister 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 affecting 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 would no longer have their own assembly or executive government. In theory, Direct Rule was intended to be a temporary measure, initially for 12 months. It was imposed to stabilise and calm the political situation and provide solutions to end sectarian violence. In practice, however, Direct Rule in Northern Ireland lasted for 35 years.

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

In Northern Ireland, 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 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 political status of Northern Ireland would not change, many believed the Six Counties was in a state of political limbo. Future attempts to restore self-government would probably involve compromises to the Nationalists or a power-sharing government. Young Protestants, 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 Republican violence, grew markedly in this environment of political instability.

Imperialist takeover or last resort?

Nationalist responses to Direct Rule were also mixed. Some moderate Nationalists welcomed it, believing that the removal of Unionists from power 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 an imperialist takeover, Westminster’s first step towards assuming complete control of Northern Ireland. In reality, Direct Rule was something of a last resort. The British government was aware of the potential problems of assuming control but had lost confidence in Faulkner and his bullish and sometimes provocative approach to security issues. Fearing Northern Ireland might turn into its own Vietnam, Westminster took control with a measure of reluctance. Direct Rule was first mooted in 1971 but government sources were still describing it as a “last resort” in February 1972. The final decision was made after 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 political reactions to Direct Rule varied, the outcomes on the ground were more certain. The imposition of Direct Rule ignited an increase in Unionist paramilitary violence against Catholics, which itself fuelled a cycle of violence and tit-for-tat killings. On April 14th 1972 the Provisional IRA escalated its campaign, 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, triggering a series of violent shootouts. The Official IRA declared a ceasefire in May but the Provisional IRA and other Republican paramilitaries 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.

direct rule key points

1. On March 28th 1972 the British government, led by Edward Heath, imposed Direct Rule in Northern Ireland, dissolving its government and taking control.

2. Direct Rule was imposed due to the worsening security situation, declining confidence in Brian Faulkner and a breakdown in negotiations with Belfast.

3. Direct Rule in Northern Ireland was intended to be temporary, for an initial period of 12 months, however, it would last more than 35 years.

4. Responses to Direct Rule were mixed. Most Unionists regarded it as a betrayal of their government, radical Republicans as an act of imperialism.

5. The imposition of Direct Rule did nothing to quell civil disorder and paramilitary violence, with 1972 by far the deadliest year of the Troubles.

direct rule sources

James Chichester-Clark responds to the imposition of Direct Rule (March 1972)
NICRA responds to the imposition of Direct Rule (1972)

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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],