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More on Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s from the state Archives… January 2, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

It’s useful, indeed educative, to read through the latest reports on documentation released as part of the annual trawl through archives. This from the Irish Times makes some very pertinent points about the nature of policing in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

I sometimes feel that the actual nature of policing there during that period is under examined in relation to its partisan nature – having had some slight experience of Belfast in the mid to late 1980s myself it certainly appeared to be heavy handed in the extreme. Knowing people – both political, WP, SF and other parties, and non-political (if one can use the latter term) – who had a more pointed experience, ‘counterproductive’, ‘belligerent’ and worse are terms that spring to mind. And there was worse, much worse again for others.

So it’s telling that the Northern Ireland Office when considering the loyalist protests that occurred in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement came to the conclusion that:

“There is genuine concern from many quarters about the behaviour of the RUC, which was seen to be inadequate at best and collaborative at worst.”

And the outline of the events that led to that conclusion are damning.

“Reports from all parts of NI and from a wide range of sources complain of inactivity on the part of the RUC when faced with physical barricades, picket lines or cases of manifest intimidation.
“These reports [were] . . . brought to national attention by media coverage, notably of a civil servant haranguing a police officer for failing to assist him in entering the Stormont estate and of what appears to be an RUC Landrover [sic] being driven out of the way in order to allow a tractor and trailer to block a road.
“There had been allegations the RUC watched barriers being built without intervening; that the main Belfast-Newry road was allowed to remain blocked for five hours despite the presence of police, including senior officers . . . that the RUC were under instructions not to interfere with “official picket lines” and that people attempting to cross them . . . received no RUC . . . protection.”

If the NIO felt this way one can only imagine the scale of the true situation on the ground. But it does point up reasons why the RUC was in no sense a normal police force. It is difficult at this remove not to regard them as a significant part (though far from the only or most important one) of the problem and their eventual disbandment and replacement a fundamental element of an improved dispensation.

Simply put the institutional and structural bias within the RUC was clearly of such a scale that it was simply impossible for it to operate – even were one to put aside completely, an impossible task in itself, the history of interactions with nationalists and republicans across the decades since the establishment of NI – as an even relatively neutral actor. That was not its function, and that most certainly was not its ethos.

And again, the Patten Report and subsequent reforms demonstrated that these institutional and structural biases were very real, and so much so that far beyond being a sop to parts of republicanism they were a necessity.

A very contemporary echo is the analysis on the part of the NIO that unionist leaders were surprised by the extent of protests and a sense that control had slipped away from them.

Meanwhile, there’s a real sense of troubles being stored up, or multiplied, as with the account of the ‘decision by the police in the North to allow an Orange parade to pass along the Gervaghy Road in Portadown on 12th July, 1986’ which it is said ‘brought Anglo-Irish relations to their lowest point that year.

As a contemporary Irish Times report by Jim Cusack in the file noted: “The route agreed by the RUC [with the Orange leaders] had the Orange demonstration actually going in the direction opposite the intended rallying point in order that they might pass through a Catholic area.”

Certainly the situation was severe enough for Fine Gael’s Peter Barry to argue that:

“members of the minority community had been left unprotected”.

That, by the way, was a charge that was also levelled at the RUC in relation to the broader protests during the post-AIA period.

In view of later developments there was a certain irony in regard to SF complaints at Garret FitzGerald visiting Derry in 1985 – a visit that was regarded by the former as a pro-SDLP election stunt, which one would have to suspect from reading other materials released from that period it most likely was.

Mr [Martin] McGuinness had “hit out at the visit by referring to press photographs of Dr FitzGerald shaking hands with an RUC officer”,the official wrote.
Mr McGuinness had said “the image of SDLP supporter Garret FitzGerald shaking hands with a loyalist gunman . . . should stick in the minds of Nationalists as they go to the polls on May 15th [for the North’s local government elections],” the official wrote.

Interesting too a discussion on the nature of subversion that arose over how the British government should engage with George Seawright, independent Loyalist councillor, whose bigoted statements caused something of a problem for the government.

His presence on unionist deputations posed a particular problem for the authorities at a time when the British government was loath to have normal contact with Sinn Féin due to its support for violence.


“The main point at issue was whether it was right to treat Mr Seawright in the same fashion as Sinn Féin,” ND Ward of the Northern Ireland Office wrote in a memo dated April 16th, 1985.
“He had advocated violence and, therefore, ministers had not wished to deal with him.
“Mr Seawright is a maverick and, some would say, a nutcase, but he is not a subversive in the Sinn Féin sense and to treat him on a par with Sinn Féin and refuse to see him as part of a delegation might only seem to enhance his standing in some quarters.”

Further ironies in the calls by Peter Robinson to have Sinn Féin banned in 1985. And further insights into the processes at work.

According to the 1985 Belfast papers, Mr Robinson, who was then deputy leader of the DUP, expressed his views when a DUP delegation met Northern Ireland minister Richard Needham on October 16th. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed the following month.


The meeting opened with what an official called “the by now customary ‘round robin’ whereby each member of the delegation impressed upon the minister his abhorrence of the IRA murder campaign” and the support given to it by Sinn Féin councillors.
The official added: “Mr Robinson’s personal view was “in favour of a package with proscription [of Sinn Féin] paving the way for a further election and a hardening of the existing declaration to ensure that the men of violence and those who supported them would not be eligible to take their seats.”

No sense of what the unnamed official made of that. Famously the NIO and the British in general did not tell unionist leaders anything about the AIA until its effective implementation, and a most unpleasant surprise it was for them too. One has to wonder whether unionism quite understood Thatcher. Their campaigns of civil disobedience were unlikely to have much traction with her and whatever her palpable lack of enthusiasm for the AIA unquestionably she was willing to see its full implementation during the remaining years of her premiership.

And then there’s this, from a British negotiator during the New Ireland Forum period:

Goodall did little to defend Thatcher from this charge, save to say that she had largely been making “debating points which did not necessarily reflect her whole outlook”. Her starting point was unionist, “though she does not at all like the unionists”.

Noel Dorr, for the Irish side noted that:

He had been reading the account of Thatcher’s contribution at the Chequers summit and was especially struck by her “incomprehension” on why the minority in Northern Ireland “required special political arrangements” compared with other European minorities. This seemed to Dorr to raise “a serious worry about a very basic lack of understanding of the nature of the problem”.

What comes through loud and clear is the utter dysfunction politically evident during these years. The sheer oddity of suggestions made by various quarters, from unionists seeking the Queen’s involvement in talks, to the Irish government suggesting the demolition of Divis Flats in order to disrupt support for Sinn Féin, is testament to this. Security solutions as seen in previous years hadn’t worked. Allowing matters to proceed as they would within tightly constrained parameters clearly wasn’t working either. The status quo ante could not prevail. And it didn’t.


1. Phil - January 2, 2015

I think this is how a lot of political advances get made. The idea of an agreement didn’t get any less unthinkable or any less politically impossible – it was just that everything else had been tried and had failed. In situations like that, the unthinkable can very quickly become reality.

The spectrum of Unionism is fascinating – from Thatcher as a kind of honorary Unionist who didn’t really speak the language (although she certainly didn’t want reunification), through the Trimble types who would genuinely prefer it if the streets stayed quiet, through Robinson & Paisley and on out to the likes of Seawright – and further out again to the people who, presumably, Seawright knew. The memo fretting about how inadvisable it would be to call Seawright a *terrorist* or whatever speaks volumes – whoever wrote it knew that, when you bought into supporting Unionism, you bought the package. Which, to be fair, is also how peace came – not through lines in the sand and will-you-condemnathons.


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