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State Papers, here and there. December 30, 2011

Posted 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?


1. Michael Carley - December 30, 2011

The hunger strike related papers can be got through Slugger O’Toole:


The BBC comments included Bernard Ingham and John Nott saying they were shocked, shocked, to discover that Thatcher had been negotiating with the Provos.


WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2011

Hah hah. It’s almost impossible to believe that Nott wouldn’t have known. Ingham possibly not, though that might indicate an interesting distance between him and the real power. Nah, he had to have known. What a bunch.


Michael Carley - December 30, 2011

The discussion on how they helped arm Saddam Hussein is entertaining: their eventual compromise on repairing 60 Chieftains he had captured from Iran was to repair them, replacing the gun barrels, but not to give him ammunition.


WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2011

Wow. They’re peacekeepers and no mistake!


2. Jim Monaghan - December 30, 2011

“Meanwhile the self-justifying analysis of a certain former Senator ”
Hopefully they had contingency arrangements to evacuate people like this. Anyone remember the Judi Dench film on the last days of Saigon


WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2011


Though evacuate from where? Montrose? Imagine EH on the last helicopter out. Actually…imagine.


ejh - December 31, 2011

Anyone remember the Judi Dench film on the last days of Saigon

I didn’t at all, as it goes, and even her Wikipedia entry isn’t terribly helpful on the subject.


NollaigO - December 31, 2011

Imagine EH on the last helicopter out.

I’ll start a collection to pay for the helicopter.


WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2011

I will gladly contribute.


3. EamonnDublin - December 30, 2011

I was recently speaking with a senior prisoner in the blocks at the time of the hunger Strikes and he said that while he accepted Richard O’Rawe’s personal assertions about the negotiations, he felt that the ever changing situation meant that the claims against the outside leadership could not be fully upheld. In fact, he said that the claim that the outside leadership manipulated the hunger strikers for political gains gave way too much credit to their abilities,both then and now. Basically, they were never that clever. I feel that these papers tend to confirm his assertions.


WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2011

I wonder whether there were too many variables for such manipulation to have taken place. The account, and I can’t say how true it is, of the death o Raymond McCreesh just underlines that.


Joe - December 31, 2011

That account of some of the last days of Raymond McCreesh has haunted me since I read it. Still trying to make sense of it. God fooking help us all.


WorldbyStormr - December 31, 2011

Me too Joe.


4. equlib - December 31, 2011

Bobby Sands took a stand against unjust human rights, he was a far better man than any of the corrupt politicians in Dublin. Haughey, Burke etc.. Rest in peace Bobby and your friends. Stardust story establishes corruption was at the heart of Irish politics, Catholics up the north were left to the freaks of Engkish establishment, while Haughey and his corrupts friends in government fed off their dead carcacus with the English. Bobby Sands being the bigger man was not going to bow to the brits on Irish soil. RIP


5. make do and mend - December 31, 2011

I am always wary of these releases. Leaving aside omissions, ‘missing documents’, and the such, we do not know the inner most thoughts of the protagonists, nor do we know how other external actors affected the final outcome(s); such as the securocratic elements, the political oppositional components, or the economic actors who always have an influence. And there is always the instananeous and unexpected internal compromises made by any one negotiator that shifts the entire focus of what goals were sought but become tangental or meaningless. Static documents can only shed so much light on the entire dynamics thingy.

I often thinks such document releases serve as much to muddy the waters as to enlighten. As such, I veiw them as tatical documents, especially when the ramification of events still linger materially in our minds. No politician, especially one in a democractic dynamic, will ever reveal their intentional motives. This is especially true of capitalistic oriented politicians.

Anyhow, imo, it doesn’t really matter what the facts are or what the truth (the truth being easily influenced by existing entrenched ideals) of the temporal episode revealed. It is what people choose to believe that matters. Belief often trumps fact until fact cannot be denied. History isn’t a wholely factual exercise but one of cultural interpretation as much as anything else.


WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2011

I’d go with your thoughts up to a point. It’s absolutely true, these are hugely subjective in the interpretation, and there’s an argument that given material is redacted it is difficult to get the full picture even from the point of view of the state [or observations made on its behalf]. On the other hand given that all history and research is a palimpsest what is the alternative? History is important. We need to have a sense of the why as well as the what. For example. The detail on the hunger strikes means that there will hardly be a ‘settled’ interpretation of same [interesting to see Henry McDonald doing his best in the Guardian today to run with the O’Rawe interpretation up to the point where he – McDonald – doesn’t]. But we still need to have that sense of how, why, what took place during the hunger strikes, as much as the when of the dates because so much else flows from it.


make do and mend - December 31, 2011

Never did say history, or the study thereof, is unimportant. It’s very important, imo. One should, however, realise the boundaries that historical study encounters; none more so than the lense(s) one must inherently look through.

The hunger strikes are a case in point. No matter the motivations of the strikers themselves, there is always going to be a cohort who will never understand their motivations. It’s like asking me to understand how someone indigenous to the Amazonian rainforest might sanction head hunting. I might have knowledge of their material circusmtances and maybe even a good glimmer of the historical antecedants, but I’m not going to really know when or why head hunting emerged and why it became a culturally accepted phenomenon. [Not sure Amazonians ever head hunted.]

Likewise, a bourgeoise English(?) journalist will probably never understand the antecedants or cultural foundation of hunger strikers, especially Irish ones. Add in a good dollop of nationalism and modern capitalist ideology and their viewpoint will be quite different to those involved in the hunger strikes.

And I’m not saying their viewpoint is right or wrong. It doesn’t matter historically. They are merely engaging in a propoganda exercise, using history as a canvas.

I suppose one can only gather as many viewpoints as possible; try to understand as much as one can the material circumstances; and then try to empathise with participants. History is how we got here, but there is not concise road map that one can reconstruct in retrospect that can claim ‘the’ truth. Truthful insight(s), maybe.



WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2011

Ach no, don’t get me wrong. I’m just sort of extrapolating. I think you’re right that there are clear boundaries. I’m often struck by that thought, how people in one polity never quite get another one. Perhaps more so when the stakes are relatively high like they were over the conflict in the North.


Jim Monaghan - December 31, 2011

I am surprised that few if any commentators make a connection between the Republican hunger strikers and the Suffragettes. I am sure Terence McSweeny was thus inspired.
The Trotskyists in the Gulags also used this method of struggle.They got concessions and then were shot en masse.


6. tomasoflatharta - December 31, 2011

British diplomat Whiteway pops up in the state papers labelling a few journalists as sympathetic to the Provisional IRA, Ed Moloney, who is among them, has written an interesting account of the hunger strike crisis, taking on Mr “Dumb-Ass Whiteway”


Ed is currently fighting against Boston College’s decision to hand over taped interviews with participants in The Troubles to a United States Judge –

Court blocks release of Dolours Price’s Boston College interviews


For more see :

Boston College Betrays Interviewees



Michael Carley - January 1, 2012

Gene Kerrigan has a response as well, with a good story about Ed Moloney:

It’s not bad company — McCann, Browne, Moloney. My clearest memory of that evening with the “third force” in Newtownards is when Paisley loudly remarked on the presence of the media, and warned his audience of the hacks’ IRA tendencies. (Mr/Ms Whiteway’s paranoia was not unique.) Minutes later, I saw Ed Moloney being harassed by a foul-mouthed Paisley supporter, with others looking on. It was a dangerous moment. To either answer back or to ignore the loudmouth was equally likely to lead to a head-kicking. Frankly, I was frightened.

Ed leaned on his cane, sniffed, shook his head — and in a tone of reprimand that equalled Paisley at his most censorious, he loudly snapped, “You have drink taken.” The man was shocked and awed. Ed turned and walked away, as the chastened loudmouth swayed slightly and the onlookers lost interest.

I haven’t seen Ed in years, but any list he’s on is okay by me.


As usual he is the default winner of the Sunday Independent Sensible Statement of the Week award.


tomasoflatharta - January 2, 2012

Well Done Michael – Marevllous Gene Kerrigan Article spotted.


tomasoflatharta - January 2, 2012

If Gene Kerrigan’s article on “Dumb-Ass Whiteway” has beauty, Roy Greenslade’s Guardian article on the Boston College Archive Dispute contains plenty of grubby grottiness, which readers can see for themselves.

“Row over ethics as judge orders college to surrender IRA tapes”


Mr Greenslade finishes well, saying the case “touches directly on the problem all journalists face in protecting confidential sources and, in my opinion, we journalists ought to condemn both the British government for pursuing the action and the US judge for acceding to its request.”

Let’s hope the Guardian allows Ed Moloney a right of reply to Mr Greenslade, whose concept of “ethics” includes making this unsustainable claim :

“The interviewees could, in effect, say what they liked about anyone. That is not to devalue oral histories as such, but given the nature of a conflict in which so many people were killed in secret operations in what everyone regards as having been a “dirty war”, the project was bound to be of questionable merit.”

Greenslade, like the rest of us, only knows for sure the identlty of three Boston College Archive interviewees – Brendan Hughes, David Ervine and Dolours Price.

The Hughes and Ervine contrasting versions of what happened in the Troubles can be accessed via Ed Moloney’s Book “Voices from the Grave”, Patrick Farrelly made an award-winning TV documentary based on the Ervine and Hughes taped interviews.

We also know the British State is seeking an interview granted by Dolours Price, but none of the content is publicly know,

Mr Greenslade can say what he likes about the Boston College Archive inrterviews with 26 people about the Troubles – but it looks like the views of this Guardian columnist on the subject are “Bound to be” of very “questionable merit”.


7. maddurdu - December 31, 2011
shea - December 31, 2011

the comments section for adams article are facinating probably for the reasons make do amends is on about.


WorldbyStormr - December 31, 2011

Yep, the vitriol is enormous. Politically I particularly found the one about how the OIRA UVF supposed talks was an indication that the conflict could have ended in er… 1974. There’s a sort of wish fulfilment about that (, which God, surely I wish it were true, but it wasn’t) and about the proximate causes of the conflict which completely underlines what make do and mend is saying.


8. Horrible Histories With The Sunday Independent « An Sionnach Fionn - January 9, 2012

[…] State Papers, here and there. (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) Comhroinn (Share):FacebookTwitterMoreLinkedInStumbleUponDiggRedditEmailPrintTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tagged Anglomedia, Óglaigh na hÉireann / ÓnahÉ (Irish Republican Army / IRA), British Nationalism (Unionism), British Occupied North of Ireland, Fine Gael / FG, Idirdhealú (Discrimination), John Paul McCarthy, Sunday Independent […]


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