The UWC strike and the two Westminster elections of 1974 destroyed the assumption on which British bipartisan policy had rested since at least the introduction of direct rule in 1972. This was that there existed a ‘moderate majority’ for compromise, and that unionist and nationalist ‘extremists’ had little popular support within their communities, but relied on intimidation to impose their will. The sweeping success of the loyalist coalition in the February 1974 General Election and the popular support for the UWC strike exploded the myth that, on the loyalist side at least, the ‘moderate silent majority’ were coerced by a small group of ‘extremists’ who had no popular support. It was not until the Hunger Strikes of 1981 that the extent of the Provisionals’ popular support became obvious. Having defied Britain’s attempts to ‘impose’ a settlement, there was now a widespread expectation in Northern Ireland that the Labour government would live up to its threats and withdraw. This period established the parameters of British policy towards Northern Ireland. Why did Britain not withdraw after the collapse of power-sharing? What explains Britain’s ‘pro-unionist’ policy between 1974 and 1979? Why did Mrs Thatcher abandon the unionism of the Conservatives’ 1979 manifesto and sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985? To what extent has British policy towards Northern Ireland been constrained and therefore characterized by continuity?
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