Heath: important but not missed…

According to Brian Feeney, it was the grim year of 1972 that changed the trajectory of Ted Heath’s Northern Ireland policy from backing Unionists to seeking a long term accomodation with the Catholic minority. In the end he seems to have suffered the worst of both worlds. In Feeney’s view, he ended up being resented by both sides.

When Heath did become involved, however, there was no doubt where he laid the blame for the events of the previous two years. Stormont unionists had had their chance. All the advice they had pressed on him had been wrong. He took more radical action than anyone had imagined. He involved the Irish government for the first time since 1922. Heath broke generations of Conservative policy by ending positive support for the Union.

He declared that Irish unity was a legitimate aspiration and if “at some future date a majority of the people of Northern Ireland want unification I do not believe the British government would stand in the way”. He abolished Stormont and unionists have never forgiven him just as nationalists never forgave him for internment and Bloody Sunday.

  • Fanny

    Really good article on this by Kevin Myers, of all people, in today’s Irish Times as well:

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    The cathedral close in Salisbury is beautiful, and provides a perfect view of a Wiltshire heaven, writes Kevin Myers

    The wisteria rambles in fragrant, muscular sinuousness over cottage and glebe-house, the hollyhock and lupins riot with an English decorousness alongside the cut-stone pathways, as the bells of the great spire chime their sonorous melodies on the quarter hour.

    Daily there is matins and evensong, the choirboys’ voices drifting across the lawns of green linen.

    This was where Sir Edward Heath lived alone over the last decades of his life. But in a way, solitude was his natural condition, for he was a man of few social skills, and none whatever when it came to women. Possibly he was just neutral, as some men are, with no serious interest in sex or marriage or abiding companionship. Or he could just have been a homosexual who repressed those natural instincts which would otherwise have enabled him to have been a happier man.

    Instead, he became this other fellow, one who was driven by single-minded ambition, who became a singular organist, a brilliant yachtsman, a fine conductor and the man who steered the UK, and thus Ireland, into what was to become the EU. In doing so, he became one of the most important men in 20th-century Irish history, playing a vital part in the transformation of this country from an economic and cultural backwater into the dynamic, immigrant-inhaling country that it is today.

    Yet he was a wretched prime minister, for he was utterly unable to assess how other people thought and felt, a Finnish pastor at carnival time in Rio. His insularity was compounded by his inability to confront. He was very much of that wartime generation of British politicians who put unity of effort before clarity of thought. He was a political unitarian, and did not understand that even in a democracy, some issues – such as the trade union autocracy which was killing Britain – lay beyond all resolution by negotiation.

    His initial stewardship of Northern Ireland was catastrophic, not least because he listened solely to the advice of soldiers and unionists. But the military were not the grammar-school officers of the people’s army of his generation, but the professional military caste whose melancholy duty had been to supervise the imperial sun setting upon palm and pine. This was an often brutish, stupid business, and with brutish stupidity the British army set about the task of halting that imperial decline on almost its final frontier, the back-streets of Ardoyne and the drumlins of Armagh.

    The tragedy that resulted was not of Heath’s making alone. Armed with all that we know today, not one of us, from Gerry Adams to Ian Paisley, could travel back in time and give the wise counsel that would have halted the Troubles in their traps. Nonetheless, his own contribution to the Troubles was considerable, and allowing the Joint Security Committee of Unionist politicians, civil servants, RUC officers and a handful of senior soldiers to decide the policy of Her Britannic Majesty’s Army, with virtually no input from Westminster, was a truly majestic one. The subsequent glories of the Falls Road curfew, internment, and Bloody Sunday were the result.

    He was not so inflexible as not to learn, and learn he did: but he learnt little that was wise, and embraced much that was desperate. The power-sharing executive of 1974 was largely his confection. But with nationalist Ireland still refusing to support the very security forces that made the survival of the executive possible, as terrorists from all sides assailed the settlement the executive was in the long term doomed.

    There was no long term. Heath’s defeat in the general election in 1974 hastened the end of the Northern Ireland Executive, as unionist voters virtually extinguished executive-supporting politicians. His successor, Harold Wilson, managed to be simultaneously cowardly, inept, ill-informed, arrogant and foolish: and thus the cross-community power-sharing executive perished, as indeed did its successors, and as their successors are doomed to do also.

    By this time the two countries were within the EU, which was to be Edward Heath’s greatest triumph. But politically he was now fatally wounded, and he withdrew to the long grass where his political career faded and died in the sere Westminster Serengeti of failure. He was replaced by Margaret Thatcher, who, aided by great good fortune and by her considerable tactical skills, took on the very enemies who had defeated him, and in turn defeated them.

    So he retired to his yacht, his keyboard, his podium and his cathedral close in Salisbury. One by one these diversions faded, until only the close remained. Ted Heath spent his final decades in his delightful Avonside house, alone but for his two Special Branch officers. The three of them would spend much of the day in The Boot pub in nearby Berwick St James, each growing majestically in girth, jowl and chin, as Heath’s face erupted with sunbursts of broken blood vessels and the grim brown stains of a surly, discontented liver.

    Alas, infirmity did not weaken him nor hasten his end; he was condemned to live. So each dawn he woke in the close to yet another death-avoiding day: by noon, he was back in the pub, without conversation, friend or true companionship, silently, remorselessly drinking with his minders, bitterly contemplating the failure of the past three wasted decades. And so it continued, deathless year after bell-ringing, matins-singing, deathless year until, last weekend, mortality mercifully and finally intervened.

    The cathedral close of Salisbury is beautiful, and provides a perfect view of a Wiltshire hell.

  • Keith M

    “He was replaced by Margaret Thatcher, who, aided by great good fortune and by her considerable tactical skills, took on the very enemies who had defeated him, and in turn defeated them.”

    Probably the most astute thing I’ve read since Heath passed away.