'Irish have taken the point': British envoy on Dublin bombs

02 January 2005 By Rory Rapple

“I think the Irish have taken the point.” That was how the then British Ambassador to Ireland, Sir Arthur Galsworthy, responded to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of May 17, 1974.

Analysing the Irish reaction to the atrocity, he noted that “there is no sign of any general anti-Northern Protestant reaction'‘, adding that “the predictable attempt by the IRA to pin the blame on the British (British agents, the SAS, etc) has made no headway at all'‘.

While the then taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, blamed “everybody who has practised violence or preached violence'‘ for the outrages, the minister for foreign affairs Garret FitzGerald told Galsworthy that “the government's view was that popular hostility appeared to be directed more against the IRA'‘.

Galsworthy took a certain pleasure in the hardening of attitudes against republicans. He noted that an “official IRA candidate'‘ for the local elections in south-west Dublin was “roughed up by a working-class crowd'‘.

The Irish Civil Rights Association (ICRA) also cancelled its normal Sunday afternoon demonstration outside the ambassador's residence “ostensibly on the grounds that the Garda would be better employed than in protecting me, but perhaps in reality because the ICRA has detected the prevailing anti-IRA mood'‘.

Galsworthy added facetiously: “I almost felt neglected.”

The ambassador later wrote: “It is only now that the South has experienced violence that they are reacting in the way that the North has sought for so long.”

Despite these feelings of schadenfreude, he told the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) that “it would be. . . a psychological mistake for us to rub this point in . . . I think the Irish have taken the point'‘.

During the period of the loyalist workers' strike, British officials at the Northern Ireland Office – JN Allen and Michael Oatley - were in regular contact with the UVF leadership.

Members of the UVF, according to the Barron Report, were responsible for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

Contact was made with Ken Gibson of the UVF on at least three occasions in 1974 – on May 21, 27 and 29. No reference was made to the explosions in the south, and the talks centred on internal loyalist politics. The UVF supported power-sharing involving everyone except Republicans.

The NIO officials noted after the meeting of May 27 that “the UVF's relationship with us has become very strange. They are desperately in need of advice as to how to achieve their aims of ensuring working-class - and above all UVF-participation in politics and they seek this from us even though they know that there are basic differences between them and HMG [Her Majesty's Government] on the strike.”

By September, Northern Secretary Merlyn Rees was telling the British prime minister Harold Wilson: “We have successfully encouraged moderate leaders of the UVF in following a political path. They are sadly naive and ill-equipped to do so, and are under constant pressure from their more militant colleagues, but they are also susceptible to influence and officials have kept closely in touch with them.”

Rees said his agenda for the loyalist paramilitaries was to contain “the very dangerous threat of further violence'‘, and to establish a point of influence with the loyalist coordinating committee “likely to control any attempted repetition of the Ulster Workers' Council strike'‘.

Further IRA violence, he said, would cut the ground from under the UVF moderates.

Galsworthy's hints that republicanism was facing something of a crisis in public confidence dovetailed with the general British belief that the Provisional IRA was suffering from serious tensions between its leaders in the Republic and the organisation in the North.

In a particularly acerbic memo, dated June 11, the British Ambassador alleged that leading Provo Daithi Ó Conaill had walked out of hunger striker Michael Gaughan's funeral Mass because of his need to appeal to Northern republicans. Ó Conaill was protesting at a sermon which had criticised the IRA campaign and had elicited protests from the congregation.

Galsworthy noted: “The voices that called out their protests in the church spoke with Northern accents.’' He added: “This factor [might have] played its part in deciding O'Connell to walk as a ‘tough' gesture. He could hardly seem to acquiesce, in the presence of Northern members of his organisation, if anyone – least of all a Catholic priest - [implied] that there should be no war against the British.”

The Dublin middle-class, the ambassador wrote, were recoiling from “the Gaughan road-show. . .with much the same feeling of disgust as we do'‘.

Brian Major, another British diplomat, noted with some satisfaction that one bus leaving Dublin for the North after the arrival of Gaughan's remains in Dublin Airport was “stoned by a crowd of youths in north Dublin'‘.

He marvelled that, while Fianna Fáil's Bodenstown commemoration had only received five column inches in the Irish Times, Official Sinn Féin's commemoration had been given 40 column inches.

Earlier in the year, on February 13, Galsworthy said that he had received an anonymous telephone call purporting to be from Provisional Sinn Féin asking whether the British government might opt to legalise the party in the North before the general election.

The caller, who stressed that a “top-level meeting'' of Provos was debating the question, stated that “certain PIRA leaders were extremely anxious about the problem'‘ because “they were under extreme pressure from a group of ‘Trotskyite socialists' who were trying to take over the movement from within'‘.

This new group, the caller alleged, was based in Belfast but was different from the “old hard-line gang controlled by [Seamus] Twomey. . . it had outside help, and had gained a measure of control over the main arms supply'‘.

The caller told Galsworthy that the cell had only been uncovered during the previous week, and insisted that “it was urgently necessary for HMG to react helpfully'‘.

When Brian Faulkner, John Hume and Paddy Devlin were canvassed about the notion of Sinn Féin standing in the general election, they “gave the news . . . a cautious welcome'‘. Garret FitzGerald, however, proposed that the party should be allowed to stand “precisely so they could expose themselves to defeat'‘.

In any event, according to Galsworthy, the Army Council had decided not to take part in the election by a small majority, but there had been “a real division of opinion with many seeking away out from their present policy of violence'‘.

The IRA campaign, especially in Belfast, was regarded as particularly subversive of British commitment. The commanding officer of the British Army in Northern Ireland, Lieutenant General Sir Frank King, told Wilson on April 18 that “he did not think it was an exaggeration that fire bombs could win the war. The security problems which they posed were like ‘shoplifting in reverse': ie, you had to prevent terrorists from leaving small parcels in stores.”

King added that morale in the army had plummeted, as “some soldiers were now on their fourth and fifth tour of duty in the Province . . . [and] there was also dissatisfaction that soldiers transferred to Ulster from Germany lost their entitlement to duty-free cigarettes'‘.

The prime minister was aware of general British discontent about the increased military presence in the North, which was now approaching its fifth anniversary.

On May 13, Wilson read details of an “IRA plot'‘ to the House of Commons.

The plan - available in manuscript form in the Public Record Office in London, as it was when taken by security forces during a raid in Belfast - was explicitly seized upon for its propaganda value, according to accompanying memos.

Wilson's speech, which went through many drafts, stated that the IRA's aim was to carry out a “scorched earth policy'‘ in loyalist areas of Belfast, and “by means of ruthless and indiscriminate violence, to foment inter-sectarian hatred and a degree of chaos'‘, creating a situation “in which the IRA could present themselves as the protectors of the Catholic population'‘.

In a letter to Wilson that November, Paddy Devlin of the SDLP denounced this revelation as “pure science fiction material which no one but the loyalist agitators took seriously at a time when the Provos were not in a position in Belfast to occupy a telephone kiosk'‘.

Despite Wilson's allegations in May, the House of Commons had removed the ban on Sinn Féin and the UVF in the North the day after his speech. The following month, the IRA bombed the Houses of Parliament, damaging Westminster Hall. Subsequent bombs in Britain were detonated in pubs in Guildford and Birmingham in October and November respectively.

By September, Merlyn Rees speculated that the IRA Army Council in Dublin seemed “increasingly isolated but probably still [had] the power of deciding whether to intensify or end the campaign'‘.

The British government believed that the Provos were looking for an opportunity to call a ceasefire, because they had unilaterally approached them in early summer “for political discussions (willingness to discuss a declaration of intent to withdraw)”.

According to Rees, British reluctance to “respond'‘ caused “confusion and some resentment'' among the IRA.

Irish state papers

The military files opened in the National Archives in Dublin for 1974 deal mostly with the minutiae of the whereabouts and activities of suspected “subversives'‘, including Tomás MacGiolla, Desmond Greaves, Deasún Breathnach, Declan Bree, Desmond Fennell, Cathal Goulding, Captain James Kelly and Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, among others.

The information, often garnered from attendance at public meetings around the country, can appear to be inconsequential, and raises questions about how such intelligence could have been gathered.

For example, a July 14 memo notes that “Harald Stoeren wants Rory Brady to send him IRA songs [and] knows Rory Brady has been in contact with the head of Norwegian broadcasting'‘.

A military file about Daithi Ó Conaill is more bewildering, as almost every article within it has been withheld from the general release, apart from a newspaper cutting, some general notes and a particularly strange page giving instructions on how to make a “kitchen sink H bomb'‘.

The year ended on a more peaceful note. Following consultation between Protestant churchmen and Provisional Sinn Féin in the Co Clare town of Feakle in December, the IRA Army Council declared a ceasefire, dependent on a limitation of security force activity in the North. It issued proposals to the British government demanding a commitment to withdraw, the election of an all-Ireland assembly to draft a new constitution and an amnesty for political prisoners. The details of these developments were on British government stationery in the National Archives in Dublin.

Rory Rapple is a Fellow in History at St John's College, Cambridge.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?