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The Cabinet Papers Taoiseach, British P.M. at odds over ’68 clash

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

Following the violent clashes between civil rights marchers and the RUC in Derry on Oct. 5, 1968, Taoiseach Jack Lynch and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson strongly disagreed about the cause of the problems in Northern Ireland, secret files released for the first time reveal.

Lynch said that the basic cause of the situation was partition and he expressed the government’s concern about the batoning of the marchers, which resulted in 50 people being hospitalized.

Wilson dissented and said that “banging the drum” would only make conditions worse than they were and would be of little help to the taoiseach’s “co-religionists,” whose problems he recognized.

The Labor prime minister said the events were within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, but they were nevertheless a matter of concern to the British government.

Wilson also brought up the question of the safety of the British ambassador in Dublin and Lynch promised to look into it.

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The two premiers met privately in the House of Commons on Oct. 30 and the confidential note taken by London Ambassador J.G. Molloy is included in a file labeled “Religious Tolerance in Ireland” released by the National Archives Office.

Briefing notes for Lynch’s discussions prepared by his officials recommended that he urge Wilson to drop the convention that precluded discussion of Northern Ireland affairs in Westminster.

It was the “greatest single step capable of early implementation,” the note said. Britain, not Belfast, bore international responsibility for the North and human rights abuses there, it stressed.

It was the first meeting between the two leaders and Lynch sought reform of local government voting and in particular gerrymandered constituencies and wards in places like Derry.

“It is these political evils which permit the discrimination in housing and jobs,” the briefing note stated. “The taoiseach’s aim should be to have the underlying disease cured rather than to have some of the symptoms relieved.”

The briefing note says Unionist spokesmen had seen the problem as social rather than political.

“A crash program in housing, therefore, might be the answer from the Unionist point of view rather than a remedying of the underlying political injustices which enable them to perpetuate their power,” the note said,

It says that people in Derry have a “feeling of hopelessness” about the situation and those who denied them fair democracy “must bear the responsibility if despair should drive them to violence.”

Lynch’s officials suggested he seek a Royal Commission to redraw electoral boundaries and try and persuade Wilson to bring financial pressure on Northern Ireland premier, Capt. Terence O’Neill.

The note urges that “at a suitable point in the discussion the taoiseach might remind Mr. Wilson that, since he became prime minister, the North must have cost the British Exchequer a half a billion pounds.”

The file shows the Government came under a lot of pressure from nationalist and republican groups, particularly in the U.S., after the Derry clashes were shown worldwide on TV.

There was also widespread anger at home and Lynch’s ministers and backbenchers were also coming under pressure from constituents about RUC brutality.

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