A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.
Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).
Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.
On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.
This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.
The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.
To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times.
Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment.
There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C.
His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.