Ciaran MacAirt. Writer. Raider.

1971: Missed Opportunities and Ceding the Maiden City

Whilst researching the McGurk’s Bar Massacre within British Governmental and military archives, I discovered secret documents that give a startling insight into how the British élite actually viewed the worsening situation in Northern Ireland in late 1971.

Document 1: Central Policy Review Staff (30th September 1971)

Sourced from the National Archives, Kew

Shocking facts emerge, as early as September 1971 and so soon after the introduction of Internment without trial: the British Cabinet think-tank, the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) chaired by Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, believed that:

  •  “Past policy in Northern Ireland is in ruins” (page 7)
  • Northern Ireland could become their “Vietnam”

“Northern Ireland is the joker of the pack. Is it an exaggeration to say that it could be the United Kingdom’s Vietnam? A new initiative is imperative, well before 1974-5” (page 12)

  • Northern Ireland was one of their greatest policy failures in the first 15 months of Government

“The notable failures [of the Government’s first 15 months of office] have been in respect of… Northern Ireland” (page 12)

Document 2: Northern Ireland Policy Group (1st December 1971) Page 1 | Page 2

Targeted under the Freedom of Information Act

3 days before McGurk’s Bar Massacre (1st December 1971) the powerful Northern Ireland Policy Group (NIPG) which included the Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Carrington, debated political initiatives to offset the violence. They admitted:

  • “The key issue was what to do about Stormont which could not go on in its present state”
  • “The minority in Northern Ireland should have an active permanent and guaranteed role “
  • “A government commission should be established to ensure that Catholics have a fair proportion of Government jobs right up to the top”
  • BUT that “This would be unpalatable to Mr. Faulkner” so there “must be some blunt talking with Mr. Faulkner and a revision of the spirit even if not necessarily of the exact terms of the Constitution”

Interestingly too, this document also records “speculative discussion” about espousing one Reverend Ian Paisley to “help polarize political division in Northern Ireland on other than religious grounds and so start a new movement in Irish politics”. This foreshadows the break-up of the monolithic Unionist Party and the emergence of the DUP as leaders today.

Document 3: Northern Ireland Policy Group (22nd December 1971) Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

Targeted under the Freedom of Information Act

Three weeks later on 22nd December the transfer of powers under direct rule are discussed by the Northern Ireland Policy Group. This is an astounding archive and not only because we can now reflect how Northern Ireland descended into hell in 1972. The Northern Ireland Policy Group admits that:

  • The support of the police force and top civil servants had to be secured.

“It would be important to have the support of the RUC and of the senior Northern Ireland Civil Servants in any imposed solution”

  • “Whatever solution was arrived at it would be necessary to consider the position of Londonderry separately” (see attachment nipg22.12.71#2)

As for the deteriorating Derry situation which reached its nadir the following month on Bloody Sunday, the Northern Ireland Policy Group admits:

  • “The revival of community and commercial life there would only be possible with the support of the Dublin Government and of the Roman Catholic hierarchy”
  • “There was no incentive for the IRA to give up its position there since its control of the Bogside and Creggan areas was based not on physical intimidation but on its generally good administration”

Ominously, considering what happened when 1 Para was unleashed in the Bogside, the NIPG warns that “any attempt by the Army to take over control of the remainder of Londonderry would involve a fight against the people and would set back hopes of a political solution”. The powerful NIPG had a simple, startling solution to this thorn:

 “One solution to this is to re-draw the Border along the line of the River Foyle”

History books have told us that Britain had considered ceding the South Armagh bandit country. Here we have proof that the cession of the western bank of the Foyle, including much of Derry City, was on the table too as early as 1971 as it was proving so problematic.

Contextual Review

These secret documents were sourced in the National Archive files or targeted under the Freedom of Information Act. Together they offer an invaluable, historical insight into high-powered British policy and Government decision-making as Northern Ireland slides into the violent abyss of 1972. So dire was the situation that they even discussed ceding most of its second city to the Republic of Ireland to help rid of itself of a foe unbowed by military might and special powers.

Indeed, the archives prove definitively that the Cabinet was aware at a very early stage that its Internment policy was in tatters and that it had failed the north in its first 15 months in power. Stormont, they admitted, was a discriminatory Government. Its misrule and the deteriorating situation demanded new political initiatives. Nevertheless, the power-brokers in the Ministry of Defence were aware that the Northern Ireland Prime Minister would prove unwilling to change the sectarian rule of the Unionist block. Therefore, they were prepared to tackle his intransigence bluntly and even woo the firebrand Reverend Ian Paisley to break the Unionist monolith.

All the while, though, they had to be watchful of the sway that the RUC and top brass of the Northern Ireland Civil Service would have over any enforced political solution.

Indeed, the politicization of the police and public servants has an echo in the present. Independent investigations into the partisan relationship between the Office of the Police Ombudsman, the “reformed” Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office have been commissioned. These investigations will cast a cold light on the so-called independence of the statutory body that we have as a safety mechanism against police and NIO interference.

What is most depressing about these documents though is that they embody so many missed opportunities. The political initiatives discussed, if implemented swiftly, may have bought space to find peace. By their own admission, the policy of the Conservative Government, especially Internment, had failed. Their top Ministry of Defence team recognized that Stormont was a Protestant Government for Protestant people and it had to be overhauled for peace to take root. Nevertheless, by the time of the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973, these opportunities were lost for a generation.

Instead we paid a heavy price with the loss of thousands of souls in a war that was to last three times longer that the Vietnam conflict – much longer than the Whitehall élite had feared.

This archive find featured in the Irish News and BBC Radio Foyle on 22nd July 2011.

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