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.