'The Endogenous and the Exogenous' from Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland and the Northern Ireland problem by Paul Arthur (2000)
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The following chapter has been contributed by the authors Paul Arthur, with the permission of the publisher, The Blackstaff Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
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From the back cover:
THE ENDOGENOUS AND
Its return to government in 1974 exposed the myth that British Labour is an anti-partitionist party. True, its 1981 policy document stated that the party had ‘a long and deeply held belief ... that Ireland should, by peaceful means, and on the basis of consent, be united'.2 Yet nothing in the previous decade warranted such a conclusion. We shall see that the policies pursued by the two Labour Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason, between 1974 and 1979 gave no grounds for thinking that the Labour government favoured Irish unity. It was Labour that conceded extra parliamentary representation to Northern Ireland in 1977, a move which was perceived at the time as being integrationist and in line with Enoch Powell’s strategy. Even James Callaghan’s senior policy adviser, Bernard Donoghue, described it as being wrong tactically, politically and ‘in principle as far as the long-term future of Britain and Ireland is concerned, because it misled the Unionists into believing that their long-term future rested on the direct link to London’.3 In fact, Labour and the Conservative Party pursued a bipartisan policy whose roots go back to the 1920s.4 The 1981 statement belonged to Labour in opposition and to the dominance of the left wing of the party. This chapter seeks to explain how successive British governments moved from creeping integrationism to a much bolder Anglo-Irish approach, from an obsession with security - ‘the Cabinet Committee in Downing Street never after 1974 actually discussed Northern Ireland policy: it only discussed law and order’5 - to constitutional innovation. Again we will examine this from the vantage points of Belfast, Dublin and London in the period from 1974 to the early 1980s, and specifically through the eyes of those in government at the time.
The statistics on violence explain why there was such a concentration on security. Figures for deaths, injuries and explosions suggest that the period 1971-5 was particularly frenetic but that the ‘years 1976-7 were turning points in the scale of all violence - not simply deaths - for three main reasons’. The first was improvements in security capability (including intelligence) with a consequential reduction in republican paramilitary activity. Secondly, loyalist paramilitary activity diminished because loyalists had grown more self-confident after the success of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in 1974, and because increased residential segregation meant that fewer easy targets were available. Finally, IRA reorganisation in 1976-7 around a new cell structure led to a reduction in the scale of their activities.6
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the security issue was singularly predominant. Between the imposition of direct rule in 1972 and the emergence of a broader Anglo-Irish approach in the early 1980s there were four attempts at internal settlement: the power-sharing arrangement that lasted less than five months in 1974; the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention which was established in 1975 to consider what ‘provision for the government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there’;7 the Constitutional Conference convened by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, during 1980;8 and an ingenuous scheme for ‘rolling devolution’ devised by his successor, James Prior, which created the Northern Ireland Assembly (1982-6).9 All of these initiatives are now matters of history. All of them failed, and all of them were based on certain assumptions: the status quo ante was void; direct rule was to be temporary; the long-term solution would be based on endogenous, rather than exogenous, factors; and a form of devolution which accepted power-sharing and the recognition of an Irish dimension was the most desirable (British government) option. In that respect successive British governments were not prepared to countenance the discussion of issues such as Irish unity, confederation or negotiated independence. In this chapter we shall follow the debate about the merits of the endogenous and the exogenous which eventually led to a more focussed Anglo-Irish approach in the early 1980s.
LABOUR AND IRELAND
During the 1960s the Northern Ireland Labour Party was ploughing a rich and fallow furrow in an attempt to have ‘class politics’ replace the politics of creed and constitution. The NILP edged matters on by turning Westminster’s attention to the lack of civil rights in the North. Even before the 1964 general election Harold Wilson had committed Labour to reform in Northern Ireland.11 That policy opened up a can of worms which destroyed the NILP and led to the outbreak of political violence. As Home Secretary, James Callaghan met the immediate challenge with energy and sensitivity. And why wouldn’t he? Here was what appeared to be pristine Labour territory - the poorest region of the United Kingdom, with the highest cost of living, highest unemployment and lowest life expectancy: Scotland across the water.12
But even Scotland’s ‘advantages’ were missing. The NILP never won more than four of Stormont’s fifty-two seats at any general election, was poorly organised outside Belfast and only once returned a Westminster MP. Nor could it rely on a strong trade union base. The ‘contracting in’ clause (whereby workers had to sign an agreement to pay rather than abstain from paying a levy to the NILP) was not repealed in Northern Ireland until 1968, almost forty years after Britain. Additionally the trade union movement was part of the partition game since their headquarters were to be found in Belfast, Dublin and London. Callaghan discovered in the NILP a party in poor organisational shape but he was not there as an emissary of Labour. He was there as a government minister concerned with the disintegration of part of the kingdom. Essentially the North was a sideshow; there were few pickings for Labour in Northern Ireland, so the general tendency was to ignore it. There were exceptions. During the time of Attlee’s postwar government about thirty back-benchers formed the ‘Friends of Ireland’ group to work for the establishment of ‘democratic Labour governments in Ireland both north and south with a view to attaining a united Ireland by common consent at the earliest possible moment’.13 Following Labour’s electoral victory in 1964, the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster concerned itself with human rights issues. However, neither group made any real impact.
The reality was that Northern Ireland presented Labour with a major psychological problem. The North did not fit into the wider scheme of things, into the overwhelmingly centralist spirit of the British political and administrative system. In electoral terms three of the five Labour victories in general elections between 1950 and 1979 had depended on the seats won in Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland did not count unless, that is, one recognised its domino effect during the devolution debate of the 1970s. Labour saw this debate as an unnecessary diversion from its egalitarian mission which was best pursued in a centralised United Kingdom. To make too many concessions to Irish nationalism could have a triggering effect on nationalist sentiment in Wales and Scotland. In fact, to remain in office after 1977 the Callaghan government bought unionist acquiescence by increasing the number of Northern Ireland seats at Westminster. So, what to do about Ireland? As Home Secretary, James Callaghan worked on a policy of political incorporation - if the Catholic minority demanded British standards then they should have them. But as the beleaguered Prime Minister he was prepared to contemplate creeping integration. And in the post-Callaghan days of socialist contrition the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) adopted its aspirational Irish unity document. To interpret Labour policy on Ireland we have to veer between the expediency of Callaghan and the lofty rhetoric of the NEC. One is left with confusion and ambiguity.14
That might serve as an apt description of Labour’s first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, who held the post between March 1974 and September 1976.15 He had ‘shadowed’ the post from October 1971 with enthusiasm and concern. And yet his sojourn in Northern Ireland sadly suggests that he was temperamentally and ideologically unsuited for the task. He came to the office in the aftermath of a period of constitutional innovation instituted by the Conservatives. He did not believe that their plans for power-sharing would work, recording in his diary on 27 September 1973: ‘We would have to face up to the fact that the new constitution could not work.’16 He was to describe the Sunningdale talks which led to the powersharing executive as something which had ‘been pushed down the throats of the loyalists’, and as ‘a London/Dublin solution that had ignored the reality of the situation in the North of Ireland and especially the lack of support there for the Faulkner Unionists’.17 The simple fact was that Sunningdale was a Conservative show. Labour would go about things differently. Rees’s deputy, Stan Orme, had already established his credentials with the civil rights movement and the SDLP. Naturally that created problems with the unionist community but Orme hoped to overcome that through the myth of fraternity - Labour, and Labour alone, was at one with the working class. Orme, we are told, ‘fully understood Protestant working-class feelings’.18
It is as if Divine Right had been imposed upon the Labour Party. Perhaps it was this Divine Right that excused Harold Wilson’s inept and insensitive broadcast towards the end of the uwc strike on 25 May 1974 when he complained about Ulster people ‘who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and on British democracy’.19 Perhaps, it excused, too, the forlorn hope that the Trades Union Congress could persuade the striking workers back to the shop floor. And perhaps it was Divine Right that enabled Rees - on one of the rare occasions when wrestling with his conscience allowed him to be decisive and produced a result - to place the blame on others. The Dublin government suffered from ‘the usual lack of understanding of the Protestant working class in the North’; too many members of the power-sharing executive did not behave sensibly; and the RUC ‘was not organized in a way that would have enabled it to respond quickly in the first days of the strike’.20 He does allow that there may have been ‘marginal mistakes’ in the handling of the strike but saw no way of putting down an ‘industrial/political dispute supported by a majority in the community’.21 That begs too many questions. The dispute was industrial only in the sense that the strikers used the withdrawal of their labour from key industries as their most potent weapon. Nor should we ignore the violence - and the threat of violence - which was at the heart of the strategy in the early days of the strike. Rees’s analysis ignores the whole field of intelligence gathering and of contingency planning which we are led to believe is at the heart of state strategy. Fundamentally, it ignores the role of the army.
With the failure of power-sharing successfully behind him, Rees moved on to other matters. First there was the Constitutional Convention with its fail-safe device: ‘If the Northern Ireland politicians failed to find a way through, it would at least show the world, and give a message to the South of Ireland, that the blame did not all lie with the British.’22 Needless to say it did not come within a donkey’s roar of unanimity - and there were those who had their doubts whether that outcome was even intended: ‘I was never sure whether this was intended to be a constructive contribution to a solution or a process of reductio ad absurdum which would legitimise direct rule, or just another hurdle placed there in the hope and belief that Northern Ireland politicians failed to clear it.’23 The Constitutional Convention issued a report in 1975 that Rees (rightly) decided did not command ‘sufficiently widespread acceptance throughout the community ... to provide stable and effective government’ .24 It was reconvened briefly in 1976. Perhaps its real merit was that it dissipated loyalists’ euphoria and their uncompromising demand for a return to direct rule. Thus ended his one foray into constitutional tinkering. He was to devote most of his time to the security question where he achieved his greatest triumphs -or so his memoirs suggest.
The ‘primacy of the police’ was to be Rees’s long-term aim through what became known as ‘Ulsterisation’ and its corollary, ‘criminalisation’. Essentially what these policies entailed was placing the police in the front line, and criminalising the paramilitaries by removing their political status inside the prisons. Rees was convinced that by adopting the line he drove a substantial wedge between the IRA and the minority population as a whole - a claim that was to be sorely tested by the hunger strikes. Simultaneously an attempt was made to restore the status and credibility of the RUG based on a document, The Way Ahead, produced by a committee of senior army, police and intelligence officers in 1975. It was a tentative effort to re-establish a degree of trust between the Catholic community and the police. In the years of most sustained violence, 1970-6, the police had maintained a lower profile as they set about implementing a reform programme after the Hunt Report. The army had borne the brunt of nationalist wrath. In the meantime a greater awareness of ‘professionalism’ and public relations had been inculcated inside the RUG. Finally, the police were to demonstrate their ability to deal evenhandedly with political thuggery in May 1977 in the so-called ‘constitutional stoppage’ led by the DUP and UDA. Decisive political and security leadership defeated this attempt to commit the government to a tougher security policy and to oppose the continuation of direct rule. The stoppage failed because it did not get the support of the UUP or VUPP and, unlike 1974, the power workers refused to support it. In addition the British government stood firm against it.
This twin-pronged approach - Ulsterisation and criminalisation -had certain advantages for the authorities: the use of locally recruited security forces allowed the problem to be presented to international observers as an internal one between conflicting Irish groups, and hence downplayed the role of Britain and the army as part of the equation. It was reinforced by the use of the legal process rather than detention; this emphasised the ‘criminal’ nature of the violence rather than its political element. But it was a policy that entailed high risks because, essentially, it was concerned with managing, rather than resolving, conflict. One area in which the high risks were evident was relations with the republican movement. A ceasefire negotiated between the IRA and the NIC lasted from February to November 1975; yet, despite the ceasefire, more people died from conflict-related incidents in 1975 than in the previous year. To ensure that the ceasefire would hold, a number of incident centres’ (staffed by civil servants on a twenty-four-hour basis) were established throughout the North, and talks were held with Sinn Féin. The incident centres gave Sinn Féin (and the IRA) spurious legitimacy. This arrangement with Sinn Féin appeared to make the SDLP redundant, and added to that party’s unhappiness with Rees over his handling of the uwc strike. Relations between the government and the SDLP (and between the British and Irish governments) were not good.25
In September 1976 Rees returned to London as the new Home Secretary. His reputation had been shaped by his handling of the 1974 strike and his approach to security policy. They complemented each other. Looking back, the Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser at the time, Bernard Donoghue, reflected that ‘when I later discussed the Protestant strike with senior military officers from Northern Ireland they expressed surprise at our precipitate surrender and said that the strike could have been resisted had central government shown the necessary will’.26 That viewpoint was shared by John Hume, who, along with Brian Faulkner, was the real success story of the executive: ‘The greatest factor of all, of course, was the lack of will on the part of the British Government, particularly its Prime Minister, to face up to the Loyalists and instead to adopt a policy of inaction and delay which could only lead to the collapse of the Executive, while absolving itself of any apparent responsibility.’27 We should not underestimate the significance of this opinion. Hume was the real strategist of the SDLP and, following the failure of the Constitutional Convention, his party moved towards what its opponents (internal and external) dubbed the ‘greening’ of party policy; this became evident with the publication of the policy document Facing Reality at its 1977 annual conference in which the Irish dimension was upgraded.28 It was yet another indication that nationalists had lost patience with the endogenous approach. Outside the republican movement, it is difficult to find any winners from the 1974 debacle. It destroyed Brian Faulkner. It exposed loyalist paramilitaries’ limited room for political manoeuvre and heightened their sense of betrayal.29 It deluded the wilder shores of unionism into believing that they were in control: the failure of the 1977 ‘constitutional stoppage’ had a sobering effect on some of them, whereas others had to wait until the collapse of the campaign against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement before they realised that they were no longer in control.
Rees’s successor was Roy Mason, who as Secretary of State for Defence had famously infuriated Rees when he hinted at the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland in April 1974.30 It is known that late in the uwc strike he had ‘counseled against any serious Army involvement in strike-breaking’.31 Mason came to Northern Ireland with two priorities: security and employment - ‘I wanted the whole issue of constitutional change put on the back burner.’32 He inherited a solid’ ministerial team with the exception of Lord Melchett: ‘young, naive and - in the environmental sense of the word - very green, not the type I’d personally have chosen to face the terrorists’.33 Mason himself was small in stature, brusque, opinionated and driven. Bemard Donoghue, who worked closely with him, goes to the essence of the man:
Such a personality had its advantages, as he proved in putting down the 1977 loyalist stoppage - no wrestling with his conscience for this man. In fact he recalls singing ‘Don’t cry for me, Ballymena’ as he flew over the blockaded town on 10 May 1977.35
Mason lived up to his word on constitutional change. Initially he made some attempts at a form of interim devolution through a series of desultory talks with the local politicians. More importantly when the Prime Minister made a firm commitment in March 1977 to increase the number of Northern Ireland seats at Westminster by about five,36 his Secretary of State was perceived by the SDLP and the Irish government as having taken sides. The damage was compounded early the following year when Mason announced in the House of Commons that he had
Finally when he described the SDLP as extremists and the Ulster Unionists as moderates in February 1979 the die was cast.38 When Margaret Thatcher introduced a motion of no confidence in the government the following month Labour lost by 311 to 310. Gerry Fitt voted against the government and Frank Maguire (independent nationalist) abstained. Either could have saved the government.39
Fitt’s vote was not an act of pique. Although he was not to remain much longer as leader of the SDLP he was reflecting a real concern at Labour policy on Ireland - not simply the government’s desire to keep the Ulster Unionists on side but the whole thrust of security policy. Undoubtedly Roy Mason’s demeanour was a problem.40 But it went beyond that. From the outset he had stuck to his declared priorities -his tenure was going to be about security and jobs. His preoccupation with security may have come from his previous incarnation as Defence Secretary, a position he had ‘shadowed’ in opposition. He was to enjoy a good relationship with Lt.-Gen. Timothy Creasey, the General Officer Commanding, and Maj.-Gen. Dick Trant, Commander Land Forces, both appointed to their Northern Ireland postings in 1977. They believed in intensifying undercover operations and in increasing the success rate of court prosecutions by obtaining more detailed intelligence about suspects. Hence the SAS were responsible for ten deaths between 1976 and 1978: seven were of IRA members but three were innocent civilians. The ambushes stopped in December 1978 (and the SAS did not kill anyone again until December 1983).41 After a highly critical Anmesty International report in 1978 about police interrogation procedures, the government asked Harry Bennett QC to investigate these allegations. His report was critical of certain aspects of interrogation methods, and noted that the government had shown little determination to punish the perpetrators of past offences.42 Plain clothes interrogation teams had become an essential plank of security policy: ‘90 per cent of cases coming before the special non-jury Diplock courts result in conviction and 80 per cent of these convictions rest solely on confessions of guilt made during police interrogation’.43 Besides the SAS controversy and the Bennett investigation, Mason also found himself embroiled in allegations of attempting to censor the BBC, for which he remained unapologetic.44
On the day the effectively left office (30 April 1979) Mason announced that a contract had been signed with the Hyster company to build a £30 million factory to manufacture fork-lift trucks. This was the seventh such us investment deal negotiated in an eighteen-month period, bringing total American investment in the North to £550 million. All of this was very welcome news after a sustained period of failure to attract inward investment; yet it could not hide the fact that the policy of economic regeneration had not succeeded. Mason had managed to wheedle extra cash out of the Treasury, but this was spent on ‘propping up the economy rather than strengthening its base’.45 The one enterprise for which Roy Mason will be remembered was the DeLorean project, involving a deal to construct a purpose-built factory on a greenfield site in west Belfast to manufacture a revolutionary sports car. Negotiations were rushed through in a frantic forty-eight days before the deal was announced in Belfast in August 1978. It was an extraordinarily high-risk investment in which the taxpayer paid £23,000 for each job created. Despite warnings from bodies such as the us Securities and Exchange Commission, which had noted seventeen high-risk factors in the project, the contract was signed, and the company prospered for two years. But a collapse in the us market, and a more hard-headed approach by the incoming Conservative government, saw the end of the DeLorean gamble and the return of pessimism to west Belfast. DeLorean was to be another mirage that had held out hope only in the short term.46
When the Conservatives won the 1979 general election there was little indication that a radical initiative would be undertaken. Their manifesto had barely touched on the problems of Northem Ireland, save to stress the policy of defeating terrorism and of maintaining the Union ‘in accordance with the wish of the majority in the Province’. A cryptic reference to future government stated that ‘in the absence of devolved government, we will seek to establish one or more elected regional councils with a wide range of powers over local services’. This policy bore the imprimatur of Airey Neave, the party’s spokesperson on Northern Ireland since 1975 and a close confidant of Margaret Thatcher. His assassination by the Irish National Liberation Army at Westminster on 30 March 1979 robbed the Prime Minister of a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but not, it seemed, a policy. Moreover, the Tories had a comfortable majority in the Commons and could rely on the enthusiastic support of James Molyneaux’s Ulster Unionists. The appointment as Secretary of State of Humphrey Atkins a man without previous cabinet experience or any knowledge of Northern Ireland - seemed to confirm that a period of consolidation was under way.47
The Tories did not worry unduly about the economic situation. However, security was another matter. It came to a head on 27 August 1979 when eighteen soldiers were killed in a carefully constructed IRA ambush near the border. On the same day Earl Mountbatten, a member of the royal family, and three companions were killed by a bomb concealed in their pleasure boat in the Republic. These two incidents ‘brought to a head a crisis which had been brewing between the police and the army’.48 Thatcher was confronted with the army’s desire to roll back police primacy and with the police’s concern about the effect of offensive operations by army special forces. Her solution on 2 October was to appoint the former head of M16, Sir Maurice Oldfield, as security coordinator and to expand the RUC by 1,000. Oldfield’s appointment coincided with the planned departure of the two senior security officers, the Chief Constable of the RUG, Sir Kenneth Newman, and the General Officer Commanding, Lt.-Gen. Timothy Creasey. Their successors, Jack Hermon and Lt.-Gen. Richard Lawson, established a closer rapport and left operational matters to their respective deputies.
For a while it seemed that the security response was yet again dominant. But the Prime Minister found herself moving on the political front as well after the intervention of Speaker Tip O’Neill during the British general election (as we saw in the previous chapter). In November a consultative document that sought no more than the ‘highest level of agreement ... which will best meet the immediate needs of Northern Ireland’ was published.49 Atkins announced that he was inviting the four main parties in Northern Ireland - UUP, SDLP, DUP and Alliance - to a conference to discuss a possible political settlement. The areas for discussion were narrowly circumscribed: debate on Irish unity, confederation, independence or the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was ruled out of order. In addition, Thatcher appointed a high-powered cabinet committee to oversee the process: besides the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it included his two Conservative predecessors (Francis Pym and William Whitelaw), the Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham) and the deputy Foreign Secretary (Ian Gilmour). Clearly the Prime Minister had invested considerable prestige in the exercise, with some commentators comparing it to the negotiations on Rhodesian Independence then going on at Lancaster House.
But that is to exaggerate. It was to be another fifteen years before all the parties had an opportunity to get round the table. Indeed only the Alliance Party endorsed the notion of a conference. The Ulster Unionists considered it a dereliction of the Conservative manifesto and refused to participate. Initially the DUP reserved its judgement before it became an enthusiastic participant - partially, it should be said, as a means to upstage the Molyneaux Unionists. The DUP had been doing well electorally out of direct rule. It had made substantial gains in the 1977 local government elections (despite its role in the constitutional stoppage), and in the 1979 general election it had increased its Westminster representation from one to three. That result was compounded by Ian Paisley’s massive personal vote at the direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, when he topped the poll and John Taylor of the Ulster Unionists came in a humiliating third.
The idea of a conference produced problems for the SDLP. Initially Gerry Fitt welcomed the document but his party balked at the omission of an Irish dimension and refused to participate. Fitt resigned as party leader and was succeeded by John Hume. He had two meetings with Atkins on 10 and 15 December when the Northern Secretary agreed that he would ‘be willing on request, and quite apart from the conference, to have separate meeting with the parties represented at the conference on wider issues’.50 They agreed, too, that the conference was ‘not an end in itself. So the ideas of politics as process and of parallel talks were established, enabling the SDLP to invoke the Irish dimension and to enter the talks. The conference did not succeed. It opened on 7 January 1980 and adjourned on 24 March. In the meantime the government prepared proposals for further discussion in the form of another paper.51 During the Commons debate on that paper in July Atkins spoke of the ‘geographical and historical facts of life’ obliging ‘us to recognise the special relationship that exists between the component parts of the British Isles ... we do improve our chances of success by recognising that the Republic is deeply interested in what happens in Northem Ireland ... there will continue to be a practical "Irish dimension" '.52 That statement was in keeping with the beginning of a new phase in Anglo-Irish relations.
Other matters were exercising the mind of the British government. The most urgent was the prison issue. On 27 October 1980 republican prisoners in the Maze went on hunger strike in protest at their conditions and status. Republicans resented criminalisation. Writing some years later, Gerry Adams cited the Glover report on Future Terrorist Trends53 and a study by lawyers of defendants appearing before Diplock courts on ‘scheduled’ offences to justify the claim that republican prisoners ‘do not fit the stereotypes of criminality which the authorities have from time to time attempted to attach to them’. He insisted that it ‘has nothing to do with any contempt for the "ordinary criminals", who are so often the victims of social inequality and injustice. From Thomas Ashe to Bobby Sands the concern has always been to assert the political nature of the struggle in which the IRA has always been engaged.’54 Generally, the wider nationalist community shared Adams’s belief that the profile of the prisoners was not that of a criminal class.55 And they were aware of a tradition of hunger striking that had already claimed twelve republican lives earlier in the twentieth century. This was to be the culmination of the campaign against criminalisation.
The first hunger strike was called off on 18 December, but a second began on 1 March 1981. The IRA’s leader in the Maze, Bobby Sands, was the first to volunteer. If the prisoners’ demands were not met it was likely that he would be dead by Easter - a secular celebration of destruction and renewal as well as a holy beginning. In fact his hunger strike lasted sixty-days and he died on 5 May. While 4,000 people had marched in support of his decision to go on hunger strike, 70,000 turned out for his funeral. By 20 August another nine republican prisoners had died on hunger strike, and the remainder ended their protest on 3 October. The whole business created deep emotional scars and polarised the community as never before. It threatened to make constitutional nationalism redundant inside Northern Ireland; it caused tremendous tension between the British and Irish governments; and it aroused an inordinate amount of international attention, much of it embarrassing to the Thatcher government. In short it was a disaster.
That is not to say that lessons were not learned. In the name of ‘the people’ and the ‘dead generations’ the IRA sought the moral high ground: ‘In 1976 the British government tried to criminalise the republican prisoners. In 1981 the republican prisoners criminalised the British government.’56 Republicanism underwent a transformation, with the fusion of military and political tactics being underlined by a certain degree of cynicism: ‘the essence of republican struggle must be in armed resistance coupled with popular opposition to the British presence. So while not everyone can plant a bomb, everyone can plant a vote.’57 While on hunger strike Sands had been elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone in a by-election on 9 April under the highly effective slogan of ‘Your vote can save this man’s life.’ It didn’t, and his election agent, Owen Carron, succeeded him at a further by-election on 20 August. Meanwhile nine prisoners contested a general election in the South in June, and two were elected. That was enough to deprive Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fail party of power. Contesting elections became addictive and, according to Gerry Adams, was playing ‘a major role in changing the nature of Sinn Féin’.58 Adams himself was elected MP for West Belfast at the 1983 general election. Sinn Féin had become the largest nationalist party in Belfast, where it held more seats on Belfast City Council, and was narrowing the electoral gap with the SDLP throughout the North.
That sequence of events ran counter to the Prime Minister’s own conception of how the IRA could be beaten. Her strategy relied on three conditions. First, the IRA would have to be rejected by the nationalist minority. Second, they would have to be deprived of international support, which would require ‘constant attention to foreign policy’. Third, ‘and linked to the other two, relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland [would] have to be carefully managed’.59 It could be said that all three conditions were not met. We will examine these more closely when we look at the burgeoning Anglo-Irish relationship in the 1980s and 1990s. But this failure points to a paradox at the heart of Thatcher’s Irish policy. Here was someone who had been prepared to contemplate constitutional innovation but who was ultimately ruled by security considerations. The simplest explanation comes from the former Tanaiste (deputy Prime Minister) and leader of the Irish Labour Party, Dick Spring: ‘Margaret Thatcher knew everything, and above all, she knew that it wasn’t necessary to listen …She was always baffled at the reluctance of Irish ministers to talk about issues like extradition in isolation from political development’ .6O It may be, too, that she suffered in her choice of Northern secretaries of state.
Humphrey Atkins was replaced in September 1981 when he became Deputy Foreign Secretary. He left as he arrived: bewildered. His successor, James Prior, was a real political heavyweight in the mould of a William Whitelaw. Unfortunately, his appointment had more to do with the incipient civil war inside the Conservative Party than with the interests of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister wanted to see the back of a putative rival. In an earlier age he would have been sent to somewhere like New South Wales as a Governor-General. He had been very reluctant to vacate his post as Employment Secretary and took the Northern Ireland job only after he had wrung some concessions from Thatcher: he was allowed to remain on the Cabinet Economic Committee and to install three of his close political friends in the Northern Ireland Office - Lord Gowrie, Nicholas Scott and John Patten. Crucially he did not have the Prime Minister’s support.61 He was beset with problems the moment he arrived: bringing the hunger strike to an end; the DeLorean fiasco and another high-risk venture in the Lear Fan executive jet project; and the murder in November of the Reverend Robert Bradford, Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast, the first MP to be murdered in the IRA campaign. At Bradford’s funeral the Northern Secretary had to endure verbal and physical abuse from a section of the congregation.
Prior decided to make his mark in Northern Ireland by attempting yet again to arrive at an internal settlement. In April 1982 he launched his blueprint, a minimalist plan for devolution based on ‘acceptance’ rather than ‘reconciliation’.62 It had the merit of flexibility and could progress only as ‘cross-community agreement’ was arrived at. In keeping with his previous incarnation as Employment Secretary, his initiative was managerial in style - as opposed to the imposition of Sunningdale and the exhortation of the Constitutional Convention and the Atkins initiative. The first stage was to be the election of a Northern Ireland Assembly in October. The Assembly was to be invested with a scrutiny and consultative role to make direct rule more accountable.
Immediately his ‘rolling devolution’ plan ran into serious difficulties.63 The Northern Ireland Bill was fought line by line by the UUP in the committee stage with the support of about thirty Tory back-benchers. The first amendment, in Enoch Powell’s name, took some twenty hours before a closure motion was successful; eventually it had to be guillotined.64 With the passing of the bill the Ulster Unionist leadership took the view that the price of making the Assembly work - power-sharing - was a price they were not prepared to pay. They need not have worried. While the SDLP and Sinn Féin had contested the Assembly elections, neither party took its seats. The only time that the SDLP seriously contemplated participating was when James Prior threw out the idea of an American-style executive.65 That was unacceptable to the other parties, and the idea died. The Assembly functioned in its own fashion, but long before it was wound up Prior had departed Northern Ireland.
One of the most astute commentators on Anglo-Irish relations asserted at the outset of the experiment: ‘If it fails, public opinion in Britain may finally accept what the Northern Ireland Catholics have argued all along - that a purely internal settlement cannot work. The only alternative to continuing stalemate, violence and economic decline appears to be an enlarged role for Dublin in finding new arrangements. The Loyalists have been warned.’66 Both major parties in the Republic had expressed their reservations about the Prior initiative, and when he persisted with the plan they turned their attention to the SDLP’s proposal (contained in the party’s 1983 election manifesto) of ‘A Council for a New Ireland’. A parallel process to the Northern Ireland Assembly was created and the ‘New Ireland Forum’ was born.
The rapid rotation of governments in the Republic of Ireland - particularly in the early 1 980s - was indicative of a society in transition. We can identify several factors to explain it. The continuing crisis in Northern Ireland placed huge strains on Southern society. Accession to the EEC added to the complexity of domestic and foreign policy. Economic turmoil was yet another. The impact of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 reduced ‘economic growth and led to massive inflation and unemployment throughout the Westem world, and had a particularly strong impact on the Irish Republic, which was almost entirely dependent on imported energy sources’.68 But not all of the economic problems could be put down to exogenous factors. For the first time since the foundation of the state, the 1972 budget deviated from the principle of balancing the books. The chief culprits seem to have been George Colley, the Fianna Fail Minister for Finance in 1972, and Richard Ryan his Fine Gael counterpart from 1973. This profligate tendency culminated in the 1977 general election, in which ‘the politics of the auction house reigned supreme’ .69 Another feature of the times was greater concern with moral legislation, and this caused strains both between and within parties. And finally there was a clash of personalities, particularly that between Charles Haughey and Dr Garret FitzGerald.
A general election in February 1973 brought a Fine Gael-Labour coalition government into office. The Fianna Fail leader, Jack Lynch, had fought the election on the issues of security, Northern Ireland and his own huge popularity throughout the country. Fianna Fail increased its overall vote by just over half a percentage point but lost the election. The new Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, was the son of the first leader of independent Ireland, W.T. Cosgrave. Like his father, he was strong on law and order and deeply conservative - as he demonstrated when he voted against his own government on a bill to liberalise the law on contraception in July 1974.70 His background ensured that he was ‘adamantly opposed, for reasons which have to do with his family political history, to the IRA and unlikely to be swayed from his convictions by any movement of public opinion’.71 He had appointed as his Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Garret FitzGerald, whose father, Desmond, had held the same portfolio in W.T. Cosgrave’s government between 1922 and 1927. In relation to Northern Ireland, the relationship between the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs was crucial.72 Despite earlier tensions between them, Cosgrave and FitzGerald worked well on this sensitive topic. The same could not be said of the relationship between FitzGerald and the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the new coalition, Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien. The latter had coveted the Foreign Affairs portfolio; as a member of the junior coalition party, he was unable to secure that position, but he retained his position as spokesperson for the Labour Party on foreign affairs and Northern Ireland. Inevitably there were clashes - not just between O’Brien and FitzGerald but between O’Brien and the whole of the cabinet.73
The election of the Cosgrave government coincided with Ireland’s accession to the EEC. That led to an expansion in the Department of Foreign Affairs, with the appointment of twenty-nine new third secretaries in 1974 and the opening of new embassies. It has to be remembered just how small is the Irish foreign service. By 1996 it had no more than 246 diplomatic staff, of whom about half worked from headquarters; it had forty-seven overseas resident missions unevenly spread across the globe: ‘In relative terms, the Irish foreign service is of a very modest size’, with the numbers of diplomats remaining fairly static over the previous decade.74 We need to be careful about the precise relationship between the department and Northern Ireland matters. FitzGerald explains that ‘the practice has been that the primary responsibility for matters relating to Northern Ireland rests with the Taoiseach rather than a departmental Minister. The role of the Minister for Foreign Affairs is a supporting one; he and his department provide advice to the Taoiseach and implement policy under his general direction.’75 We are concentrating on the Department of Foreign Affairs for several reasons. Firstly, its personnel were primarily responsible for information-gathering on Northern Ireland. Secondly, Ireland’s membership of the EEC gave Foreign Affairs officials frequent access to their British counterparts, and much Anglo-Irish business was conducted on the margins of European meetings. Thirdly, Dublin placed great weight on using its leverage on the international stage, especially the United States. Fourthly, smallness can have its advantages in that several key personnel gained invaluable experience on Anglo-Irish matters. On the key question of Northern Ireland there was a much stronger sense of continuity in the Irish civil service than the British.
None of that is to deny that there was a sense of frustration in Dublin in dealing with British ministers. FitzGerald records that after a meeting on 1 November 1974 it ‘was a depressed and frankly furious Irish party that left Downing Street that day’; and that he was convinced of ‘Merlyn Rees’s determination to avoid any contact with us’.76 In a review of his time as Northern Secretary Rees mentioned favourably some aspects of security cooperation with the Republic but added: ‘What was lacking was day-to-day co-operation due to the traditional anti-British feeling which still existed widely in the South. I repeated how angry I felt about the pursuit of the Irish state case against us with the European Commission of Human Rights.’77 It was interesting that he singled out security cooperation because, as we have seen, it was a matter of particular interest to Margaret Thatcher. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister she had to do business with Charles Haughey, who succeeded Jack Lynch as leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach in December 1979. There was some apprehension in London that Haughey might be soft on the IRA. In fact he demonstrated his antiterrorism credentials, and political cooperation followed security cooperation with an Anglo-Irish summit meeting in London on 21 May 1980. In the joint communiqué the two leaders referred to the ‘unique relationship’ between Britain and Ireland and promised to engage in much closer functional cooperation.
A second summit was held in Dublin on 8 December 1980 when it was agreed that substantial progress had been made since May in matters of energy, transport, communications, cross-border economic developments and security. Additionally senior officials agreed to undertake joint studies covering possible new institutional structures, citizenship rights, security matters, economic cooperation and measures to encourage mutual understanding. At a third summit in November 1981 (this one involving Thatcher and FitzGerald) an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council was established. During 1982 it met seven times but the relationship had been harmed in the meantime.
Three factors undermined the process. The first concerned different perceptions of the hunger-strike campaign. The Irish sought compromise on humanitarian grounds (if only to avoid polarisation within Northern Ireland), whereas the Prime Minister conducted the debate in terms of a battle between good and evil. Secondly, Ireland’s unilateral stance during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war (after the sinking of the Beigrano) had a catastrophic effect on Anglo-Irish relations during a period when jingoistic feelings were running high in Britain.78 And finally, as we have seen above, further attempts at an internal settlement were also damaging Anglo-Irish relations.
By 1982, then, both the endogenous and the exogenous were in conflict. The next chapter will look more closely at how both governments managed to overcome this hurdle through two distinctive exercises - the New Ireland Forum and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
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