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Northern Ireland 1975


Northern Ireland 1975

As featured in BBC One Northern Ireland's CABINET CONFIDENTIAL programme, focusing on original documents from 1975 now available for the public to view at The National Archives in Kew. The views expressed here are those of the producers of Cabinet Confidential and do not necessarily represent the views of The National Archives.

The newly released files on Northern Ireland show how the Government was dealing with one of the worst years of the Troubles, in which 247 people died. But one of the first initiatives leading into 1975, following the collapse of Sunningdale and the resumption of direct rule, did not come from Whitehall or the Northern Ireland Office. A letter from five Protestant clergymen reported on how they had met with leading Republicans in  Feakle, County Clare.

At a secret location at the end of the previous year, the clergymen came face to face with Sinn Fein president Ruari O Bradaigh, and three of Ireland's most wanted IRA men.

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The meeting at Feakle laid the foundation for a Christmas truce, and the Government made this cautious statement.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/515 

The Government has received from the Churchmen what it understands to be the Provisional IRA's proposals for a permanent ceasefire.

Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 9 January 1975

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Meanwhile, the ceasefire of Christmas 1974 meant that Northern Ireland got a rare chance to feel festive into the New Year. Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, felt he had reason to be optimistic.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/515

Peace created its own dynamic. The Church leaders had planted a fragile tree (which one might call a Christmas tree) in the desert of terrorism and we must consider how this tree could be watered.

Prime Minister's minute of meeting with church leaders (Archbishop Dr GO Simms, Dr Temple Lundie, Rev Harold Sloan, Rev Donald Fraser), 1 January 1975

But the truce was fragile and the Government had to act fast to keep it going:

It is most important that we are seen to be doing something before Thursday, when the Ceasefire is due to expire. The Government must do something - however small - tomorrow.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister, 30 December 1974

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The Government made a gesture. It released 20 internees and paroled a further 50 prisoners. It worked. The IRA extended the ceasefire for another two weeks.

The IRA ended the ceasefire on 16 January. It wanted more from the Government.
Officials began secret meetings with the IRA at Laneside outside Belfast.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/515

The position was that while there was no negotiation with Provisional IRA we did not rule out an exchange of views.

Secret note by JM Allan, NIO, of the Permanent Under-Secretary's meeting with Mr Worrall and Dr Jack Weir, 31 December 1974

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Secret talks had started a second ceasefire, this time covering both the IRA and the Army. In public, the Government was saying little. The idea of the Government of negotiating with the IRA would send shock waves throughout Britain and Ireland.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/515

[The Taoiseach] laid stress on the traumatic effect it would have throughout Ireland if the impression gained ground that we were prepared to negotiate in any way with the Provisionals.

Conversation with Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister): Telegram from Galsworthy, British Embassy Dublin to Harding, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Cooper, Northern Ireland Office, 20 January 1975

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Any break from the violence would be a huge relief for the people of Northern Ireland. The IRA started a new ceasefire on 10 February. But they were holding out for the Army to reciprocate.

The IRA's price for peace was a blueprint, with 12 points, for a bilateral truce between them and the Army. Point number 10 in the Government's 16-point reply is crucial:

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/521

If there is a genuine and sustained cessation of violence the Army would gradually be reduced to peacetime levels and withdrawn to barracks.

1 October 1975

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The word withdrawal meant different things to different people. For the Government, it meant confining the soldiers to barracks, but for the IRA it meant total British disengagement.

The Northern Ireland Office worked round the clock to help maintain the ceasefire.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/517

Discussion focussed on the arrangements which would be needed to avoid the ceasefire being disrupted by isolated or spontaneously generated incidents which might lead to an uncontrolled escalation of violence.

Top Secret telegram from Callaghan to UK Ambassador in Dublin, 20 February 1975

The Government established 24-hour hotlines between Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland Office to report and monitor breaches of the ceasefire. They were called incident centres.

The SDLP were miffed by all the attention the Government was giving the Provisionals.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/517

The proposal has been widely misinterpreted in the press, partly owing to misrepresentation by the Provisional Sinn Fein themselves. The centres are concerned only with incidents arising directly out of the ceasefire. They have no wider role, nor have they any connection with or responsibility for policing matters.

Top Secret telegram from Callaghan to UK Ambassador in Dublin, 20 February 1975

The major concession the Government made was the gradual release of detainees. Internment, relabelled "detention" by the Wilson Government, put 1,981 people behind bars without trial  Only 107 were loyalists. By the end of 1975, the government ended internment.

Internment and civil liberties were the subject of a report by Lord Gardiner. He recommended the ending of detention and that paramilitary prisoners be denied their privileges granted to them under Special Category Status. The Government, advised by the Army, agreed with him.

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3921   

THE GENERAL OFFICER COMMANDING, NI [Lieut Gen Sir Frank King], said that the special category status was objectionable from the point of view of security. It was an aid to the recruitment of terrorists.

8 January 1975   IRN (75) 1st meeting

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Ending special category status was an explosive issue for the Government, which was also nervous about the Unionist community. In May 1974, Northern Ireland had been brought to a standstill by the Loyalist Ulster Workers Council strike. Downing Street didn't want it to happen again.

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3921   

If there were determined industrial action by the majority community, the Armed Forces would not be able to sustain essential services. Action this time would be directed against Westminster.

Papers to IRN (75) 25,  7 July 1975

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The Government in Westminster was in deep water with the economy, it was borrowing heavily. Inflation had soared into double figures. And on top of everything the Government was told that the Belfast shipyard, the biggest single employer in Northern Ireland, was going under.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/490

I am perturbed at the latest news about Harland and Wolff's losses...
The government has already put £80 million into this company since 1967 that is £8,000 per employee.

Letter from Joel Barnett, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to Merlyn Rees, Re: Harland and Wolff Ltd, 20 January 1975

It was not just a matter of money. Many of the yard's workforce had played a major role in the strike of 1974. The Government couldn't risk them losing their jobs.The Government weighed in with its chequebook to bail out the shipyard.

In the spring of 1975, the Northern Ireland Office wanted to introduce a "Brighten up Ulster" campaign. Civil servants were looking to put a smile on the face the nation.

It would be important to think really big. For example, why not have big variety stars - Morecambe and Wise? Frank Sinatra?

Or the Northern Ireland Sports Council could organise an inter-town "It's a Knock-Out" competition with a big name such as Eddie Waring to act as compere.

Cudliff memo, 18 March 1975, to various officials looking for suggestions for "Brightening Up Ulster" …

It didn't happen.

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Since the collapse of the Sunningdale the previous year, the Government had been keen to get  politicians back into Stormont. So they came up with a new initiative: the Constitutional Convention.The plan was for the politicians to meet here and thrash out the future constitution for Northern Ireland. But the papers show that the Government took a hands-off approach.

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3921

The Convention is unlikely in the short term to solve the deep divisions in the Northern IreIand body politic. But it is an important step forward to get Northern Irishmen to face up to their own responsibilities.

14 March 1975, Papers to IRN (75) 11 Note by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Elections were held on 1 May. The results gave the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) a commanding majority and seemed to scupper any chance of power-sharing.

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3921

The outcome of the Convention now rests with two sectarian power blocks with fundamentally opposed policies on most issues, especially the system of government, notably power-sharing.

15 May 1975, papers to IRN (75) 14

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Just when the march towards Unionist majority rule looked inevitable, there was a shock. Vanguard leader Bill Craig, came up with a radical proposal – Voluntary Coalition.

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3921 

Mr. Craig appears to some as a knight in shining armour. The fact is that he aims were – and still are – simple: to get a devolved government which would control security policy as quickly as possible, on the basis of a gentleman's agreement that the SDLP would participate in government for a year or two.

Papers to IRN (75) 20, 19 September 1975

Craig's proposal was put to the test at a crunch meeting of the UUUC. Journalists and the rest of the country waited to see if Unionists would share power with the SDLP.

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3921 

On 8 September the UUUC, at a party meeting, rejected the proposed package by 37 votes to 1 (Mr. Craig)

Papers to IRN (75) 20, 19 September 1975

Harold Wilson's senior political advisor wrote a stinging memo.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/520  

Acceptance of majority rule boils down to acceptance of a permanent Protestant regime which would certainly have many unpleasant characteristics. Officials admit that there is a "risk" that more of the Catholic population might be driven actively to sympathise with the IRA; it is not a risk but a bloody certainty.

Memo from BD (Bernard Donoughue, political adviser) commenting on Ministerial committee briefing doc IRN (75) 21, 23 September 1975

The Convention was dead in the water, and direct rule continued.

Stormont and Westminster had run out of ideas. In the political vacuum, paramilitary bloodletting  escalated. 247 people were killed in 1975. In one of the most notorious atrocities among many perpetrated by both Loyalists and Republicans the Miami Showband was almost wiped out.

Following this and other loyalist attacks, the Government proscribed the UVF.   Republican violence continued too. In August the IRA bombed the Bayardo Bar.  In September the Shankill in the Orange Hall in Newtownhamilton was attacked by an IRA cover group calling itself South Armagh Republican Action Force.  The ceasefire was falling apart. The secret talks between the Government and the IRA simply weren't working.

The Troubles were back where they started. The IRA renewed a full-scale killing campaign in both Northern Ireland and in England. The Army came back onto the streets in full strength.

In London, an IRA unit embarked on a vicious bombing and shooting campaign. After shooting up Scott's Restaurant in the West End, the police chased the gang into a flat in Balcombe Street. The siege lasted six days, ending with the capture of the gunmen.

The end of 1975 was about as bad as the Troubles ever got. Neither the IRA nor the Army were going to throw in the towel, but there were no new inititatives from Westminster.  Paramilitaries filled the void left by political stalemate.  It would be almost two decades before there would be another major ceasefire.