Northern Ireland: a brief analysis

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), News, Volume 10

A secret memorandum, prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs forthe minister, Dr Patrick Hillery, dated 21 June 1971, provided ‘a briefanalysis of the present Nothern Ireland situation’.
The Department felt that ‘the short-term objective, that of forcingsuch institutional and other changes in the North as will break defacto and permanently the Unionist hegemony, needs to be examined inthe light of its contribution to the long-term objective, that ofachieving Irish unity’.
The application of violence in pursuit of Irish unity ‘had beenruled out either because it was seen to be unnecessary as politicalmeans could be devised to split and reduce the present resistence toIrish unity of one million people to a minimum or because sincepartition was imposed nothing has demonstrated that it is possible toobtain Irish unity by force of arms’.
The prevalent view in nationalist circles was ‘that nothing will beobtained from a Unionist government unless the maximum pressure isexerted on it. Some people—one might dare to say the majority, butdiminishing, of moderate intelligent opinion—hold that peaceful butagressive pressures from London, Dublin and within the North, workingmore or less in triple harness, should be successful over a period oftime. Others—one might equally dare to say an increasing majority ofthe minority—are sceptical of this’.
It appeared to the Department ‘that opinion in the Catholic ghettosin Belfast in particular is swinging in the direction of all outphysical attack on the regime’. It was not, however, ‘in the interestsof the people of the ghettos or of Dublin’s long-term objective toallow a possible general conflict to be induced on the wrong issue’.
The Department continued with its attempt ‘so far reasonablyrewarding’ to move London away from ‘a Unionist/Whitehall alliance onto a more perceptive view of the future of Anglo-Irish relations’.However, ‘in the short-term’ the Department believed that the Britishgovernment was set on maintaining Brian Faulkner in the position ofPrime Minister.
The memorandum pointed out that ‘responsible minority leadership inthe North has been in close touch with the Department of ForeignAffairs in recent weeks’. The Department felt that there was anincreasing feeling emerging from this quarter that there was ‘little ifany intention on the part of the Unionist establishment to createconditions which will enable the minority to participate fairly in theaffairs of the North. They consider that such reforms as have beenintroduced and any others pending are designed to correct appearancesand the most glaring abuses only’.
The ‘general strategy’ had been to ‘persuade London that there isno future for unionism except at a price which no one nowadays shouldwish to pay’. In addition to the ‘general strategy’ there was ‘thetactic used on the North itself’. This involved a combination ‘ofencouraging the Northern establishment to look southwards, viatrans-border economic co-operation ideas and the like, while at thesame time the Northern parliamentary opposition and the other minorityleaders maintain intense pressure in Stormont and elsewhere on thereform programme and on the defects of the current situation’. At thesame time the Department considered that there was a need to address‘the question of preparing public opinion here for such legislative andconstitutional changes as will be necessary to the achievement of thelong-term objective; this could have the additional benefit ofdepriving Orange extremists of useful arguments against Irish unity’.
However, the Department, conscious of the deteriorating situationin the North, raised ‘the questions of whether there is sufficient timefor such necessarily slowly-acting policies; or whether new initiativesare necessary to force the pace of events towards the short-termobjective and, if so, what initiatives are available; or whether thereis anything to be said for bringing the long-term objective nearer tothe top of the agenda’.


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