Britain’s greatest mistake?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

It is arguable that the eventual decision to send in the troops while leaving the Stormont regime intact was the greatest mistake of British policy during the Troubles. It is clear that this decision was not taken casually or lightly, yet the fact remains that the government’s strategy allowed it to garner the worst of both worlds: the apparent threat to implement direct rule in 1969 if British troops were called in led to dreadful deterioration on the streets of Belfast, but the failure to implement direct rule once these troops arrived accelerated a radicalising momentum in Catholic politics. Callaghan, according to one senior official, felt that there was in fact a viable strategy still available in the autumn—‘to talk green and act Orange’—but he was realistic enough to tell the cabinet on 11 September that the Catholic honeymoon with British troops was over and that the only solution that would work would take at least ten years.

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