Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland

The views expressed here are those of the producers of Cabinet Confidential and do not necessarily represent the views of The National Archives.

Document Reference: PREM 15/1689

Situation report from Northern Ireland for the Prime Minister, 9 February.

The situation in Northern Ireland in 1973 looked to be improving after several years of worsening communal violence. The RUC and the Army staged Operation Motorman at the end of 1972 and, despite defiance from the Provisional IRA at the time, the terrorists were put onto the back foot. Motorman recovered a significant haul of weapons and ammunition and led to hundreds of arrests.

With the Provisionals in disarray and a joint Army/RUC team cracking down on sectarian murders by Loyalists, the death toll fell from nearly 500 in 1972 to 253 in 1973. The tracking of leading paramilitaries was a vital part of the campaign. This report shows how closely the young Gerry Adams was being watched. In July Adams was captured in Belfast with two other key IRA members and interned at Long Kesh.

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"It has reliably been reported that Adams, who's been the Provisionals' brigade adjutant in Belfast is now in Dublin as assistant chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. It is alleged that Adams was given the appointment in order to provide representation from the North among Provisional leaders in the south, and also to please the younger elements of the Provisionals in Belfast."

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Document reference: FCO 87/221

Frank Steele's report of visit to Bogside and Creggan, 4/5 April

Prime Minister Edward Heath was keen to create a new system of government in Northern Ireland that would involve the nationalist minority and achieve peace. Heath found the Irish receptive to his plans which were published in a White Paper.

Westminster would keep responsibility for law and order. No single sectarian party would be allowed to dominate. There would be power-sharing and what was known as an "Irish dimension". The man who had to explain the reforms of the White Paper to Northern Ireland's politicians was Secretary of State William Whitelaw. There was a lot to do. He had to sell the idea of power sharing, and an Irish dimension: A role for the Republic in the affairs of the North.

Unionist leader Brain Faulkner was also convinced that to regain power he'd have to accept power sharing and the Irish dimension. But many unionists were outraged. These included some within the Unionist party such as William Craig as well as Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley. On March 24, the anti-agreement Unionists held a massive rally in Belfast.

The nationalist community largely welcomed the White Paper. The SDLP opposition had been refusing to talk to the British government while internment continued. The Paper changed all that.

In the aftermath of the Paper's release one British official visiting the Bogside noted:

"The sight of Mrs Cathy Duffy, who a year ago was organising parades in support of the Provisional IRA, organising a referendum on the White Paper which produced a result in favour of 83% for the WP, has rocked the Creggan and Bogside."

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Document reference: FCO 87/247

Telegram from Edward Heath to Liam Cosgrave, 2 April

In security matters the attitude of the new Irish government had taken the British by surprise. Liam Cosgrave's Fine Gael coalition had a much more robust attitude towards the IRA than the previous Irish government of Fianna Fail and promised better co-operation.

This new co-operation was soon put to the test. In March a boat smuggling guns for the IRA was captured off the Irish coast. The British were delighted. Heath wrote:

"I should like to express my personal congratulations to you in the successful interception of the Claudia."

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Document reference: FCO 87/247

Map of Belleek area, Account of cross-border violence, 4 April

Border security was one of the chief areas in which the British sought closer cooperation with the government in Dublin. Gun running and the use of the Republic as a haven by terrorists from the North had to be stopped and only close teamwork from British and Irish security forces could achieve this.

The small town of Belleek was a good example. The map shown here highlights a wood in the Republic from which several attacks on British security forces had been made, the following pages detail the nature of the attacks. The British wanted the wood cut down and it should have been a simple task. However discussion of the problem dragged on and was referred to higher authorities. On one occasion a party of workers arrived to cut down the trees - but their chainsaw broke after a few minutes and they refused the offer of a replacement from the British.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1693

William Whitelaw to Prime Minister, 2 July

Nonetheless Heath and his Northern Ireland Secretary sought to implement the ideas of the White Paper throughout the rest of the year. Whitelaw proved to be a huge asset. Behind the exterior of a bluff English squire there was a clever political mind and his easy manner set politicians from both of Northern Ireland's traditions at their ease.

British hopes were pinned on Brian Faulkner, whom they found to be a man who was willing to put disappointments behind him and to compromise with his opponents. Faulkner was also an Orangeman and a traditional unionist. Heath's administration hoped that these factors would persuade the majority population to accept the Paper. On the 28 of June elections were held to decide the fate of the government's proposals.

The results, the government privately admitted, were disappointing. Many unionists in Faulkner's own party had stood against the White Paper's proposals.

Of 78 seats, the anti-White Paper unionists had 27 as opposed to the Faulkner pro-agreement Unionists 23 and the SDLP's 19. On the 2 of July Whitelaw wrote to the Prime Minister.

"It is encouraging that the extremists on the whole fared badly. But an uncomfortably large number of seats have been won by dissident loyalists of one kind or another."

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Document reference: FCO 87/248

Special Powers in the event of a breakdown of Law and Order, Nov 16

Now the task was to bring the parties together to form an Executive. One problem was that Catholics and Protestants at an official level hardly knew each other. For the month after the elections there were meetings about meetings The White Paper had given the task of forming the Executive to the Assembly itself. But the Assembly couldn't even agree to meet.

The marching season in the summer reminded everyone that the old tensions were still ready to flare up at a moment's notice. And loyalists weren't the only ones determined to halt the formation of a power-sharing Executive in the Assembly. The IRA had vowed to destroy it and Sinn Fein was an still an illegal organisation whose political agenda was to oppose the Assembly.

Whitelaw embarked on months of talks with the NI parties to try to form an Executive. Finally a conference was held at Sunningdale in Berkshire. Unionists were completely split. Paisley's DUP refused to take part it the Executive and thought it couldn't be formed without them. As they began to realise they were wrong, they became increasingly belligerent. Many of Faulkner's own party members opposed the agreement as well and he only hung on to the leadership by a thread.

Faulkner found himself in a very weak position, at the end of November he narrowly won the backing of his party. On the 6th of December he arrived at Sunningdale for the talks that would establish the executive. The discussions faltered on towards an agreement and on 9 December it was produced. The majority of seats would go to the unionists but key posts would go to SDLP members. The SDLP and the two governments were elated. But already the pro-agreement unionists were terrified of the reaction back home.

The first meeting at Stormont degenerated into a brawl and the police were called. The omens for the future were not good.

In November the army had already been preparing for the worst-case scenario, the disintegration of all order in Northern Ireland. This never happened but these papers show what the response would have been:

"At the last review meeting of Operation Folklore (this was the code name for the doomsday scenario if Law and Order completely broke down) I hoped to come to you on the subject of legislation and special powers.

We feel strongly that in the wholly abnormal situation envisaged it would be essential for a soldier to be able to open fire without legal penalty in certain circumstances

A firing without warning on persons merely carrying firearms (ie without having to be satisfied that they were about to use them.

B opening fire at persons breaking a curfew who failed to halt when challenged

C opening fire in certain other situations eg at persons who fail to halt when challenged."