Category: Archive

’74 archive: British pondered leaving North

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

However historians and political junkies are currently poring over previously classified British and Irish documentation that makes clear that such a scenario was being seriously considered by the British and Irish governments in 1974.
Documents, now revealed to the public under the 30-year-rule, show that British Prime Minister Harold Wilson wanted to get out of Ireland within four years, leaving Northern Ireland as an independent dominion within the British commonwealth.
Wilson, presumably overwhelmed by the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement at the hands of loyalist mobs, was seemingly ready to abandon the unionists. Wilson, restrained by his own departmental staff from going forward, had little time for the unionist cause.
In a memo labeled “top secret,” Wilson outlined what he called a “doomsday” scenario to senior British civil servant Robert Armstrong, saying that the British government should look to transfer sovereignty from London to the North.
“After that,” he wrote, “[unionists] are out on their own and have not got a prescriptive right to standards higher than those of the South.
“It is one possible scenario, and I have a feeling that parliamentary and other pressures may drive us to pretty early consideration of it. On the political situation, reactions suggest that power-sharing is an objective we must continue to proclaim.”
However, he added: “The press and an increasing number of MPs will soon be telling us that the emperor has no clothes.”
Comparing the British government’s control over the North to that of a “eunuch,” Wilson said: “any action unacceptable to the [Ulster Workers Council] and their political associates . . . as soon as their constituents have got over the effects of the recent strike, we are at their mercy again.”
Warning against “panic withdrawal,” he suggested: “If we can in some way remain in control of the situation, we can perhaps work out a more coherent scheme, with a built-in time scale and possibly some guarantees — or at least sanctions protective to ourselves.”
He went on to envisage negotiations with unionists to ensure the protection of Catholics within an independent Northern state. “Negotiations would have to ensure that dominion status would not be granted without the provision for protection of the minority in terms of civil rights, human rights and constitutional rights,” he said.
However, Wilson’s private secretary, Lord Bridges, rejected the option, instead suggesting that repartition might be preferable. He said it would remove “Catholic enclaves,” bringing about the end of military commitments.
Bridges believed that Catholics could be convinced to move with economic “inducements.” It was also believed that the very threat of repartition would be enough to force Northern unionists to share power with nationalists.
Later, a British Foreign Office draft memo outlined problems that could arise from a British withdrawal. Among them, “the chance of violence among the large Irish communities in England and Scotland”; “the effect on Scottish and Welsh nationalists”; United Nations intervention; and the chance that the new troubles in Ireland might disrupt the British balance of payments.
“The most important international repercussion of disengagement from Northern Ireland would be its effect on Britain’s standing as an ally, borrower, and political and trading partner” when Britain was “more than ever dependent for the achievement of her foreign policy objectives on foreign cooperation'” the memo said.
Not surprisingly the Northern Ireland Office opposed Wilson’s line of thinking. A memo to Downing Street from Belfast said: “If there is to be withdrawal, the aim must be to hand over to an established government. But, given the likely situation, a power-sharing government could not be constructed, and to hand over to a loyalist coalition would be an encouragement to early civil war. To do this would create a double burden of criticism for the UK Government to bear.”
The Irish government, meanwhile, was busily drawing up contingency plans for the swift repartition of the North in the event of a partial British withdrawal.
Civil servants in Dublin foresaw three distinct possibilities: small transfers of parts of South Armagh and Derry to the Republic, the transfer of most of Tyrone, Fermanagh, South Down, South Armagh and Derry; and the repartition of the North along the line of the River Bann.
Most interestingly, Dublin estimated that the price of repartition or complete British withdrawal would not be as costly as widely feared.
Dublin mandarins believed that the loss of British financial support would not be “as catastrophic” as previously thought, as much of the slack would be picked up by the European Economic Community of the time.
The Irish Department of Defense, meanwhile, estimated that the cost of looking after 100,000 refugees from the North would eventually be

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