Times Online - Sunday Times

Revealed: UK secret plan to quit Ulster

January 02, 2005
John Burns and Andrew Bushe

SECRET plans for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland were independently drawn up by both Harold Wilson, the prime minister, and Irish government officials in 1974.

Files released by the National Archives in Kew and Dublin this weekend reveal that while Wilson was considering giving Ulster dominion status after the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing administration, Irish officials were also making contingency arrangements for a British withdrawal.

In a 1974 memo to Robert Armstrong, his private secretary, Wilson said dominion status was one possible scenario “and I have a feeling that parliamentary and other pressures may drive us to pretty early consideration of it”.

Writing on May 30, 1974, the prime minister complained that Britain had responsibility without power in Northern Ireland. There was no prospect of another power-sharing deal between unionists and nationalists, and his government was at the mercy of the Ulster Workers’ Council, which had brought down Sunningdale.

Effectively returning Northern Ireland to Protestant majority rule would have profound implications, Wilson conceded. “Outbreak of violence and bloodshed, possible unacceptability to modern Catholics, ditto the (Irish) republic, the UN and the possible spread of trouble across the water, to name but a few.

“If we can in some way remain in control of the situation we can perhaps work out a more coherent scheme, with a built-in time scale and possibly guarantees — or at least sanctions protective to ourselves.”

Dominion status would only be granted if the rights of the Catholic minority were guaranteed, the prime minister said. The new state would soon be financially self-sufficient, and Britain could “taper off” aid over a three- to five-year period. “After that, they are out on their own, and have not got a prescriptive right to standards higher than those in the south.”

Ulster people would remain subjects of the Queen, but the state would not get automatic entry to the Commonwealth. A small garrison of British troops would remain.

Irish officials were also drawing up “Doomsday” plans in preparation for a British withdrawal, files released by the National Archives in Dublin have shown.

Following the collapse of Sunningdale, an SDLP delegation told officials in Dublin that “there is a smell of it (withdrawal) in the air”. But the Fine Gael/Labour coalition was reluctant to raise the issue directly with Wilson in case it encouraged British withdrawal.

A unit of senior officials, led by Dermot Nally, was told to plan an Irish government response to the British leaving. It warned that Irish unity was not likely to result.

“It is more likely that a British withdrawal, if it is abrupt, would be followed by an attempt to establish an independent state in Northern Ireland, initially over the entire six counties but ultimately over these areas now dominated by the (Protestant) majority there,” the unit’s report concluded.

The officials drew up contingency plans for dealing with a flood of Catholic refugees across the border; the SDLP predicted that 70,000 would flee south. It estimated a cost of IR£16m to accommodate 50,000 refugees for three months. “Obviously if numbers of this magnitude or greater were to be cared for for any lengthy period, it would be necessary for the government to billet most of them on private families,” the unit said.

“Substantial inter-communal” violence could lead to re-partition, officials reckoned, with new boundaries being drawn based on the positions held by rival forces on the date of a ceasefire.

Using the 1971 census to consider new borders, the unit was most concerned about the position of large Catholic minorities in Belfast and Lisburn, and Protestant communities in border areas such as Castlederg and Enniskillen. It considered cantonment and enclave solutions of the type used for Greek and Turkish areas following conflict in Cyprus, and of making the Catholic minority in west Belfast the subject of “a west Berlin-type situation”.

Of the four re-partition models drawn up by Irish officials, the minimum affected 161,000 Catholics and 132,000 Protestants with all of Fermanagh, Londonderry, Newry and parts of counties Armagh, Down and Tyrone becoming part of the republic.

The inter-departmental unit was also worried about IRA or loyalist-controlled “autonomous areas” emerging out of the chaos following British withdrawal. There was no doubt the IRA would attempt to gain control of areas just north of the border with the “overt or tacit” support of local people.

Officials agreed that an Irish army move into the north “could only be contemplated in a situation where inter-communal fighting was already so widespread that intervention could not make matters worse”. Even without going in, about 20,000 Irish troops would be needed to maintain security south of the border.

A full takeover of the province would involve more than 100,000 troops but the army’s strength in 1974 was only 11,300. Of this only 5,500 were operational troops.

The unit warned a big troop build-up could prompt the situation it was designed to prevent, by heightening Protestant fears of an invasion. It would also swell recruitment to the Provisional and Official IRA.

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