…the British Government has planned the sell-out of Ulster

So Ian Paisley was right after all! In his The Revivalist editorial of January 1982, he reflected on 1981 saying:

1982 is the year when the British Government has planned the sell-out of Ulster. It is essential that Ulster prepares itself for the great battle which lies ahead. Without Divine intervention all is lost.

Admittedly, he had began 1981 by stating:

Having made a dirty deal with the I.R.A. terrorists the Government has proceeded to enter into an underhand mini-Munich with Charles Haughey and the Irish Republic. The totality of N. Ireland’s relationships with the South is now under review and a de facto Sunningdale agreement has taken place.

So, there was a certain cyclical quality to Paisley’s editorials. At the same time, the confidential annexe to the minutes of a British Cabinet meeting on 2nd July 1981 (CAB 128/72) record an informal discussion of the current situation in the north and state that:

 …there was already a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal. Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives…

…whatever the state of British opinion, withdrawal would not be an easy proposition for any Government. Civil war and massive bloodshed were likely to be the immediate result in Northern Ireland, and the trouble could easily spread to the large Irish communities in some major cities in Great Britain.

The confidential annexe, included in papers released under the 30 year rule, is usually a digest of unascribed comments. So it is all the more damning, in that regard, as it is likely to be a synthesis of opinions rather than a statement made by one individual (the 1981 papers are discussed by Mark Dunton and Simon Demissie in a podcast here). However, some commentators are also reporting a related comment by Margaret Thatcher that is consistent in tone and emphasis:

…further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable.

While not exactly a threat to stick the Hillsborough Castle keys through the letterbox and leave, the summary in CAB 128/72 gives some substance to the apparent paranoia evident in the likes of The Revivalist editorials. Paradoxically, the British cabinet discussing withdrawal also makes it harder for historians to dismiss the republican campaign as futile or nonsensical since, as evidenced by CAB 128/72, it did prompt the government to consider agreeing to it’s strategic aims.  In an odd way, the 1981 state papers challenge long-held caricatures of both unionists and republicans and suggest that some of the persistent factors that influenced their thinking were not as unrealistic as is often suggested.

Jude Collins has also pointed up the revealing language in the terminology used in the summary of the Cabinet discussion, such as the Irish on their own and the futile sacrifice of further British lives. This betrays a casual disregard by the Conservative cabinet for some of the central tenets of unionist ideology regarding their identity and status. Many will of course, point out that this is the Margaret Thatcher that said that ‘Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley’.

Except that she didn’t actually say that.

The Irish Times and other records of the day reported Margaret Thatcher’s actual words from a Commons speech on 10th November 1981:

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom; as much as my constituency is.

With politicians, terminology is everything.

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  • OneNI

    So what’s new here? There are lots of civil servants with no love of NI? That in the midst and wake of the hunger strike some GB politicians mused that ‘wouldnt it be better if we were shot of it all’
    Vaguely interesting history?

    BTW Finchley is very British. It has Ugandan Asians and Greek Cypriots, Irish from North and South and many more – all benefiting from the UK and all happy to be UK citizens.

    Likewise NI is very diverse and there is solid support – over 70% for the Union.

    Would be interesting to see a current day conversation in the Cabinet. Should we bale out the Republic? If they leave the Euro should we invite them into sterling?

    Strange how times change and some things dont

  • This noted what opinion was out there, not necessarily shared around the table.

  • Mick Fealty

    Does anyone know the origins of the Finchley quote?

    Disappointing to hear that the former PM was so functional and direct… The ‘original’ has entertained a whole generation of nationalist commentators, and their readers…

    Scenario planning is generally a good idea. But if it was intended as a British strategy, I’d like to know what on earth went wrong?

  • Margit

    Fascinating, because it highlights how the conservative government underestimated the ultimate change in fault lines: Historically Republican/Unionists, it very gradually became an Irish community against non-Irish influences. Not to see such a dialectical outcome was one of the fundamental errors of a government accustomed to judging everything in simplistic opposites.

  • “other records of the day”

    John, the Hansard copy is online.

    Interesting riposte from Norman Atkinson at the end:

    Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh) In view of the Prime Minister’s studied neutrality at her press conference on the matter of Irish unification, of which we have heard some echoes here today, can she repeat with the same sense of personal conviction as she did in Belfast three years ago that she still stands rock firm for the Union?

    The Prime Minister I find it difficult to understand the precise point of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—as much as my constituency is.

    Mr. Atkinson On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In a reply just now, the Prime Minister stated that Northern Ireland is as much an integral part of the United Kingdom as her own constituency. If that is so, how is it that people can be repatriated to Northern Ireland, which happens at the moment—

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, found this on Council of Foreign Relation website!
    ” In her first meeting with FitzGerald after he became prime minister in 1981, she remarked that she regarded the north as being “as British as Finchley,” referring to her own constituency in the south of England. FitzGerald responded that Britain did not have thousands of troops stationed in Finchley, nor did it have a secretary of state in the cabinet for Finchley’s affairs.”

  • “Historically Republican/Unionists, it very gradually became an Irish community against non-Irish influences.”

    Can you elaborate, Margit?

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick/DR – Fitzgerald and Thatcher’s meetings took place around the same time (beginning a couple of days beforehand), although the article of the Foreign Relations website was written in 1987.

    The Irish Times and Indo and Irish Press report Thatcher as having said that ‘…Northern Ireland was as much a part of the United Kingdom as the Borough of Finchley’. At least that is the quote as reported by Charlie Haughey speaking in the Dáil on the 11th November and subsequently as reported in the press in the south (that was the first misquote of it). The ‘British as Finchley’ bit first appears in the south, the Irish Times in a piece by John Healy on 14th November [1981].
    But I’d guess it was a phrase used on the BBC or ITN by someone paraphrasing Thatcher’s statement (this was the days before cameras were in the Commons). It seems to have currency by the 14th November, anyway.

  • TwilightoftheProds

    ‘Withdraw’ and options for unity talk often circulated thru the 70s and early 80s. A process of policy convection, in other words kite flying and hot air. You want to see syntheses of ministerial views in the 70s- Batsh*t wouldn’t be in it. All policy options from withdraw, independence, repartition, to military law are in there.

    Paisley’s rhetoric was a function of his Carson Trail campaign – plus ca change.

    You want to see how things really panned out within Govt circles in 81 re policy ‘greening’- a broader look is needed. First off check http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/1231/1224309674766.html

    Doesn’t look so green. At all.

  • John, Haughey gives Finchley several mentions on November 11; his nose seems to be a bit out of joint:

    Mr. Haughey: Can the Taoiseach say whether, since I raised the matter this morning, his attention has been drawn to the statement of the British Prime Minister in the House of Commons yesterday to the effect that Northern Ireland is just as much an integral part of the UK as is the Borough of Finchley? Would the Taoiseach accept that statement and if he does not accept it would he regard it as being most unhelpful that the British Prime Minister should make that sort of tendentious statement?

    The Taoiseach: The Leader of the Opposition made this point earlier today. I have no particular comment to make on the Borough of Finchley and so far as the matter of the basic question is concerned, Northern Ireland is factually part of the UK. That has been recognised by successive Governments.

  • westprog

    That’s typical Haughey, typical Fitzgerald, typical Thatcher.

    This seems a lot more significant that it actually is. Of course when there was another futile killing, there were people arguing that it would be better to just get shot of the whole business. In the end, they always came to the only conclusion possible – in a situation where millions of Irish people lived in Britain, the escalation of violence that necessarily would accompany withdrawal would involve Britain. Even if Britain were able to watch uncaring as thousands died in Ireland, they’d have to suffer worse consequences from the overspill, and it would end up costing more in the long run.

    Comments like “British as Finchley” were an essential part of the peace process. Thatcher had to stand up to the Unionists, stand up to the IRA, stand up to the Irish government, and say that the status quo would apply in perpetuity. By saying the same thing year in year out, the armed struggle became more obviously futile, and Haughey’s vague rhetoric became more obviously self-serving. It was also essential that whatever ideas were floated around in private, they would never see the light of day.

  • I’m no fan of Thatcher, or her Administration; but I suggest a lot of folk are taking this out of context:

    Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives…

    Were you there? Were you in the [GB] political cockpit? Were you attending meetings, meeting electors, listening to anxious parents whose sons were being posted to NI? I was; and that Cabinet exchange seems to sum up the view of every pub-bar, every coffee-break across GB at that time. In other words, the Provo campaign was working.

    I cannot believe that those feelings were not regularly reported, even amplified, across all parties and factions, in the tea-room and bars of Parliament. I cannot believe that the Cabinet, and the mandarins were not faithfully picking up that mood.

    For the record, Thatcher was not in total command of her Cabinet or her Party in 1980-2: remember “The lady’s not for turning” had to be addressed to her own Party Conference. It took the Argentinian Junta to give her the scope to sack the dissident wets, to find the shininin St Joan armour with which the Sunday Times colour supplement could bedeck her.

    Unionists should be grateful that was as far as the discussion went, that the pledge to resolve the NI “problem” — and we’re all aware it’s still with us — by “peaceful means” remains.

  • The yokel

    I think the fascinating thing is that it was said and recorded. It must be obvious to anyone that the only reason NI is still part of the UK is that it is the least worst option. The English have a sentimental regard for Scotland and Wales but who in their right mind would want anything to do with the warring tribes of Ulster.
    There were no votes in sending troops to NI, but the Falklands proved a winner and was the making of her.

  • “and that Cabinet exchange seems to sum up the view of every pub-bar, every coffee-break across GB at that time.”

    I agree that was a commonly held view in Britain throughout the troubles but so also was the view that capital punishment should be brought back.

    One can argue that the PIRA campaign was working if the objective was to drive the opinion of the man on the Clapham omnibus. That opinion could never be crucial on the Northern Ireland question because Governments still have to operate under a set of minimum principles. The principle which united both Labour and the Conservatives was a ‘hardcore’ one. There was never any chance that a British Government would cede Northern Ireland against the wishes of the majority its population. From that point of view, the PIRA campaign stood no chance of working.

  • Seymour Major @ 9:27 pm:

    I’d not argue against a word of that; and I’m not trying to change the subject — though I suspect I’m rambling off topic. It’s just that I find the parallel with capital punishment an instructive one, particularly in the way it illustrates nuances of mind-set.

    Let’s try a pub-quiz type of questioning:
    1. When did the Commons vote to end capital punishment?
    2. When was capital punishment abolished in the UK?
    3. What is the declared UK policy on NI?

    As I read it it:
    1. 1938 for a five-year experiment (WW2 intervened: it came to nothing). Again in 1948 (failed in the Lords). Again in 1956 (bill rejected by the Lords). Hardly, then, a recent “liberal” move.
    2. 20th May 1998 — through the Human Rights Bill, with exceptions for in times of war or imminent threat of war. Even then it took the Criminal Justice Bill (31 July 1998) to remove the death penalty for High Treason and piracy with violence (how does piracy happen without violence?). A lawyerly acquaintance refuses to confirm that acts of violence against the royal person may still be a grey area (the context was the attempted abduction of Princess Anne, 1974).
    3. Despite the formula of words in the Good Friday Agreement, I’d venture little has changed since the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 (which might be extended back to the pre-WW1 Home Rule Bill debates). The clear intent of Parliament then was to be rid of the Irish business, provided agreement could be achieved across the 32 counties: meanwhile, GB is committed, albeit without enthusiasm, to stand by NI. That would seem to be the tone of these 1981 papers.

    Incidentally (as Nevin @ 2:35 pm reminds us), I reckon Norman Atkinson (whom I recall meeting when he was MP for Tottenham, and happily who is still with us at the age of 88+) had a decent question. It’s a question that really shows that, even under the Blessed Margaret, NI was an embarrassment and a dependency.

    A final hmmmm …: would Thatcher have tended another way without that curiously-convenient murder (two days after the Callaghan government fell) of Airey Neave to constantly prick her conscience?

  • Robert McCartney’s ‘a bomb in London is worth 100 in Belfast’ is perhaps a more apt reflection on the PRM’s use of violence, Malcolm. … source – The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner 1969-2007 By Aaron Edwards p62

  • Mick Fealty

    The Yolel,

    Sentiment has little to with it. The majority to this day want to remain within the UK. I would like hear just what conclusions they came to after gaming a withdrawal. I’m sure it would not have been pretty.

  • The yokel

    The point that I was trying to make that since the ‘orange card’ was played at the time of partition, the UK government has had little option but to have NI as part of the UK. I also think that the British army saved NI from bloody civil war and withdrawal in 1981 would have been disastrous.
    In my experience, most English people see Ireland as a separate entity, but regard Scotland and Wales as some how British.(what ever that means) – I should point out this is a generalisation and based on anecdotal evidence.

  • Mick Fealty @ 7:20 am:

    The majority to this day want to remain within the UK.

    Well, that was how, and why this “majority” of a minority was specifically constructed.

    What lies behind that Cabinet exchange was a sense of a lack of a wider majority: …there was already a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal. Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives [my emphases].

    Whatever one’s views on Europe, the present is based on a referendum which, once upon a time, gave “whole-hearted consent” across the whole of GB&NI (even if that same geographical minority of a majority demurred by 52-48%). The “solution” of 1920 (which is still the basis for the existence of NI) was, has and never will be put to the British people. And for why? Because they might have given, and would still give the “wrong” answer, perchance?

  • unicorn

    The “solution” of 1920 (which is still the basis for the existence of NI) was, has and never will be put to the British people. And for why? Because they might have given, and would still give the “wrong” answer, perchance?

    Highly doubtful. If this was the case then why for so long as partition has existed have all of the governments that we elected at the national level supported continual partition (or created it in the first place)?

    I have never seen any opinion poll stating that the majority in Great Britain would support a united Ireland without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Have you? Not even a majority of the people of the Republic of Ireland currently support that, if they ever did, and far more of them support a united Ireland by consent than people in GB do.

    If you mean that GB should vote on a united Ireland than why would the people of GB want that? I have no wish to have a vote on making Wales a department of France against the wishes of the people of Wales. I have no moral right to take part in such a vote.

  • John Ó Néill


    As to gaming outcomes in July 1981 – there was considerable institutional memory around the Cabinet table from Heath’s cabinets from 1970 on, from the crises of that summer (1970), then after the introduction of the army to direct rule. Presumably they re-hashed back to one of the points, groaned and asked for whiskey….

  • unicorn @ 9:05 am:

    You are agreeing with me on every point: that we don’t know because we (i.e. the UK of pre-1920 and/or the GB of UK & NI) have never been asked. Even when the voters of the six counties were asked in the Khaki Election, four (and a half) of the six counties went nationalist/SF.

    Unicorn, I feel, is wrong to use so positive a term as “supported” in that second paragraph. I’d have passed, at best, on “tolerated” or “condoned”.

    First the 1920 “settlement”. Try reading the debates on the Government of Ireland Bill, 1920. Find therein, in you can, unbridled enthusiasm for partition as such. It was, at best, regarded as a kludge, a bodge-up. Outside a precious few UUC hard-men (who pointedly excluded the likes of Carson), it was regarded as a temporary arrangement.

    Asquith (letter to The Times, 4th Oct 1920) encapsulated it as: a paltering compromise, which is repudiated by every section of Irish opinion, though it may for the moment be favoured with contemptuous and cynical patronage of Sir Edward Carson, who thinks he sees in what is proposed the prospect of an insurmountable block to the attainment of Irish unity.

    As far as I can see it was Attlee who formulated the civil-service-ese: The view of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom has always been that no change should be made in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without Northern Ireland’s free agreement [28 Oct 1948].

    It took the UUists (never the sharpest knives in the parliamentary drawer) a while to shake that one out, and we find Attlee on the Ireland Bill [HC Deb 11 May 1949 vol 464 cc1854-904] with a typically perceptive and exact point:
    It seems to be suggested that this is a new declaration by His Majesty’s Government affirming the permanence of partition, but actually the initiative did not come from this side. It is the action of the Eire Government itself in deciding to leave the Commonwealth that has made it quite inevitable that a declaration as to the position of that part of Ireland which is continuing in the Commonwealth should be made.
    I think that may be the first unqualified recognition that partition had anything approaching “permanence”.

    Then, sighing over the serial incompetencies, inadequacies, injustices and instabilities of the Unionist administrations between 1920 and direct rule, and even after, I’d invite Unicorn to propose a single UK PM who did not, at one time or another, question the 1920 settlement. I think I could, with minimal sweat, produce chapter-and-verse for most of them. This Thatcher-in-Cabinet statement would go to complete the set.

  • The yokel

    groaned and asked for whiskey….
    JO’N you weren’t thinking of Mogadon man and his famous quote after a visit to NI?

  • John Ó Néill

    Spot on yokel.

  • Greenflag

    @yokel ,

    ‘In my experience, most English people see Ireland as a separate entity, but regard Scotland and Wales as some how British.(what ever that means) – I should point out this is a generalisation and based on anecdotal evidence.’

    -And thats as it should be as most Irish people i.e people living on the island of Ireland see themselves as a separate political entity . In that sense most English are ‘respecting ‘ the right of all the people people in Ireland (ROI) to their ‘separate ‘ political identity and to all the people of Northern Ireland in their mish mash of ‘identities’ .

    It’s when NI is thrown into the pot that the matter becomes ‘messy ‘ and complicated for most English people and who can /could or would blame them ?

    As to final outcomes ? Despite the present economic setback and the current agreement Horseman’s analysis was and remains the best ‘scenario ‘ as to eventual outcome.

  • The yokel

    I would not disagree with that Greenflag, except am not familiar with this Houseman of which you speak.

  • The yokel

    I would not disagree with that Greenflag, except I am not familiar with Horseman’s analysis.

  • Greenflag


    Here’s a link to his website


    Theres a huge amount of detail in some of his ‘demographic ‘maps by constituency and even down to district and townland level .The gist of Horseman’s analysis is that changing demographics will have a bigger impact sooner rather than later on NI politics .Sadly Horseman passed away 2010


  • between the bridges

    Whatever one’s views of big Ian, he has left his mark on a generation’s subconous…I just had to read the headline and I knew who had said it!