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More on the “If Lynch Had Invaded” documentary… September 2, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish History, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

It’s not just Tom Clonan in the Irish Times, no Henry McDonald in Sunday’s Observer is also entranced by the “If Lynch Had Invaded” documentary (and here’s a good piece by Brian Hanley on a rather fine site). For him he starts with the idea that…

The BBC’s Belfast HQ and the city’s international airport were to be blown up as part of an Irish invasion in response to the eruption of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a TV documentary reveals.

And the conclusion…

But troops sent by the government in Dublin to take over Newry across the border would have been annihilated by the UK army responding to the invasion.

The crucial words are in the next sentence…

Although an incursion into Northern Ireland never happened in August 1969, the programme claims that forces inside Jack Lynch’s government tried to push for a military intervention. He came under tremendous pressure to respond militarily, especially from hardline nationalists inside his Fianna Fáil party. Des O’Malley, Lynch’s parliamentary secretary and later founder of the Progressive Democrats, said cabinet hard-liners such as Kevin Boland and Neil Blaney pushed for an armed invasion.

I wonder about that. Boland et al weren’t fools. It is hard to believe that they sought an ‘invasion’, more likely, as expressed by Jim Monaghan here and others, the likelihood was that they sought an incursion as a means of drawing attention to the issue.

“Boland was the most vocal, and Blaney was not far behind him, I think…their attitude was that the Irish government should take a very belligerent stance,” O’Malley said. “They wanted overt military activity.”

Again, what precisely does that mean and what does O’Malley think they meant? Overt military activity can cover a multitude.
And then we’re into what ‘people thought’.

Many unionists, including Northern Ireland’s prime minister, James Chichester-Clark, also thought the Irish army would try to seize nationalist majority towns such as Newry and the west bank of Derry. On the programme John Taylor, then junior home affairs minister and later deputy Ulster Unionist leader, says: “James Chichester-Clark believed that the Irish army was going to invade Northern Ireland. I was very anxious, very worried, because I knew it depended on me advising the prime minister to what exactly was going on.”

Indeed, but what would that have been and how could he have known?

Taylor ordered the mobilisation of 8,000 part-time B Specials to repel a possible invasion. He claims Lynch’s TV broadcast on 13 August, warning the Republic would “not stand by” while northern nationalists were injured in clashes with the Stormont police force, only inflamed the situation. Now Lord Kilclooney, Taylor calls Lynch’s remark “one of the most irresponsible” in the past 40 years.

Well, that’s a viewpoint, another is that of Dermot Keogh, writing in the most recent History Ireland who notes that:

The broadcast by Lynch on RTÉ television on 13 August 1969 was not a detached philosophical statement. The message was clear:
• the Stormont government was no longer in control of the situation;
• the forces of sectarianism were abroad and the RUC was no longer accepted as an impartial police force
• the deployment of British troops would not be acceptable or likely to restore peaceful conditions
therefore London was asked to request the UN to send a peace keeping force to Northern Ireland. Lynch told viewers that the Irish government ‘can no longer stand idly by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’. The latter is one of the most misquoted lines in modern Irish politics. The same speech also contained a classical nationalist formula that the reunification of the national territory could provide the only permanent solution to the problem. Lynch proposed talks with London to review the constitutional position of the ‘six counties of Northern ireland’. But reunification would only come, as he said on 28 August, ‘by peaceful means’.

And moreover…

Lynch’s consistent position as taoiseach was to eschew the use of force. On 19 August 1969, he had responded very determinedly to an inflammatory IRA statement that purported to speak and act for the Irish people. ‘The government will not tolerate the usurpation of their powers by any group whatsoever’, he said.

And McDonald acknowledges this in a sort of roundabout way while still trying to project the situation as more fragile on the Irish government side than it most probably was…

However, TK Whitaker, Lynch’s key adviser on Irish government policy on Northern Ireland in 1969, defends him, claiming that the taoiseach was unsure how his cabinet would vote.
“I think the challenge [for Lynch] was to dissuade the hotheads, the republicans in his cabinet, from insisting that we go to the aid… [of nationalists in Northern Ireland]. I think it was a very terrifying period for him because he knew that he couldn’t rely on support from major colleagues… It was hard to discern who was for peace and who was for invasion.”

Let’s put the ‘invasion’ word to one side since it is hugely incorrect, and emotive. And again let’s turn to Keogh’s account.

When news of the violence in Derry and elsewhere in NI reached Lynch on 12 August, he made immediate preparations to hold a cabinet meeting the following day. All ministers and relevant senior civil servants were recalled from their holidays. The atmosphere in the cabinet room on 13 August was highly charged and emotions ran high (I have reconstructed the course of the cabinet meeting in my biography of Lynch). The initiatives that day were quite practical and avoided any suggestion of deploying irish troops across the border in Northern Ireland. Instructions were given to the army to establish field hospitals in County Donegal adjacent to Derry and at other points along the border.

So, if we are to believe Keogh, and why would we not, there was no indication from the highest political levels of the sort of official dynamic that would be necessary to order the implementation of anything like an ‘invasion’.

None of this is to deny that Blaney and some others were prepared, even eager, to ‘use force’. But it is surely notable that at the height of that initial crisis in August their viewpoints were not expressed in any concrete policy terms and that thereafter their support devolved to arms procurement.

Former Irish soldiers mobilised during the August 1969 crisis admit their equipment was obsolete and unable to match the British army’s. One retired Irish general, Vinnie Savinho, tells the documentary he was relieved that the invasion order was never handed down.
Military and political experts on the programme describe the idea for an invasion of the north as a potential “military fiasco” and “Ireland’s Bay of Pigs”. It would have also isolated Lynch’s government internationally and set back the Republic’s entry into the EEC.

But again, as expressed in the piece the day before yesterday, all this is predicated on a flawed understanding of the history in both the general and the particular. There was never an ‘invasion’ policy, instead there were plans which in themselves demonstrated that an invasion was an impossibility.

Yet, somehow, I’ll bet that this ‘myth’ will overwhelm such unexciting facts. That’s a pity, and that it cleaves to a reactionary and negative reading of the situation and obscures the truth of what Keogh articulates, that Stormont wasn’t in control either of the situation – a situation in which its own paramilitary style police and security force was directly involved, a far more central problem than nebulous Irish Army plans.


1. edifice - September 2, 2009

It was an appalling piece of crap. Revisionism at its worst. I was expecting a Vote Yes To Lisbon tag at the end of it. The only lucid observations came from Tony Benn when he stated that Dublin had no interest in obtaining the north.


2. edifice - September 2, 2009

Another point concerned a probable UN reaction. The programme maintained that Dublin would be viewed as an aggressor by violating the integrity of UK sovereignty over the Six Counties and that the UN would immediately call on Dublin to withdraw. One contributor stated that this would have been the case irrespective of Articles 2&3. But the point that should have been made was that Dublin never brought Articles 2&3 to the UN in the first place. Articles 2&3 represented a constitutional position that Dublin viewed the Six counties as disputed territory. If that dispute was brought to the UN prior to any ‘invasion’ the UN reaction would have been different. Instead of just calling for an Irish withdrawal it would also have to call for UN mediation to resolve the dispute.


3. Conor McCabe - September 2, 2009

The plan was flawed ‘cos as soon as the Irish army got to Newry they would have stopped for the cheap cans and that would have the end of any invasion.


4. EWI - September 2, 2009

I wonder how much of the ‘invasion’ terminology is from McDonald’s own mind? By the bye, the much-vaunted armoured cars of the British Army in NI in 1969 would have been metal coffins against any sort of well-trained, moderately armed enemy – even our own. And at least at the level of individual infantrymen, the Irish would have been able to hold their own (shame about some of the officers, though).

One addition to what I said in the other thread regarding an expansion of the Irish Army to meet the situation – there actually was a massively increased intake of cadets by the Defence Forces in the early ’70s, presumably to facilitate just such an expansion (this led to the infamous career path ‘bulge’ of surplus Captains and Commandants in the Eighties and early Nineties).

As other have pointed out, though, we were completely defenceless against Buccaneers, V-Bombers, Phantoms, Canberras etc. (incidentally, Harriers and Lightnings would have been unlikely foes given their performance shortcomings). And the Royal Navy would have been unopposed in doing whatever they pleased. No need for the British Army to take risks by being in the lead in any initial British response, at all.

p.s. just heard a very strong Army rumour that a sizable Irish contingent is being planned to go to Kabul to secure the airport (under the UN flag, of course, though that’s fooling no-one). You heard it here first.


5. Rocert O'Reilly - September 3, 2009

That was the worst assessment of the situation I have ever heard. This programme should not be viewed as any sort potential action plan as it was deeply flawed and unrealistic. To say the Irish Army would wait for the British south of Newery is ridiculous. (especially after stating that the Irish army first would take the town)

If, and a major if, any incursion would have been made, it would have been into the west bank of Derry. The object would be to move any RUC elements across the river with minimum casualties to the RUC and hold the bridges across. (Proving that war was not the objective but to preserve life in the area as the local forces were in fact oppressive)

Once the British government decided to give an ultimatum, it is likely that the withdrawal would be conditional on the handing over of the area to the British Army, not the RUC and unionist militia.(Remember, the British would want to defuse the issue considering the potential that the sizeable nationalist population might repeat the violence elsewhere in the province.) This would have the effect of highlighting the plight of the nationalist bogside and indeed the province, as a legitimate issue internationally. More importantly, this would show the British government that the Irish government did have a place in Northern Ireland affairs.

I blame this lazy assessment squarely on the ineptitude of RTE and its production office. I cannot believe these people are charged with educating the nation on issues of importance. Once again the undertone of money oozes through RTE’s agenda, making sure we are thankful for the EU. They may have provides some of the tools to kick-start the economy, however it was Irish genius that positioned itself to reap the benefits of the technology boom. ( oh by the way it was not FF genius either)


6. WorldbyStorm - September 3, 2009

Essentially I agree with what you’re all saying… The whole premise of the programme was flawed..

And as Tony Benn said, there would be ‘war aims’. Pretty much what you’re suggesting Robert.


7. sonofstan - September 3, 2009

Just saw the repeat. Truly dreadful.

One point above all else – ‘We’ in the language of this programme means ‘we in the republic’: there is no inkling of any identity that might conflict with that.


8. WorldbyStorm - September 3, 2009

Very true. And that has to be one of its greatest failings. Well, that and Keelin Shanley’s truly annoying talking at camera while looking over her shoulder, the anachronistic shots of Govt. Buildings while contemporary taxis whizz by… the absurd closeups of historians faces (or at least those who agreed… and they should think long and hard about how they agree to present themselves on TV again), then there was, as Brian Hanley has noted the Band of Brothers ending where ‘we’ are annihilated… quite contrary to any logical political plan… i.e. Blaney et al would push for Newry to be held… like why again are we in Newry? And why would we stay on foot of an ultimatum… etc.. etc…

Oh yeah, and did anybody notice that Ferriter said that it would be both the RoI and UK who would find the door to the EEC closed in the context of such an incursion… they sure didn’t big that one up in the closing minutes.

Jesus, what a mess.


sonofstan - September 4, 2009

Remind me again why it was such a bad thing when the stickies ‘ran’ RTE?


WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2009

Well, there was the sort of tension inside it which from all accounts was no fun, but… I think you have a point when we consider this example of contemporary material.


9. Hugh Green - September 4, 2009

There is something very dodgy about these counterfactual history programmes (and the books that inspired them). I am sure there are people who can make this point more coherently than I, but this idea of isolating a particular historical moment and extrapolating a series of consequences based on an alternative decision or set of decisions on the part of individuals is a form of fantasy, but it’s also a way of declaring that the way things are now is principally the outcome of a series of choices on the part of key individuals.

It’s an approach that stands in marked contrast to of one of the famous parts of Marx’s 18th Brumaire (‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’) and I sense it is underscored by a deeper free-market fantasy.


WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2009

I like counterfactual SF, but one has to know its limits. And I agree, there is something dodgy about these sort of programmes, particularly when they set one enormously unlikely assumption, that Jack Lynch of all people would have been swayed by what transpired to be a minority of the Cabinet into such an incursion. Because not merely did that not happen, but it seems likely it could never have happened all else is nonsense.

Sure, if the situation that August had tipped into prolonged pogroms then its possible, as the History ireland piece makes clear, that the Irish Army would have legally been in the right to go in, and possibly the BA would have been so tied up trying to regain control that such an incursion would have both been timely and feasible. But that’s not what happened and it wasn’t close to what happen


10. NollaigO - September 4, 2009

What’s this “ran” ?!

Judging by the comments on this programme and the antics of the Hidden History team


11. NollaigO - September 4, 2009

….when the stickies ‘ran’ RTE?

What’s this “ran” ?!

Judging by the comments on this programme and the antics of the Hidden History team, Eoghan’s troops go marching on.



WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2009

Well, in a way I guess that’s not entirley incorrect.


12. Fred - September 4, 2009

Shame that no one has posted it on Youtube. We want to watch it in the rest of the world.


13. Dr. X - September 4, 2009

A question for the WP nostalgia brigade: what does it say about that party that it could provide a comfortable roost for Mr. Harris and his satanic minions?

And that’s a genuine question, btw.


WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2009

Yeah, it’s a problem, and no mistake.


14. Garibaldy - September 4, 2009

Dr. X,

It’s not nostalgia for me, so I don’t know if I’m among the target audience but from my own point of view there are a number of things I would say. Firstly, I think that the personal influence of Harris is often overstated. For example, the book quotes Goulding calling him a genius. I’m sure he did. But equally, I’ve heard several stories of Goulding rolling his eyes at Harris’ more outlandish claims.

On top of which, not everything Harris did was bad. He did make some positive contributions. And the Industrial Department was a great asset to the Party, and did a lot of good work in my view. Some of the stuff that went on in RTÉ was bollocks, but equally a lot of it was good stuff, and important in given a voice to a working-class perspective.

So basically, I reckon he was neither as satanic nor as important as is often claimed. The book I think does make the case he was important, but also points out that it was far from a case of him getting whatever he wanted, including well before the Necessity for Social Democracy.


15. WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2009

There is that of course. Clearly EH was his own best publicist both then and now.


16. Maddog Wilson - September 4, 2009

I think it’s important not to turn Harris in to some kind of Irish ‘Goldstein’ Harris embarked on the ‘Extravagant Journey’ of the intellectual in pursuit of, in his case The Cruiser. At the time though this was happening in Left Wing circles all over Western Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. I always thought EH and friends were poor imitations of the Martin Jaques, Marxism Today crowd. To the man on the LUAS or the Clapham Omnibus these people would of course appear shallow and devoid of any principles.


17. The 1969 Anglo-Irish War « The blog title can be changed at any time - September 4, 2009

[…] the veracity of the claim that Irish ministers actually pushed for war has been challenged, the fact that the ministers concerned were forced out or resigned shortly thereafter for covertly […]


18. Jim Monaghan - September 4, 2009

An ‘if”
A possible victory against the Brits would be nonsense but a limited sortie to internationalist the situation might have worked. Even a major loss of say 2000 lives would have been less than the war cost.
Lynch was basically happy with the 26 County State.
Pople should remember that Paddy devlin amongst others came South for help


19. hollis - September 4, 2009

Pasting over the past

Far from being a harmless intellectual pursuit, ‘what if’ history is pushing a dangerous rightwing agenda

Tristram Hunt
Wednesday April 7, 2004
The Guardian

Citing as their inspiration the Gwyneth Paltrow character in the film Sliding Doors, a ragged bunch of rightwing historians have clubbed together to issue a new compendium of “what if” essays. Conrad Black, a man facing a few counter-factuals of his own, asks: what if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor? David Frum, the former Bush speech-writer, wonders: what if Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election (I thought he did). And John Adamson indulges the dream of Cambridge dons down the centuries: what if Charles I had won the English civil war? EH Carr dismissed such whimsical exercises as a red herring worthy not of scholarly pursuit but an idle “parlour game”. Characteristically EP Thompson went one stage further, dismissing “counter-factual fiction” as “unhistorical shit”. Both pointed to the futility of pondering multiple variables in the past and the logical problem of assuming all other conditions remained constant. But despite their warnings, the thirst for virtual history remains undimmed. And while Carr was right to dismiss them as an amusing pastime, behind the light-hearted maybes lurk more uncomfortable historical and political agendas. The conservatives who contribute to this literature portray themselves as battling against the dominant but floored ideologies of Marxist and Whig history. Such analyses of the past, they say, never allow for the role of accident and serendipity. Instead, the past is presented as a series of milestones in an advance towards communism or liberal democracy. It is the calling of these modern iconoclasts to reintroduce the crooked timber of humanity back into history. The unfortunate truth is that, rather than constituting a rebel grouping, “what if” history is eerily close to the mainstream of modern scholarship. The past 20 years has witnessed a brutal collapse in what was once called social history. The rigorous, data-based study of class, inequality, work patterns and gender relations has fallen away in the face of cultural history and post-modern inquiry. Research into structures and processes, along with a search for explanation, is overshadowed by histories of understanding and meaning. In many cases this has led to a declining emphasis on the limitations that social context – class status, economic prospects, family networks – can place on the historical role of the individual. Instead, what we are offered in the postmodern world of contingency and irony is a series of biographical discourses in which one narrative is as valid as another. One history is as good as another and with it the blurring of factual, counter-factual and fiction. All history is “what if” history. No doubt, new right legionaries such as Andrew Roberts and Simon Heffer would be appalled to be in the distinguished company of those postmodern bogeymen, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. And they have partly atoned for their sins with a traditional Tory emphasis on the role of great men in history. For “what if” versions of the past posit the powerful individual at the heart of their histories: it is a story of what generals, presidents and revolutionaries did or did not do. The contribution of bureaucracies, ideas or social class is nothing to the personal fickleness of Josef Stalin or the constitution of Franz Ferdinand. But it is surely the interaction between individual choices and historical context which is what governs the events of the past. As Karl Marx put it: “People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” Moreover, as Professor Richard Evans has noted, in this work there is as much a sense of “if only” as “what if”. This is history as wishful thinking, providing little insight into the decision-making processes of the past, but pointing up preferable alternatives and lamenting their failure to come to pass. Hence the focus on Charles I’s victory and Britain’s decision to sit out the world wars. The late Alan Clark enjoyed charting the consequences of Britain making peace with Hitler in 1940 and managing to retain the empire. But “what if” history poses just as insidious a threat to present politics as it does to a fuller understanding of the past. It is no surprise that progressives rarely involve themselves, since implicit in it is the contention that social structures and economic conditions do not matter. Man is, we are told, a creature free of almost all historical constraints, able to make decisions on his own volition. According to Andrew Roberts, we should understand that “in human affairs anything is possible”. What this means is there is both little to learn from the potentialities of history, and there is no need to address injustices because of their marginal influence on events. And without wishing to be over-determinist, it is not hard to predict the political intention of such a reactionary and historically redundant approach to the past. · Tristram Hunt teaches history at Queen Mary College, London tristramhunt@btopenworld.com


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