Lesson 1: 1972-1974 Direct Rule & Power Sharing

Lesson 1: 1972-1974
Direct Rule & Power-Sharing

This lesson looks at how Bloody Sunday and the escalation of violence that resulted on the streets led to the suspension of Stormont, the imposition of Direct Rule by the British Government and an unsuccessful attempt to develop a power-sharing devolved government between nationalists and unionists.


1972 was the bloodiest year of the conflict with 479 people killed and almost 5000 injured. In the years leading up to 1972, violence in the North had begun to escalate. In the midst of the civil rights campaign, tensions between nationalist protestors and the unionist state began to boil over. These tensions led to some of the fiercest rioting the North had ever seen in the summer of 1969, which in turn led to the introduction of British soldiers to restore order. The formation of the Provisional IRA (following a split in the Republican Movement) and the use of British soldiers by the unionist state government to impose tough security measures saw the conflict escalate in 1970. In August 1971 the British Army began to imprison suspected IRA members without trial. This policy, known as ‘internment’, saw a further increase in recruitment and support for both the Provisional and Official IRA and many protests across the state; the largest of which took place in Derry in late January 1972.


Why might internment have been controversial?

Bloody Sunday

On 30th January 1972 an anti-internment march organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association gathered in Derry. The week before a similar protest was attacked at Magilligan Strand in County Derry by the Parachute Regiment. At 2.50pm the march moved off from Central Drive in the Creggan Estate, taking an indirect course through the Free Derry area (a no-go area for the police and British army at the time) to gather further participants along the way. At approximately 3.45pm the march, barred from entering the city centre by the same battalion of the Parachute Regiment who had been at Magilligan, turned right into Rossville Street in the heart of the Bogside to hold a meeting at ‘Free Derry Corner’. Nevertheless, a small section of the crowd moved off towards the Parachute regiment barricade on William Street where a small riot broke out between them and the soldiers. As the riot was continuing an army sniper shot and injured two protestors at the rear of the march as it arrived into the Bogside. By 4.05pm, following the firing of tear gas, rubber bullets and a water canon, most of the stone throwers had retreated back into the Bogside with the expectation that the soldiers would conduct an arrest operation at the edge of the area and then retreat back into the city centre, as was the case during most riots during the period. Instead, the soldiers advanced into Rossville Street and began to open fire on the marchers. In total thirteen people were shot and killed, with another man later dying of his wounds; seventeen were also injured. (See Perspectives 1).

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of events the official army position, supported by the British Home Secretary in the House of Commons, was that the paratroopers had reacted to gun and nail bomb attacks. Eyewitness accounts denied such events. In fact no British soldiers were wounded by gunfire or reported any injuries. Similarly there were no bullets or nail bombs recovered at the scene to support their claims. On 2nd February, a funeral service for the thirteen victims at St. Mary’s Chapel in Creggan was attended by thousands of mourners. Later that evening the British Embassy on Merrion Square in Dublin was burned down. The day before the funerals, British Prime Minister Edward Heath had announced that there would be an official enquiry undertaken by the British Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery. The report took ten weeks to complete and supported the actions of the British Army on that day. It was not until January 1998 that a re-examination of the events was commissioned to reinvestigate the events of Bloody Sunday. The ‘Saville Inquiry’ was published on 15th June 2010 (See Perspectives 2). It concluded that all victims were unarmed and were unjustifiably killed by British soldiers. Reaction: The events of Bloody Sunday and its aftermath led to increased hostility towards the British Army, a surge in membership and support for the Provisional IRA, and an increase in the scale of violence on the streets. It was clear that the Unionist Government was losing control of the situation as violence increased.


Why might Bloody Sunday have led to a surge in growth for the IRA?

Direct Rule

On 24th March 1972, in a move that outraged Unionists, British Prime Minister Edward Heath announced that the North was to come under Direct Rule. This meant that the state would be run directly by the British Government. Direct Rule came into effect on the 30th March with William Whitelaw appointed as the new British Secretary of State. It was intended as a temporary measure until new governance structures were devised for the North.


Why might unionists have been outraged at Direct Rule? How do you think nationalists viewed it?


The new system proposed by the British Government to replace Direct Rule was Power-Sharing (see Perspectives 3). This was designed to end one-party rule and ensure that the new government structures would include both nationalists and unionists. The SDLP, the Ulster Unionist, and the Alliance Parties all signed up to the proposal, which would also see elections to a new Assembly held under proportional representation to help ensure that both main communities were fully represented. The new Assembly was also to include an ‘Irish Dimension’ which would allow politicians from both the north and the south to discuss issues of common concern. Nevertheless, the British Government would still be in ultimate control and also hold separate responsibility for security and justice. The British Government hoped that power-sharing would give a sense of inclusion and recognition to nationalists which would in turn reduce support for the IRA.


What key problems did the British Government hope that Power-Sharing would help to address?

Reaction to Power-Sharing

The election to the power-sharing Assembly took place in June 1973 against a backdrop of ongoing violence on the streets. There was unease amongst many Unionists at the proposal for an Irish Dimension. Nevertheless, as the detail of this element was not finalised when the election took place, Ulster Unionist party Leader Brian Faulkner won a majority of support for the deal from the unionist electorate. Whilst a majority of nationalists supported the proposals, republicans remained opposed as the agreement provided no mechanisms to allow a united Ireland to be achieved.


Why might unionists have been outraged at Direct Rule? How do you think nationalists viewed it?

The 1973 Election

The election saw the Ulster Unionists win six Ministries, the SDLP secure four and the Alliance Party one. Brian Faulkner was elected as Chief Executive of the new power-sharing Executive with the SDLP’s Gerry Fitt as his Deputy. However the election saw a split emerge in the Unionist Party between those who supported power sharing and those who didn’t. With the Executive in place, attention turned to the thorny area of the Irish Dimension. This was the main area of opposition for Unionists, many of whom resented the idea of the Republic of Ireland having any influence or role in the governance of the North. Many were concerned that the Irish Dimension risked paving the way to a united Ireland in the future, with figures such as Ian Paisley emerging as leaders of the anti power-sharing lobby and warning against any relationship with Dublin.


Why might Unionists be concerned about ‘the Irish Dimension?’


The discussions to finalise the Irish Dimension were held in Sunningdale, England, in December 1973. They saw the Executive agree to the formation of a Council of Ministers with seven Ministers each side of the border appointed to develop north-south co-operation in areas of mutual interest, and the creation of a 60 member Consultative Assembly drawn from both the Assembly and Dail Eireann. The Sunningdale Agreement was explained to Unionists by Brian Faulkner as the Republic of Ireland’s government conceding that the North of Ireland was part of the UK and subject to British Rule. It was explained to nationalists by Gerry Fitt as giving the Republic a voice and influence in governing the north. Loyalists and many other Unionists reacted with fury. They saw the Irish Dimension as a direct threat to the Union (see Perspectives 4). Loyalists announced they would use whatever means necessary to oppose Sunningdale. For republicans, Sunningdale was a partitionist settlement, which legitimised the border and the Northern state whilst providing no mechanism to allow for Irish unity to be achieved. The IRA still believed during this period that a military victory, which would lead to withdrawal by the British state, was possible and therefore had no interest in any alternative governance arrangements for the North, which would involve the British government.


In this context, Sunningdale was probably doomed to failure from the start. Unionist anger grew and Brian Faulkner was forced to resign as Ulster Unionist Party Leader in January when his party voted to reject the Agreement. Nevertheless he remained as Chief Minister of the Executive. The Executive continued its attempts to govern in the face of ever-increasing opposition from the wider unionist population. Eventually, the Ulster Workers Council, an anti power-sharing coalition of trade union members, paramilitaries and hardline political figures, called a series of general strikes in May 1974. This cut key supplies of fuel, food and other provisions that paralysed much of the North. Added to this civil unrest, loyalist paramilitaries also detonated bombs in Dublin and Monaghan which killed 34 people and injured a further 300. On 28th May Brian Faulkner resigned as Chief Minister and the power-sharing experiment collapsed. The British government now imposed Direct Rule for the second time in three years. Direct Rule would remain in place for the next twenty five years until devolved Government was restored in 1999 under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement.



"This Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday and bloody it was. It was quite unnecessary. It strikes me that the Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder.”
Major Hubert O’Neill, coroner and retired British Army Major, 21st August 1973.


"But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."
British Prime Minister David Cameron, 15th June 2010.


"It is in the hearts and minds of the people of Northern Ireland, and not just in the aims of Government or the words of Acts of Parliament, that the capacity for working and living together must flourish. For the ultimate truth is that the people of Northern Ireland need each other, and that to squander their great talents in bitter conflict is to diminish the prospects of them all. It is the profound wish and hope of the United Kingdom Government that this fundamental truth will be recognised."
William Whitelaw, The Future of Northern Ireland, 1973.


"I say to the Dublin government, Mr Faulkner says ‘hands across the border to Dublin’. I say, if they don’t behave themselves in the South, it will be shots across the border!"
Ian Paisley responding to Brian Faulkner signing the Sunningdale Agreement, 1974.

Learning Activities

Create a timeline of key events from 1972-1974 and write your thoughts on how both nationalists and unionists might have viewed each event.

Digital Task


Students will create a movie or digital story (images and audio) of at least 30 seconds which details what power-sharing was supposed to achieve, and why it failed in 1974.

Students will research images (and if possible audio and video) and information from the internet which will be used in their movies. 



Information will be sourced from the internet and designed in the form of a storyboard.

Students will be supplied with search terms by the teacher and source appropriate images, videos, audio and information from the internet – ask students to consider the reliability and objectivity of the information they find.

Students will identify and select information to use and save it appropriately in a dedicated folder with a meaningful filename (this may be images or quotes that helped them to write their script).

Students will keep an account of the sites they have visited in a saved document.           

Students will use the information and media they have sourced and construct a storyboard for the making of their movie.



Students will import the various media items they sourced from the internet. Using their storyboards as a guide, students will construct their movie using various editing tools (Splitting, Trimming, Transitions, Effects and Captions/Titles). Students will complete their project by exporting it in a suitable file format (e.g. WMV/MP4).

Encourage students to consider the size and style of fonts, the size of images, the effects/transitions used and the tools available to them within the software package.

Remind students to save their work in a dedicated folder with an appropriate filename.



Give students the opportunity to view each other’s work. This may be done by viewing selected pieces of work or students may circulate the room.

Taking other students' feedback into account, ask students to justify their choices and decisions, including any difficulties they encountered in the creation of their movie file. This may be completed in the form of a saved document.

Explore Lesson 2: 1975-1981