Catholic murders described as ‘unfortunate but understandable’

02 January 2005 By Rory Rapple

The way in which the Sunningdale agreement dissolved into a bloody mess is charted in agonising detail in state papers for 1974 just released by the National Archives in London and Dublin.

Hopes for peace in the North never really recovered from the debacle of a Westminster election in February.

It proved an acute embarrassment for the former Northern prime minister, Brian Faulkner, as a coalition of rejectionist Unionists gained a sweeping majority in Northern Ireland.

The election also brought a minority Labour administration under Harold Wilson into office and a new Secretary of State to Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees.

The papers show that Anglo-Irish relations in 1974 were marked by a distinct lack of warmth.

The Irish government spent much time raising questions about British army harassment of the Catholic community in the North, while the British government constantly needled Dublin about cross-border security.

The implementation of the Sunningdale Agreement was pursued with a lack of enthusiasm by the British, and the weakness of their defence of it during the loyalist strike was much criticised.

The Irish agenda was unwittingly compromised twice because of British access to internal Irish briefs on security.

In the first instance an aide memoire came into British hands prior to Wilson's meeting with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in September. On a second occasion, the British got their hands on a document which had been carelessly left behind in government offices by Irish civil servants.

While Faulkner was attempting to hold together his power-sharing executive made up of SDLP, Alliance and moderate Unionists, extreme loyalists - including Ian Paisley, the UDA and the Vanguard Unionist Party (led by William Craig) - allied against him. Among their major grievances was the inclusion of a North-South body, the Council of Ireland, in the Sunningdale agreement.

Of particular interest, given the current situation in Northern Ireland, are accounts of Paisley's strategy in 1974.

Along with other extremists, he constantly alleged that lax security on the border was responsible for a good portion of the North's ills.

In March, Craig told Rees that “to his certain knowledge weapons were being delivered secretly to Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland by air'‘.

In the same month, Paisley warned civil servants at the Northern Ireland Office that “there was a risk that he and his party would no longer be able to restrain the Protestant community from taking the law into its own hands'‘.

During the loyalist strike, Craig would describe the sectarian murders of Catholics as “unfortunate but understandable - if democracy is being trampled into the ground you are entitled to take whatever action is needed'‘.

Despite alliances of necessity, the Northern Ireland Office noted that “there was clearly a split between Dr Paisley, Mr Craig and the workers'‘.

By the end of the year, relations between the British government and the SDLP were at an all-time low. The moderate nationalist party felt betrayed by British incapability, and they suspected, unwillingness, to break the loyalist workers' strike.

In October, Rees - in a characteristic display of Labour machismo - wrote that “the SDLP are always a problem.

"They lack leadership and are neither Social Democratic nor Labour. They grew up under Whitelaw and find it difficult to face life without an English nanny – the Torier the better.”

The next month, Paddy Devlin of the SDLP denounced Rees in a letter to Wilson as “more lethal than a ‘Provo' proxy bomb'‘.

Rees believed that Southern concerns about the North were fairly narrow-gauged: “The last thing it wants is Northern Ireland... the main reassurance to be given to the Irish government must be that we will never leave a Congo-type situation in Northern Ireland.”

He also believed that the British Army was the “only real arm of government'‘ he could depend on and stressed the importance of keeping it constantly informed of government thinking.

The letter in which Rees outlined these opinions was marked merely “confidential'‘ and was later upped to “secret'‘.

The margin of this letter, like many of the documents released this year, contains comments in Wilson's distinctive handwriting, including the query: “Is anyone else seeing this? Is not this paper under-classified?”

Although Britain's public commitment to power-sharing seemed strong, in private, power-sharing - “the only just solution'‘ - was being described as outside “the realm of practical politics in the immediate future'‘.

In the absence of power-sharing, Labour committed itself to the idea of a Constitutional Convention elected by proportional representation to discuss the future status of Northern Ireland.

Gerry Fitt, leader of the SDLP, told Rees in September that the convention would amount to “a blank cheque for the Protestants'‘. John Hume expressed his fears that loyalists would dominate proceedings and make a unilateral declaration of independence, leaving Northern Catholics in a particularly vulnerable position.

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