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Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland

As featured in BBC Northern Ireland's CABINET CONFIDENTIAL programme, which focused on original documents from 1974 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.

In 1974, Direct Rule ended and power sharing was tried for the very first time. It didn't take long to go pear shaped. '74 was the year it got so extreme that the government lost control to people they dubbed 'fascists' and seriously questioned whether to pull out of Northern Ireland altogether.

The inside story of 1974 has been kept secret for 30 years. But now at The National Archives in London all the documents from that dramatic year are finally available to the public.

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Catalogue reference: CJ 4/487

31 December 1973

Statement by New Executive

"We want the New Year to see the beginning, not just of a new system of Government, but of a new spirit. Let 1974 be The Year of Reconciliation "


On New Year's Eve, the very last day of 1973, a ceremony to swear in the new power-sharing Executive was held in the Ministerial Conference Room at Stormont Castle. There was a flurry of preparation.

Catalogue reference: CJ 4/487

19 December 1973

Re swearing in of the executive

"there should be no church leaders, no wives, and no champagne"
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Catalogue reference: CJ 4/487

Telegram from the Lord Chief Justice

"I think... I ought to wear my judicial robes (scarlet and ermine). This would... indicate my recognition of the importance of the occasion."


"I would propose to discourage the Lord Chief Justice from wearing his robes. Whether we like it or not these [robes] have political connotations, but perhaps more than that, he will outshine everyone present and this is not a thing we should encourage"


It was at Sunningdale a few weeks earlier that a historic agreement had been signed. After years of Direct Rule from Westminster, Northern Ireland was to have an entirely new constitutional arrangement. From 1 January there would be a Stormont Assembly, governed by a power-sharing Executive, including Nationalists as well as Unionists. The new Executive was led by Brian Faulkner, leader of the Unionist Party. Faulkner's deputy was the SDLP leader Gerry Fitt, his old opponent.

They seemed to get off to a good start.

Catalogue reference: CAB 128/53 74 (1)

3 January 1974

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

"The Northern Ireland Executive had entered into office on 1 January. They had made a good start and so far they were working well together. "


But for Faulkner, selling the new arrangement to his supporters at home was never going to be easy.

Catalogue reference: FCO 87/333

1 February 1974

Note of a meeting between representatives of the NI Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland

"The Executive believed that the Council of Ireland could gain acceptance and could work for the common good, but... the public was still uneasy. Too much haste or too grandiose a scheme could damage or destroy power-sharing itself. "


At a stormy meeting of the Unionist Council, just 4 days into the year, Brian Faulkner found that his party was set against him.

Catalogue reference: CAB 128/53 74 (1)

10 January 1974

Meeting two

"The debate had been so bitter and he had been subjected to such strong personal attack that he had decided to resign from the leadership of the Unionist Party forthwith...A major political struggle had now begun..."


The anti-Sunningdale Unionists were determined to disrupt the Assembly at Stormont. At the Assembly's first meeting on 22 January, the RUC were called in to remove loyalist protestors from the Assembly.

The documents show missives flying between London, Dublin and Belfast, trying to make Sunningdale work:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 15/2142

Draft message from PM to Taoiseach

"The help which will really make the difference must come from you. If I may in this situation be perfectly frank, some of the remarks attributed by the press to you...have been interpreted as meaning that the Republic is maintaining its claim that Northern Ireland is now part of the Republic... This has seriously reduced the value to Faulkner of the Sunningdale agreement"


Even before the Northern Ireland Executive had time to settle in, Prime Minister Heath called a General Election:

7 February 1974

"The PM informed the Cabinet that, following the breakdown of discussions with the TUC and the decision of the Exec of the NUM to call a national coal strike he had decided to seek a Dissolution of Parliament so that the country might express its views in a General Election. "


Unionist politicians opposed to the new political structures united under the banner of the United Ulster Unionist Council.

The answer to 'Who Governs Britain?' was 'Not You' Mr Heath. On 4 March, Labour's Harold Wilson entered 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister.

The UUUC won a resounding victory at the Westminster election, taking 11 of the 12 seats. For Faulkner, and the pro-Sunningdale politicians in Northern Ireland, this was a terrible blow.

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Catalogue reference: FCO 87/334

5 March 1974

Confidential – Note for the Record – by F Cooper

"Mr Faulkner was somewhat shaken and somewhat fearful... Everyone was shattered by the extent of the feeling against a Council of Ireland... Faulkner ended by saying that "he was no quitter". He is clearly, however, a worried man and will need a good deal of comfort during the next few weeks."


The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was Merlyn Rees. He and the British were still in charge of security, and things didn't look good.

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Catalogue reference: CAB 128/54

10 April 1974 at 18:00

Confidential Annex CC (74) 11th Conclusions, Minute 1

"The security situation was cause for great concern. The pattern of violence had changed and consisted largely of attacks with fire bombs prepared and placed by women, and the placing of car bombs by civilians who were not themselves terrorists but who were acting under extreme duress. "


The politicians were talking seriously about the possibility of civil war:

Catalogue reference: CJ 4/471

8 April 1974

From Martin Reid to Mr Trevelyan after discussion between Rees and Faulkner

Mr Faulkner said that if he went ahead and 'ratified' Sunningdale now, he would have no political following left; there would also be a strong possibility of civil war...


Harold Wilson visited Northern Ireland for the first time as Prime Minister in mid-April:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/145

18 April 1974

Note of a meeting between the PM and the Northern Ireland Executive held in Stormont Castle

"It was vitally important to make the Executive and power-sharing a success. In discussions about the consequences of its possible failure the words civil war had been used, he feared with reason. Hence there was an absolute determination on the part of the British Government not to give in, or pull out. If our troops were caught in cross-fire between rival terrorist groups, the pressure for withdrawal would be very strong."


Just when it looked as if things couldn't get any worse, it did.

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/146

21 June 2002

"On Tuesday 14 May a body calling itself the Ulster Workers Council with no trade union or democratic standing but supported by paramilitary organisations advertised in the press that there would be a general stoppage if the Northern Ireland Assembly voted that day to support the Sunningdale Agreement."


On the first day of the strike a deputation from the UWC went to see the Minister of State Stanley Orme to negotiate.

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Catalogue reference: FCO 87/341

15 May 1974

Note of a meeting between the Minister of State, Mr Orme, and a deputation led by Dr Paisley to discuss the loyalist workers' strike held at Stormont Castle

"Mr Orme said that the workers would not get what they wanted by attempting to intimidate the Government by a political strike of this nature."


There were widespread reports of intimidation, but the Government didn't exactly leap into action:

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Catalogue reference: CJ 4/504

17 May 1974

"It was considered that there could be a need to look into the question of intimidation in greater depth and possibly set up another committee."


There was concern that if the army intervened it would make matters worse:

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3778

23 May 1974

Ministerial commitee meeting 3, the Chief of GS expressed concern about bringing in the army

"If the Army intervened to break the strike and appeared to be succeeding, confrontation and violence would probably follow. The army would be sucked into an endless situation and greatly increased numbers of soldiers would be required to run the territory..."


Northern Ireland was grinding to a standstill, as the power stations ran down their generators. The files show the Prime Minister himself thinking outside the box on how to solve the power crisis:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/146

22 July 1972

"We spoke earlier this afternoon about the Prime Minister's request that we should investigate the possibility of deploying a nuclear submarine to Belfast to provide an emergency power supply... The short answer is that a fleet... could be ready to leave for Belfast within 48 hours of the order being given... The difficulty is that electricity generated by a nuclear submarine is not compatible with the national grid..."


Wilson received offers of help from some unexpected quarters - even Idi Amin sent a telegram:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/148

2 August 1972

"I suggest that representatives of the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland as well as representatives of your government come to Uganda, far away from the site of the battle and antagonism, for a conference on how to bring peace to their province. I would discuss with and make suggestions to them as how to end the fighting..."


Needless to say Her Majesty's Government turned his offer down. But the situation was getting worse not better:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/147

"With every hour that passed became increasingly evident that the administration of the country was in fact in the hands of the Ulster Workers Council..."

On the Executive leaders met Wilson and Rees at Chequers, to press them to take action.

" 'We have come to the crunch'... The issue was now not whether the Sunningdale agreement would or would not survive. The outcome which the Protestant extremists sought was without question an independent, neo-fascist Northern Ireland..."

Catalogue reference: CAB 129/177

24 May 1974

Northern Ireland - Note by the Secretary of the Cabinet (John Hunt) for circulation to the Cabinet

"... If we do nothing, the Executive will collapse over the weekend. On the other hand an attempt by the British Army in effect to run the country would require the commitment of unacceptable forces and would probably fail."


Harold Wilson decided to broadcast to the nation,

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Catalogue reference: FCO 87/336

25 May 1974

Confidential text of Prime Ministerial broadcast - faxed 25th May (tel no 148 to Galsworthy - with request to show text to Cosgrave asap!)

"As this holiday weekend begins Northern Ireland faces the gravest crisis in her history. And it is a crisis equally for all of us who live on this side of the water... British taxpayers have seen have seen the taxes they have poured out almost with regard to cost - over £300 million a year this year with the cost of the army operations on top of that - going into Northern Ireland. They see property destroyed by evil violence and asked to pick up the bill for rebuilding it. Yet people who benefit from this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government, spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?"


The reference to 'sponging' went down so badly that many more people came out in support of the strike. On the Monday after the broadcast, the British government finally took action. But a memo from Merlyn Rees to the PM shows that they had started to hope the Executive would resign:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/148

Top Secret message from the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister on 'The short term possibilities'

"While the Northern Ireland Executive remain in being, there can be no real movement. But the situation changes if they go. From our point of view the most desirable situation now is that they should go of their accord, in view of the intervention, they cannot make any plausible complaints that they have not received full support from HMG..."


On Tuesday 28 May, the Executive met at Stormont, and Brian Faulkner went to Merlyn Rees to resign. Power sharing was over.
But it still wasn't clear whether the strikers would go back to work:

Catalogue reference: CAB 134/3778

"If the UWC can maintain the strike - and there is every indication that they can - it will not be easy to resist their demands."


But the strikers decided to go back to work.

The Executive gone, the strikers back to work - what next? The Stormont Assembly was suspended, and it was direct rule from London all over again. What could the British do? A top secret memo shows the Prime Minister thinking through all the options and ruling nothing out:

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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/148

"It is clear that we are in the position of 'responsibility without power'. The traditional prerogative of something very unpleasant throughout the ages - I think a Eunuch.... We have also got to consider what, if any, preparations we can make against resumption of a strike... In Doomsday terms - which means withdrawal - I should like this scenario to be considered. possible unacceptability to moderate Catholics, ditto to the Republic, the United Nations and the possible spread of trouble across the water, to name but a few..."


Later in the year, they really were thinking the unthinkable:

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Catalogue reference: CJ 4/492

Cable FCO on possibility of international involvement in Northern Ireland:

"The mere threat of international involvement (for example the prospect of a UN peace-keeping force including Afro-Asian troops in Northern Ireland) might so alarm the parties as to persuade them to an otherwise unthinkable compromise capable of averting international involvement altogether... Even if neither the threat nor the fact of international involvement produced any kind of settlement, HMG would at least be able to share with others the odium of failure and the blame for the ensuing chaos in Ireland."


Without a conventional political solution, the British cast the net wider, holding secret talks involving paramilitary groups:

Catalogue reference: CJ 4/492

"HMG has an interest in anything which reduces violence. We should therefore encourage discussions and peaceful arguments between groups which had apparently strongly opposed views..."
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Catalogue reference: PREM 16/151

To the Prime Minister from Merlyn Rees dated 16 September titled 'Northern Ireland: Extremist Groups'

"moves to promote contacts between loyalist and republican paramilitary groups have continued. They were instigated initially by Andy Tyrie, Chairman of the UDA ... and now involve a part at least of the leaderships of the Official and the Provisional IRA. [At] A recent conference of the three groups, attended by over 60 of their members, ...there was a certain amount of camaraderie... We are keeping ourselves well informed and providing modest unattributable support..."


Catalogue reference: CJ 4/492

"Some of the leaders of the extreme groups clearly are anxious to have a meaningful relationship with one another... They undoubtedly see this as the means of getting their organisations off the hook of having to continue a campaign of violence... is submitted that HMG should not become involved in the direct financing or control of any political party formed by one or other of the extremist groups. ...Neveretheless there are certain pragmatic steps which should be taken:
a/ contribution of impartial advice
b/ use of charitable fund money for specific educational and meeting expenses"


But whilst the British were talking to paramilitaries in the hope of stopping the violence, the bombing campaign spread to the mainland.

On 5 October, the IRA struck two pubs in Guildford and then on 7 November, another bomb went off at the Kings Pub in Woolwich. Two weeks later bombs exploded at 2 pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring 182. Unprecedented security legislation was rushed through.

Catalogue reference: CAB 129

21 November 1974

Roy Jenkins memo (24/11/74) on IRA Terrorism in Great Britain following the Birmingham bomb

" goes without saying that we must guard against the danger of being driven to more and more extreme measures involving unwarranted infringement of personal liberty. So I am proposing that the bill should apply only for 6 months."


By the end of the year, the Government seemed to have lost hope for a political solution in the short run.

Catalogue reference: PREM 16/152

22 November 1974

"We should not revert to the active search for a solution. We should, for a time at least, concentrate on administering the Province. Government should be low key."