Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Peter Hadden

1969 Cabinet Papers

A new insight into Britain’s role

(Spring 2000)

From Socialism 2000, Issue 6, Spring 2000.
Transcribed & marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

1968 and 1969 were a turning point in Northern Ireland. These years mark the definitive beginning of the Troubles. In 1968 the mass movement around civil rights rocked the political establishment. Civil rights protests were part of a broader wave of radicalisation that saw a big section of the youth – Catholic and Protestant – turn to socialist ideas.

At the same time there was the beginning of sectarian reaction, whipped up by hard-line unionists and encouraged by the failure of the “moderate” civil rights leaders to embrace broader socialist ideas that would have won over the Protestant working class and youth.

The events of August 1969 were a massive setback to the earlier potential for a united movement of the working class. The pogroms against Catholic areas led to an all out confrontation between the Catholic working class and the unionist regime at Stormont. Civil war became a real possibility.

The situation was temporarily defused by the entry of the troops. The August battles also sowed the seeds that would grow into the Provisional IRA. This plus the fact of troops on the streets meant that the essential ingredients of the bloody conflict that was to come were now in place.

Strategic interests

The 1969 Cabinet Papers – for Westminster, Dublin and Stormont – which have just been released, give a new insight into these events. They show three governments desperately, but vainly, trying to keep abreast of a situation rapidly spiralling out of their control.

Most of all they reveal the true intentions and strategy of the rulers of the time. The importance of this is that these intentions were never – and are still not – understood by the main participants in the conflict. In particular the republican movement has always mis-analysed the underlying interests and objectives of the British ruling class. And any struggle based on a misreading of its opponent’s strategy is bound itself to be flawed.

The Provisional analysis has been that the British ruling class have dug in – for imperialist reasons – to hold onto the North, that they have propped up the unionist state in order to do so, that if Britain were to pull the plug Protestant resistance to a united Ireland would crumble. Further, a view still held by many republicans is that the military campaign served a purpose in forcing a change in British policy and the famous declaration the Britain has no “selfish or strategic” interest in holding on to the North.

The reality is very different. True, the British ruling class in 1920 partitioned Ireland and held onto the more industrialised North for “selfish and strategic” reasons. Partition was used to not just to divide the country but also to dissect the working class and stave off the prospect of Protestant and Catholic workers uniting to overthrow capitalism.

By the 1960s British interests had changed. Free trade agreements with the South opened up important new markets. At this point they would have preferred to undo partition and allow an independent all-Ireland state, which they would seek to dominate politically.

The details of a speech made by Harold Wilson in 1967 in Strasbourg have been made available along with the recent batch of government papers. Wilson praises the improved relations between North and South particularly the meetings between the two premiers, Lemass and O’Neill. He mentions his belief that free trade will “help to bring a closer economic unity between the two parts of Ireland”. Drawing the political conclusions from this he states that the “problem” of partition is “a problem for the people of Ireland to solve, and ... no-one will be happier than the people of Great Britain if this problem is solved. I am sure that over the next few years we shall see an intensification of this process of coming together that has begun in the last two or three years.”

This was the true outlook of the British government – and of the dominant section of the ruling class – by the mid to late 1960s. What was said then is not much different than the views contained in the recent Downing Street Declaration, which provided the framework for the peace talks – other than that the difficulties in the way of any eventual aspiration to withdraw are now more clearly understood.

In the earlier period Northern Ireland was not a live political issue at Westminster. It was seen as a political backwater of little relevance or importance. There was little active policy of promoting constitutional change, more a hope that economic change and its reflection in political life might eventually erode the border and that the stagnant backwater might eventually be shunted off and somehow linked up with Dublin. This proved to be a forlorn hope.

Civil rights movement begins

When the civil rights agitation began in earnest in October 1968 there was little sympathy for the unionist position. British Home Office officials that month reported: “there are legitimate grievances in Northern Ireland and it is entirely legitimate that they should be ventilated by demonstration.” As to becomingmore closely involved – with troops for example – the same report comments: “History demonstrates the failure of English intervention in Irish affairs ... The situation is explosive; civil war is not impossible.”

The government instead put pressure on the Unionist government to introduce reforms. A memorandum written by Terence O’Neill in January 69 shows that the pressure of the situation had already penetrated the thick protective walls of Stormont:

“But our loss of prestige, authority and standing since 5th October has already been catastrophic, and in my view the most cold blooded appraisal of the situation shows that in resisting the molehill of reform we are allowing a mountain to fall upon us.”

The O’Neill reforms proved to be “too little and too late”. By the time he penned this memorandum the North was in the throes of the convulsion which followed the attack on the Peoples Democracy Belfast to Derry march at Burntollet. Mounting opposition from unionist hard-liners raised the possibility of O’Neillbeing removed and of a regime hostile to any reform being installed.

In late February 1969 the British cabinet met to survey the failure of its attempts at restoring stability and to consider a range of possible options. The idea of sending in troops was rejected for the time being because of the far-reaching constitutional consequences and the long-term commitment it would entail. A paper presented by cabinet secretary, Sir Burke Trend, put forward an alternative option:

“If we cannot ensure that Ulster will be able to put their own house in order without involving us, should we not try to escape from ... an involvement from which we would find it difficult and expensive to withdraw?”

At the February 26th cabinet meeting Home Secretary, James Callaghan, suggested that direct rule might be an option but also suggested that independence “might be a preferable alternative” in the event of a breakdown of law and order. Far from pursuing a strategy of desperately propping up the unionist state the British government were at this time prepared to contemplate withdrawal. Unlike a few years earlier, when this could be considered against a relatively stable political background, it was now raised in the midst of mounting political turmoil increasingly out of any government’s control.

In such circumstances the curtain of political reality tends to come down very forcefully and very quickly. It was not long before the Wilson cabinet was brought face to face with the fact that the unionist state, which past British governments had deliberately nurtured, could not be peacefully dismantled.

A layer of the population had a vested interest in the state. But even if this stratum could be faced down there was no way round the fact that a capitalist united Ireland offered nothing to the mass of Protestants. The Protestant working class in particular would resist any attempt to coerce them into a state to which they felt no affinity and within which they feared – with justification – that they would end up as a discriminated against minority.

By this time O’Neill was about to be replaced by the ineffectual Chichester Clark and James Callaghan was warning the Cabinet of “a general breakdown in law and order”. The idea of troops was again rejected – the government still had a hopeful eye on the exit door and did not want to take any steps which would effectively bolt it. Wilson told the cabinet that if troops intervened “they would be thought to be doing so in order to maintain the Orange faction in power ... once we were involved it would be difficult to secure our withdrawal.”

Independence was also put to one side. A confidential memo prepared for Wilson on April 29th 1969 warned: “if we withdrew, the regime would be likely to become more illiberal or no regime capable of maintaining law and order would exist.” Fears that the result would be civil war, pressure on the Dublin government to intervene militarily – forcing British re-intervention – meant this issue could not be further considered. The cabinet concluded: “for geographical as well as political reasons we cannot wash our hands.”

Decision to introduce troops

Instead there was a pragmatic approach – press for reforms and hope for the best! All this went sour in August when the immediate threat of civil war led to the decision to put troops on the streets as a “temporary measure”. Wilson and Callaghan had originally thought that if they were to send in troops they would have to take over day to day running of the North – otherwise they would be seen to be policing on behalf of the “Orange faction”.

This idea angered the Unionists, whose threats in response echo the speeches of Carson, Craig and others during the pre-1914 Home Rule crisis. Stormont cabinet secretary H Black wrote to the Home Office warning that direct rule would provoke “a frightening reaction from the Protestant community which could make anything that has happened up to now seem like child’s play: a provisional government might be set up ...”

On August 6th Chichester Clark wrote to Callaghan with what can only be described as a blunt threat of extra parliamentary action if the powers of Stormont were removed:

“I must make it clear to you that the people of Northern Ireland are as determined to have their own Government as the people of the South were from 1919 on; and you should seriously consider the history of how Dublin Castle tried to cope with Sinn Fein at that time.”

Wilson and Callaghan gave way. They acceded to the request for troops that had come from Chichester Clark – and from John Hume and other civil rights leaders, including Bernadette Devlin. Westminster provided troops but they bowed to the Unionists and left Stormont in charge of local affairs.

Britain’s long-term objective of extricating itself from the situation had not changed, but there was no way this could be raised for the foreseeable future. A top-secret memo written by James Callaghan on 11th September still looked to a long-term solution. It attacked the Irish government for its decision to send troops to the border during the August crisis and said of Irish Taoiseach Jack Lynch:

“If he really wants a united Ireland, he must conciliate Protestant opinion; but so far his tactics had done nothing but alarm it. Nevertheless, if there were to be any prospect of a final solution, relations between the North and South of Ireland, and between the South and the United Kingdom must be lifted to a different plane. As things stood at present this was likely to take a long time.”

By the early 1970s the IRA campaign was in full force. Its aim was to force British withdrawal. The fact that Britain had wanted to withdraw much earlier was denied or ignored. So was the fact that Protestant opposition and the very real threat of civil war had taken the idea of withdrawal off the agenda. The irony of the Provisional IRA campaign was that, in antagonising and alienating the Protestant population, it made a British pull out even less possible.

British policy changed to meet the new situation. There was a mix of concessions – removing the worst excesses of the unionist state – in order to woo the Catholic middle class, and repression – brutal military methods – in order to crush the IRA.

Tory and Labour rule

The coming to power of the Tories led by Heath in 1970 coincided with and probably facilitated the greater emphasis on repression. But it would be false to see any real difference between the policies pursued by Labour and the Tories throughout the Troubles. The Labour government from 1974–1979 continued with, and at times intensified, the repression. And under the Tories the preference to step away from direct involvement remained.

Just three months after he introduced internment, Heath, speaking in parliament, described the ambition of Catholics to see Ireland united as “understandable”, adding:

“It is legitimate that they should seek to further that aim by democratic and constitutional means. If, at some future date, the majority of the people in Northern Ireland want unification and express that desire in the appropriate constitutional manner, I do not believe any British government would stand in the way.”

By the mid 1980s Britain’s policy once again changed but not because the IRA campaign forced any rethink. Rather the British ruling class detected a change of heart at the top of republicanism. Recognising the first signs that some republican leaders were prepared to move away from armed struggle the government decided to encourage this line of thought. The policy of exclusion was changed to one of inclusion. Repression was eased and the doors of constitutional politics were opened to people like Gerry Adams. The peace process was born.

The 1969 papers have confirmed the analysis of the real motivation of the British ruling class put forward by the Socialist Party in the past. Because of the excessive secrecy of government we will have to wait a decade and more to see if our analysis of the later changes in British policy are confirmed.

For their part the Southern government were no less alarmed by what was taking place and were petrified in case the mood of revolt which had spread across Catholic working class areas in the North should take hold in the South. Southern cabinet papers demonstrate their concern that socialists and republicans would link up in a new left wing offensive. So with regard to the IRA they decided to promote “an active political campaign” to fragment the organisation so that the “communist element would become discredited.”

It is an overstatement to say that Southern right-wingers created the provisional IRA. It drew its support from the turmoil in the North. But it is the case that the Southern government intervened to encourage its formation and to try to keep it on a right wing nationalist agenda that would divide the working class and push back the ideas of socialism.

Peter Hadden Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17 February 2020