“We were right to worry about this man”

On Radio 4 tonight a memoir of a great might-have been: Could the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974 have been overcome and the powersharing Executive saved? It turns out that wasn’t the only relevant question, because secretly at the time, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson was planning a British withdrawal, under the fig leaf of Dominion status, in which “Ulstermen would remain subjects of the Queen.” This has since become known but the clincher was produced in the programme, “the Doomsday Document.” Listen to the horror in Garret FitzGerald’s voice, as his worst fears at the time are confirmed. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hear the timescale nor the terms of withdrawal. But Wilson didn’t get round to those, he was often a politician of the pointless gesture towards problems he couldn’t solve – and there were many. Historian Paul Bew comments: It was a game of role reversal. The loyalists were bringing down the executive, thinking they were strengthening the Union whereas they were opening the door to a Prime Minister who wanted to destroy the Union… The Irish position was entirely logical. that despite the rhetoric, Britain should stay in the north.”

Garret FitzGerald, foreign minister. “It would have meant civil war. ..If we had expanded our army of only 11,000 it would have appeared like a takeover of the North.. The nationalist people in Belfast would have been besieged and we we wouldn’t have been able to help them… We were right to worry about this man

Wilson’s plan was put to rest over a quiet dinner at Jim Callaghan’s cottage in west Cork in 1975, attended by FitzGerald and crucially I suspect, Jack Lynch, then opposition leader but soon to be Taoiseach again.

Says Bew: ” There was a conscious decision to close the door on a rather flaky period”

Amen to that.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London