Remembers the mid seventies, his time on the run and looks critically on how the British interpreted moves and shifts in Provisional IRA policy. Interesting he notes that a major weakness of the SDLP at the time was its reliance on other parties, a weakness he believes still hampers the party to this day. The only reference to recent events: the observation, that for the party the political struggle remains a long war!By Danny Morrison
Last week the official, or rather some of the official, British and Irish government documents were released under the ‘thirty-year rule’.
1974 was the year of the short-lived Sunningdale power-sharing executive; the Ulster Workers Council strike when unionist so-called parliamentarians and loyalist murderers joined forces; the Dublin and Monaghan car bombings; the capture of IRA escapee Brendan Hughes with an alleged plan to raze many parts of Belfast; the burning of Long Kesh prison camp; the Birmingham pub bombings; and the IRA Christmas ceasefire which in 1975 became an extended truce and a major bone of contention within the Republican Movement.
1974 was also the year that Michael Gaughan died on hunger strike, and that four young people convicted of the 1973 Old Bailey bombing – Dolours and Marion Price, Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly – went on hunger strike demanding repatriation and were subsequently force-fed for 206 long and gruelling days.
The papers touch on many of those issues and more, and are of forensic interest for their insights into the contemporary thoughts, recollections and perceptions of various protagonists. Of course, one has to appreciate that the authors were hardly guided by the hand of God and had their own views and prejudices which could interfere with their assessments; or they wrote with an eye to history and how they would be judged.
Papers covering the day-to-day workings of the executive have gone missing, presumably because of what they expose more about unionists than nationalists, in relation to the issues of giving and taking and the difficulty that giving represents even now to unionists.
The papers of most interest to me are those dealing with the SDLP, the Dublin government and the IRA. I, a mere 21-year-old cipher, and 64 other internees, including Harry Burns and Freedom O’Neill, now deceased, had just been released from Long Kesh by Secretary of State, Francis Pym, ironically as a gesture to the SDLP. I was out about three weeks before the Brits raided Iveagh Parade looking to re-intern me.
Whilst the SDLP were calling for the release of internees in the North, in the South, according to the Irish documents, this ‘human rights’ party were putting major pressure on Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrove’s coalition government for a security crackdown on republicans as a gesture to Chief Executive Brian Faulkner to appease his unionist constituency!
Thus, on January 3rd the Garda arrested 15 IRA suspects in Dundalk and Monaghan. The operation turned out to be a fiasco and had the opposite effect on unionists when all bar one of the men had to be released almost immediately for lack of evidence.
On January 16th Brian Faulkner met Cosgrave and said: “The apprehension of a prominent IRA man like Martin McGuinness would do more to satisfy Northern Ireland people than anything else.” So, McGuinness was arrested in Buncrana on 11 February 1974 and sentenced to a year imprisonment.
Much of Dublin’s assessment of the SDLP came from Sean Donlon of the Department of Foreign Affairs, an individual with whom the SDLP have never taken issue. He reports that Austin Currie and Paddy Devlin believe that their party leader Gerry Fitt (and deputy chief minister of the executive) has become too close to Faulkner in a relationship which was working mainly to Faulkner’s advantage. Paddy Devlin also felt that Faulkner’s complaining that he could not get support from within his Assembly party to endorse the Council of Ireland dimension of the Sunningdale Agreement was largely contrived, in order to force nationalists to grant unionists more concessions.
Regardless, on the day that the Agreement was formally endorsed in the Assembly the UWC announced its general strike which eventually forced the collapse of the power-sharing experiment. After the collapse Donlon reports SDLP morale to be at rock bottom and that the party believes that there has been a massive swing of support away from it towards “both wings of the IRA”. Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin report that they now had “no support” in Belfast.
John Hume said that there was no brand of unionism present or on the horizon that would be prepared to share power with the SDLP. SDLP members believe that their policy should now be to call for a British withdrawal, but Hume opposed this in case the party became too associated with the IRA.
What comes across in these papers is the utter dependency of the SDLP on others, a major flaw which continues to this day.
In the British papers Secretary of State Merlyn Rees writes that the SDLP would have to come to terms with reality instead of hankering, as they were inclined to do, after “an English Nanny” who would do their bidding.
British state papers blame the collapse of the power-sharing executive on the continued IRA campaign and the Republic’s constitutional claim over the North, but not on the inherent hostility within unionism to recognising nationalist rights. That continuing attitude is, of course, the main reason why our current political process remains in a morass, though the reality of it is masked by sideshow allegations of enduring IRA activity.
In the middle of the UWC strike Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson ordered civil servants to draw up papers for a Doomsday Scenario under which Britain would withdraw from the North, or ‘disengage’ and redefine its relationship which might involve granting the North some form of quasi-independence.
The plans – which appalled civil servants – were short-lived, were rubbished by the British ambassador in the USA, shocked Dublin (who didn’t want Britain to leave the North, despite all the rhetoric) and were also meant to force unionists into pragmatically looking more favourably at power-sharing as the long-term lesser evil.
Wilson’s ideas were half-baked but were later recycled and presented to the leadership of the Republican Movement as a work-in-progress, with some success. (“Such disengagement could be called ‘withdrawal’ for the purpose of negotiating with the Provisionals”, wrote Rees.)
When the IRA called a ceasefire in Christmas 1974, I, like many others on the run, was glad of the break and that we could relax. We had heard about the meeting between republican leaders and senior Protestant clergymen at Feakle in County Clare which had preceded the ceasefire announcement and which had to be abandoned when it was raided by the Special Branch looking for Daithi O Conail and others.
(Interestingly, Daithi O Conail, according to the British army’s ‘psychological operations’ officer, Colin Wallace, who gave evidence two years ago at the Bloody Sunday inquiry, was particularly singled out for misrepresentation. In 1974 Wallace leaked a document, hoping that the author would be identified as O Conail, which Wallace had fabricated, suggesting that the Movement was burnt out and wanted to compromise. In this way, Daithi O Conail came to be depicted as a ‘dove’.)
The ceasefire became an extended truce in 1975 but during it the British army continued to shoot people, carry out raids and gather intelligence. (The British were also building the H-Blocks and planning the campaign of Ulsterisation, Normalisation and Criminalisation – which ultimately was to be defeated, though tragically, through the hunger strike deaths.)
IRA activity also continued apace – with none directed against British forces but with republicans losing the plot and being drawn into increasingly dubious attacks on loyalist areas and Sticky feuding. It was one of the darkest moments for the republican struggle and became the impetus for the challenge against the then leadership, which in the media was simplistically portrayed as young, northern radical militants, overthrowing southern-based, conservative old fogies.
We on the ground were repeatedly told that the British government was in the process of withdrawing. I remember being told this at a very frustrating meeting as late as February 1976. Neither I, nor my comrade Sean McDermott, believed a word of what we hearing. Sean was shot dead a few weeks later prosecuting the struggle, in the same incident which led to the arrest and imprisonment of Mairead Farrell.
Reading now the British papers it is clear that the British were involved in hoodwinking the leadership. Rees told Wilson that sections of “the Provisional leadership in Dublin clearly favoured a dovish line” but risked losing out to “the International Socialist/Trotskyist influences which are beginning to make themselves felt in Belfast”, an exaggerated term for those republicans who were concerned about the incoherence of the strategy, if there were one.
The British government was happy to engage in dialogue with republicans, expecting this to fragment the Movement. One of the major projects of Collin Wallace was also designed “to cause a rift [presumably a feud] between the Official and the Provisional IRA”.
All we had to do, said Merlyn Rees, in a secret paper to Wilson, was promise “withdrawal” and keep them talking. However, a Top Secret policy document from December 1974 revealed that the British really expected a considerable period of direct rule ahead and that they were digging in for a long war.
And a long war it remains.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty