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Mile End Institute

'Assuming full and direct responsibility': 50 years of the Northern Ireland Office

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of 'Direct Rule' in Northern Ireland coming into force, Dr David Torrance explores the advent of The Troubles, the foundations of 'Direct Rule', the dissolution of the old Stormont Parliament and the creation of the Northern Ireland Office. 

Photo of Stormont Parliament with its main gate padlocked during the breakdown of devolution in Northern Ireland
Estimated Reading Time: 6-8 minutes.

The Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972 received Royal Assent on 30 March 1972 and the 51-year-old Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued the same day. William Whitelaw, until that point Northern Ireland Secretary-designate, also collected his seals of office, therefore assuming executive authority from both the Government and Governor of Northern Ireland.

Both Houses of the UK Parliament had sat all night to consider the Bill which, as the future Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees recalled in his memoirs, 'went through Parliament without serious problems'. The only dissenting voices were the Independent Nationalist MP Bernadette Devlin, who said it would deprive Northern Ireland of 'democracy'; the Conservative MP John Biggs-Davidson, who observed that 'government by semi-dictatorial decree' ran counter to increasing demands for devolution in Scotland and Wales; and the Ulster Unionist MP Rafton Pounder, who raged that the House of Commons was legislating for 'the internment of Stormont'. 

The bicameral Parliament of Northern Ireland had existed since May 1921. Essentially Westminster in miniature, for more than half a century a vice-regal Governor had appointed ministers to the devolved Government of Northern Ireland (all of whom had to be members of the Privy Council of Northern Ireland). Parliament, known as 'Stormont' after 1932, comprised a House of Commons and indirectly-elected Senate which could legislate on 'transferred' matters, including law and order.

The foundations of 'Direct Rule' from London

A civil rights march in Derry/Londonderry during October 1968 marked the beginning of the period known as The Troubles. This led to the deployment of British troops as well as increasing intervention from the UK Government. In early 1969, what the historian Alvin Jackson has called the 'foundations of direct rule from London' were laid. Contingency planning included 'a UK minister with full powers to take up residence and direct Northern Ireland affairs' from Stormont Castle - the home of devolved government in Belfast.

Black and White photo of Stormont Parliament from the airIn early 1971, the first of several draft Bills were prepared by Whitehall (all are now at the National Archives in Kew). The 'Northern Ireland (Transfer of Powers) Bill' had four main elements: the transfer of responsibility for law and order from Stormont to Westminster; minority representation in the Ulster Unionist-dominated Government of Northern Ireland; an expansion of the Commons and the reintroduction of PR; and, finally, 'periodic referenda on the border'. 

By March of that year, it had become clear that either the Home Secretary (who had formal responsibility for relations between Great Britain and Northern Ireland) or a new 'Secretary of State for Northern Ireland' would have to take responsibility for law and order in Northern Ireland. On 7 October 1971, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir William Armstrong minuted that the Prime Minister (Edward Heath) was minded towards the second option, although at this stage it 'was not tied to the possibility of direct rule'. 

'The turning point'

Within months, however, relations between the UK and Northern Ireland governments had broken down due to the deteriorating security situation. Brian Faulkner, the third Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in as many years, considered the events of 'Bloody Sunday' on 30 January 1972 to be 'the turning point'. On 17 February 1972, a civil servant conceded that given the existence of similar UK departments for Scotland and Wales, there would be 'little choice' but to call the new Secretary of State's department 'The Northern Ireland Office'.

The UK Cabinet resolved on 14 March to press ahead with the transfer of responsibility for law and order from Belfast to London. Clause 1 of what was now the 'Northern Ireland (Law and Order) Bill' listed everything which was to become reserved rather than transferred. One printed version of the Bill deprived Stormont of the power to ban demonstrations but left it with the ability to prohibit certain publications. 'Is this wise or necessary?' scribbled a UK official anxiously. The ambiguous legal status of British troops in Northern Ireland also tipped the balance towards complete, rather than partial, 'Direct Rule'. 

A week later Edward Heath gave Lord Grey of Naunton, the New Zealand-born Governor of Northern Ireland, an 'outline' of the proposals he intended to put to Brian Faulkner the following day. Grey correctly predicted Faulkner would not agree to the transfer of law and order but assured Heath he would be willing to dismiss his Prime Minister 'if necessary'. Grey added that he might have to 'go through the motions' of seeing if someone else (even the Rev Ian Paisley) was 'willing or able to form a Government'. Intriguingly, Grey went on to say he had 'never accepted' the Home Office view that the Governor was 'entirely without powers'; the 'conventions' regulating relations between the Crown and government in London did not, he claimed, 'apply in Northern Ireland'. 

Thoughts had already turned to the legality of the Governor dismissing a Prime Minister in such circumstances (a note by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales cited Western Nigeria in 1962 as the only precedent). Another draft Bill was prepared and printed, which was intended to become the 'Northern Ireland (Governor's Powers) Act 1972'. 

It all proved academic. When Heath put his proposals to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland on 22 March 1972, Brian Faulkner 'knew then without any doubt that [the Government of Northern Ireland] must resign, and that direct rule had arrived'. He agreed to remain in office, however, until legislation was passed at Westminster so that Northern Ireland should not, 'even for a few days, be without a lawful government'. 

'Prorogued but not dissolved'

On Friday 24 March 1972, Edward Heath informed the House of Commons that the Northern Ireland Government's decision to resign had left the UK Government with: 

no alternative to assuming full and direct responsibility for the administration of Northern Ireland until a political solution to the problems of the Province [sic] can be worked out in consultation with all those concerned.

The UK Parliament, he continued, would therefore be invited to pass, before Easter: 

a Measure transferring all legislative and executive powers now vested in the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government to the United Kingdom Parliament and a United Kingdom Minister. This provision will expire after one year unless this Parliament resolves otherwise. The Parliament of Northern Ireland would stand prorogued but would not be dissolved. 

The 'increased burden' this transfer of responsibilities entailed meant it would no longer be possible for the Home Secretary to discharge duties in relation to Northern Ireland: 

A new Office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is, therefore, being created. My right hon. Friend the Lord President [William Whitelaw] is to be appointed to this office, together with the necessary junior Ministers.

The new Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Office name plate outside its headquarters in London

As The Times observed, the new Northern Ireland Office was to be 'equivalent to the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office, which face each other across Whitehall'. Both those departments had also been carved out of Home Office (in 1885 and 1965 respectively), although the UK's third territorial department was to occupy a few rooms in the Treasury building facing St James's Park rather than a building of its own like Dover and Gwydyr Houses.

On 26 March, a press notice was phrased in a way that took account of the fact the new department was not yet a legal reality. This announced that the Prime Minister intended to recommend further ministerial appointments 'to take effect' as soon as the Temporary Provisions Bill received Royal Assent. The media made much of the fact that the Minister of State-designate, Lord Windlesham (aged 40) was a Catholic from, as The Times put it, 'an old Irish family'. Henry Paul Guinness Channon (36) also, as his name suggested, had close family links with Ireland, leaving David Howell (also 36) as the odd one out given his background in economics and journalism. 

'We are the sacrifice'

On 28 March 1972, both Houses of the devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland debated and passed an adjournment motion. John Brooke, a junior minister and son of Sir Basil, a former Prime Minister, quoted from Rudyard Kipling's poem Ulster 1912. Written in response to the Third Home Rule Act, its stanzas - including the line 'we are the sacrifice' - were the last words entered in the Stormont Hansard. 

A day before his expected resignation, meanwhile, Faulkner attended his final Privy Council meeting at Government House, which was soon to become better known as Hillsborough Castle. He and his ministers spent an hour and a half with Lord Grey, the Governor, and posed afterwards outside his official residence. The Governor's final acts were to grant Assent to three Bills and proclaim the 12th of July 1972 a Bank Holiday in Northern Ireland - a date with obvious resonance for Ulster Unionists.

Page from the Belfast Gazette recording the final Privy Council of Northern Ireland meeting

The following day, 30 March 1972, the Privy Council of the United Kingdom also convened at Windsor Castle, several hours after Royal Assent had been granted to Direct Rule legislation. Present was Sir Peter Rawlinson, now the Attorney General for Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales, and William Whitelaw, hitherto Lord President of the Council but now, having taken the Oath of Office, kissed hands and received the Great Seal of Northern Ireland, the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That day's Court Circular also recorded that Whitelaw 'had an audience of The Queen before the Council'. 

Brian Faulkner's letter of resignation had already been written, but was only despatched to Lord Grey shortly after the Temporary Provisions Act completed its passage through the UK Parliament.

On 5 April 1972, the Northern Ireland Secretary's private secretary wrote to his counterpart at 10 Downing Street to declare that the 'office of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is now open for business'. 'We look forward to hearing from you', he added, 'in moderation'. This light-hearted remark reflected the widespread belief that the Northern Ireland Office and its ministerial chief were but temporary stopgaps until some form of devolution was restored in Northern Ireland.

But while the provisions of the 1972 Act were to expire after one year, they could be extended (via Order in Council) for a period of 12 months. When the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive formed under the Sunningdale Agreement foundered in April 1974, a similar extension clause in the Northern Ireland Act 1974 was activated, as it was annually for the next quarter of a century. Even after devolved institutions were finally restored in 1998-99, the Northern Ireland Office and Secretary of State remained, not least to provide continuity during the periods of instability which continued to be a hallmark of devolved government in that part of the United Kingdom.

Dr David Torrance is a Researcher and Constitutional specialist at the House of Commons Library and a Visting Researcher at the University of Westminster. His most recent publication is 'Standing up for Scotland: Nationalist Unionism and Scottish Party Politics, 1884-2014. 



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