State Papers, here and there. December 30, 2011Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin.
Only just had a glancing look at the detail emerging in both Irish and British media about the release of State Papers from 1981 [and Michael Carley noted this BBC overview here for which many thanks]. A different world, little doubt about it, populated by characters most of whom have departed the political stage. Most.
The detail about the Hunger Strikes is of particular interest but will require considerably more analysis. What seems most evident is how much wasn’t known on all sides about what was happening. That in no way lets people – any people – off the hook but it suggests that the seeming chaos wasn’t just seeming. And one thing I still recall from that period, a sense that almost anything could happen on foot of the mobilisation politically in the North, seems to be reflected in these papers. And thinking about it, given the subsequent history, who is to say that in a way that wasn’t borne out by the most recent dispensation?
Another point is that despite the rhetoric the British government ultimately, as indeed was shown subsequently, was willing to act more rather than less pragmatically. What’s also interesting, though perhaps can be categorised as musings, is this report that the British felt that the events of the Hunger Strikes might be pushing towards unity.
The Thatcher government wobbled in its resolution to resist the IRA’s Maze prison hunger strike and contemplated the “unpalatable” option of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, according to secret cabinet documents.
Hardly words of joy and comfort to Unionism, had they been made public at the time. It continues:
But it was the prospect of an intervention by the previous prime minister, James Callaghan, which caused most anxiety. “The difficulty of the government’s position seemed certain to be increased by the evolving opposition attitude towards Irish unity as an ultimate objective,” the document said.
It was thought Callaghan was about to make a speech proposing that Northern Ireland “should become independent, with transitional arrangements under which British troops and British financial assistance would remain available for a limited period.
“His [Callaghan's] views might well receive massive support from public opinion in Britain, where there was already a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal,” it said.
The “watershed” had been passed once Sands was elected as an MP. “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.”
But note the substance. The British government was most concerned in the specific about a Callaghan intervention. So yes, the events on the ground in the North were pivotal, but from a London centric viewpoint events closer to home, which never occurred, obviously, had a greater potential traction.
Whether this was, as noted above, musing, is open to question. Certainly the extrapolations in the following suggest it probably was:
But withdrawal was likely to result in “civil war and massive bloodshed”, with the Troubles spreading to British cities with significant Irish populations, the ministers present acknowledged.
The “guarantee to the province” was enshrined in statute and would need legislation. “The passage of this would be an occasion for turbulence as well as controversy. Even the suggestion of a withdrawal could lead to serious unrest in western Scotland.”
Interesting that reference to western Scotland.
And the effect of these events on the polities north and south on this island was considerable. The following secret letter from then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald is telling:
The then taoiseach – days after being elected to office – told the British prime minister his government’s view of her handling of the crisis was starting to converge with that of the IRA. “This is naturally the last position in which we would wish to find ourselves,” he said in a secret letter, just declassified under the the 30-year-rule.
It’s not, of course, that in any real sense there was a convergence of thinking, but that in functional terms driven by politics the fear was that an Irish government would have little choice but to – for example – take measures such as cutting security relations because of the approach of the British government.
Meanwhile the self-justifying analysis of a certain former Senator might well take a bit of a knock from the following.
THE BRITISH embassy in Dublin produced a lengthy report on the relationship between the Provisional IRA and the Irish media, following a claim that RTÉ had been infiltrated by republican sympathisers.
This followed the claims of an FF mayor of Cork, Paud Black, who asserted that RTÉ was full of PSF sympathisers.
British diplomats were sceptical about the veracity of Black’s claim. They had believed that the group which had most sympathisers in RTÉ was Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party (the stickies), who were “bitterly anti-Provisional”.
And the British thought:
“This is not to say that we regard RTÉ’s coverage of the hunger strikes as having been successful,” wrote PR Whiteway, an official at the British embassy, “but it was reasonably balanced when allowance is made for the underlying sympathy of Irish journalists with the minority community in the North.”
Indeed to put a rather different spin on what has become a trope even beyond the good Senator’s offices they pointed to other parts of the Irish media for sympathisers.
While Whiteway did not believe there were many IRA sympathisers within the national broadcaster, he did suggest that there were a “scattering of them in the newspapers and magazines”. Of these, he claimed the “best known” were Ed Moloney and Seán Cronin in The Irish Times , Deasún Breathnach in the Irish Independent , Vincent Browne and Gene Kerrigan in Magill , Eamon McCann and Gerry Lawless in the Sunday World and Paddy Prendiville in the Sunday Tribune . That said, it was also made clear that “the presence of journalists sympathetic to the Provisionals does not seem to have affected the editorial line of the main newspapers and magazines with the exception of Magill ”. Most newspapers remained “bitterly anti-IRA”.
Hmmm… quite a different picture from the one of an heroic effort to hold back the tide of PSF sympathisers inside RTÉ – no? And certainly one that for those of us deeply sceptical about his and others claims about that period will hardly burnish his credibility.
And there’s more. The British state papers themselves are fascinating for the detail on the 1981 riots, not least the way in which in this instance ideology seemed to trump pragmatism – or even compassion, and there was little or no support for Heseltine’s efforts to regenerate inner cities.
Indeed what comes across most clearly is the way in which most Conservative cabinet ministers simply couldn’t comprehend anything beyond their rather limited worldview. There was also a sort of political vindictiveness at work here:
The cabinet papers released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveal Thatcher’s closest advisers told her that the “concentration of hopelessness” on Merseyside was very largely self-inflicted with its record of industrial strife.
The files show that when Michael Heseltine pressed the case to save Britain’s inner cities with his cabinet paper, It Took a Riot, they ensured his demand for £100m a year of new money for two years for Liverpool alone was met with a paltry offer of £15m, with the condition that “no publicity should be given to this figure”.
Although they never articulated the case publicly at the time, those telling Thatcher that there was little point in spending money on Liverpool also included the industry secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, and her Downing Street advisers, Sir John Hoskyns and Sir Robin Ibbs.
The suggestion was also floated of a sort of ‘evacuation’ of Liverpool, though no flesh was put on this. What that would have involved is a most intriguing question, but in the broader context it hardly seems unreasonable to suggest it was of a piece with Thatchers industrial policy, in breaking up former concentrations of union and other power. And…
In a confidential note in the immediate aftermath of the Toxteth riots, Howe said that Heseltine’s plans for a “massive injection of additional public spending” to stabilise the inner cities had to be rejected: “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns of which some are developing quite promisingly.”
Howe told Thatcher that Heseltine’s plan for a cabinet minister for every deprived region should be restricted to a one-year lone experiment in Merseyside after arguing that if there was any extra money he would rather spend it on the more promising West Midlands. He decried Heseltine’s role as “minister for Merseyside” as an attempt by the latter to create a “godfather role” for himself.
What’s depressing about all this is the contemporary echo of ‘we can’t do this’, or ‘we can’t do that’ in economic terms. Truly they were trailblazing more contemporary forms of economic ‘liberalism’. And trailblazing more contemporary forms of policing too…
The cabinet papers also show that a panicky Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir David McNee, told the prime minister at the height of the Brixton riots in July that he was unable to guarantee the security of the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, which was due to take place the following month without the introduction of a modern-day riot act. He raised the stakes by telling her that he had already raised it with the Queen.
McNee presented Thatcher with a list of equipment he needed including riot shields, water cannon, rubber bullets and armoured vehicles – preferably painted blue rather than kept army grey, CS gas and even a “heli-telly” – an early mobile surveillance helicopter – during a midnight visit to Scotland Yard.
In this respect the past is the present.
Anyone see anything else of interest in these papers?