‘The blind leading the blind’? London’s response to the 1969 crisis

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

British Home Secretary James Callaghan gives a press conference upon his arrival at Aldergrove airport, outside Belfast, in August 1969. (Getty Images)

British Home Secretary James Callaghan gives a press conference upon his arrival at Aldergrove airport, outside Belfast, in August 1969. (Getty Images)

Contrary to a widespread impression, the British political élite actually had a reasonable degree of acquaintance with Northern Ireland, and Ireland as a whole, before the Troubles broke out. (Denis Healey’s grandfather, born in Enniskillen, was a Fenian, and his father retained a strong enough sense of Irishness to heckle ‘What about Ireland, Major Healey?’ at one of his son’s hustings meetings in 1945.) The first three prime ministers to deal with the problem—Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan—had all visited Northern Ireland before the Troubles. Heath, for example, stayed a number of times at the home of Robin Chichester-Clark, while Callaghan had visited in 1955 and Harold Wilson had been a young Whitehall mandarin tasked with attempting to improve Northern Ireland’s wartime productivity. His Huyton constituency had a very large Irish Catholic element, leading him to make the rather tactless boast to a visiting Irish taoiseach that he had more Irish constituents than the taoiseach.
The trouble was not so much pure ignorance but, as Merlyn Rees pointed out, a tendency to see Northern Ireland affairs through the prism of its contribution to the British wartime record or, alternatively, as Callaghan noted, through recollections of the Troubles of the 1920s, which scarred so many British politicians. In this early phase of the Troubles, the Home Office remained firmly in charge of policy. The Foreign Office did submit a rather theoretical paper on British withdrawal, but Callaghan (then home secretary) dismissed it.

‘Fudges, dodges and wangles’

Nobody understood the finances of Northern Ireland, as Dick Crossman pointed out in his cabinet diaries. But even here there is an element of overstatement. After each budget the chancellor of the day met with the Northern Ireland minister for finance to discuss the implications of the new budget for the province. The actual financial arrangements for the operation of the Stormont system had evolved in a messy ad hoc way since 1921—‘fudges, dodges and wangles’, according to Sir Richard Hopkins, treasury controller in 1939. In essence, it was a simple function of the decline of the regional economy since its pre-World War I heyday and the political need to preserve something close to parity with the United Kingdom in economic and social conditions. The evolution of the various agreements and compromises was difficult to understand in all its gory detail, but the bottom line was clear to all—in particular to Harold Wilson, who realised that Northern Ireland’s financial dependence gave him a weapon with which to help its moderate reformist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, against his hard-liners. In his later memoirs Wilson claimed to have admired O’Neill’s ‘programme of easement’ of Catholic–Protestant tension in Northern Ireland, and indeed, at the end of 1968, it looked as if O’Neill’s British-backed reformism would win out.

Eamonn McCann—in an interview at this time with New Left Review he was brutally honest:‘It is perfectly obvious that people do still see themselves as Catholics and Protestants, and the cry “Get the Protestants” is still very much on the lips of the Catholic working class. Everyone applauds when one says in a speech that we are not sectarian, we are fighting for the rights of all Irish workers, but really that’s because they see this as the new way of getting at the Protestants.’ (Eamonn Melaugh)

Eamonn McCann—in an interview at this time with New Left Review he was brutally honest:
‘It is perfectly obvious that people do still see themselves as Catholics and Protestants, and the cry “Get the Protestants” is still very much on the lips of the Catholic working class. Everyone applauds when one says in a speech that we are not sectarian, we are fighting for the rights of all Irish workers, but really that’s because they see this as the new way of getting at the Protestants.’ (Eamonn Melaugh)

But O’Neill’s prospects were very soon to go awry. On 1 January the People’s Democracy march, about 40-strong, left Belfast for Derry. The march was criticised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and when it left the city the Irish News, the main nationalist newspaper, was still firmly in the O’Neill camp. On 4 January the march was attacked by loyalists at Burntollet bridge, outside Derry. According to Bernadette Devlin, one of the march leaders, ‘A few policemen were, at least, trying to stop us from being killed, but some were quite delighted that we were getting what, in their terms, we deserved’. The present writer, who was also present, did not see any delighted policemen (though one County Antrim Orange arch still listed ‘Burntollet’ as a victory, along with Aughrim and the Boyne, in the 1990s), but the importance of the event cannot be overstated. The editorial tone of the Irish News immediately became hostile towards O’Neill; it soon became clear that the prime minister had lost the Catholic middle class.

Cool attitude to student radicals

Some in London, however, retained a cool attitude to the student radicals, whom they believed were motivated by the international revolt of 1968. James Callaghan accepted that there were real civil rights issues in play but felt that the international fervour was an additional complicating factor—‘a spark that enabled them to believe that they could really conquer’. The notion that liberal unionism was somehow the ‘real enemy’ was at the core of radical civil rights thinking. The sentiment may be found in Owen Dudley Edwards’s book The sins of our fathers. A Belfast Telegraph analysis by Barry White (‘What is the future for civil rights?’) concluded that ‘O’Neill must go’ was just as popular in civil rights as in Paisleyite ranks. It was clearly acknowledged that O’Neill’s departure might lead to ‘repression’ but this was preferable to stabilisation. There were even fantasies of possible collaboration with Paisley, which led Bernadette Devlin to visit his house.
It was not that the People’s Democracy radicals as a group wanted to open up the North for a quarter-century of ‘anti-imperialist’ conflict. On the contrary, in an interview at this time with New Left Review, Eamonn McCann insisted that the Northern Ireland conflict was not a colonial one, and Bernadette Devlin almost seemed to apologise for relying on Catholic support.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson—not ignorant of Northern Ireland affairs. As a young Whitehall mandarin he had been tasked with improving its wartime productivity. (Gateshead Council)

Prime Minister Harold Wilson—not ignorant of Northern Ireland affairs. As a young Whitehall mandarin he had been tasked with improving its wartime productivity. (Gateshead Council)

Bereft of moderate Catholic support, in good measure owing to the activity of the student radicals, O’Neill stumbled on to defeat. The Belfast Telegraph reluctantly accepted O’Neill’s departure on 28 April. Acknowledging his lack of political technique, it took comfort from the fact that O’Neill had established (in his own words) that ‘no solution based on the ascendancy of any section of the community can hope to endure’. Northern Ireland stumbled on towards intercommunal violence involving large numbers of Catholics and Protestants on the streets. The rioting in Derry was provoked by an Apprentice Boys parade, which Wilson later said that he had personally favoured banning.
During the Battle of the Bogside, on 13 August, a troubled Taoiseach Jack Lynch broadcast that the Irish government ‘can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’; he asked the British government to request the immediate dispatch of a UN peacemaking force to Northern Ireland, and announced that field hospitals were being prepared in County Donegal and other border areas.
On 14 August rioting in Derry continued and spread to Belfast, involving Catholic and Protestant crowds. On 15 August the rioting continued in Belfast, and many homes were burned in Bombay Street, in the Catholic Clonard area; Catholic refugees fled to the Republic. In Derry, the Labour MP Stan Orme recalled: ‘I saw for myself the B-Specials firing gas into the Bogside . . . I have never been so frightened in my life’. In the afternoon British troops took up their positions and established a peace-line between Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast.

Stormont assumed that British troops meant direct rule

At this point, lobby correspondents in London were urged by the government to leak the ‘fact’ that any call for British troops to control public order in Northern Ireland would lead to the abolition of Stormont and the introduction of direct rule, which, indeed, the Whitehall system had been considering formally since February 1969. Many shrewd observers were later to conclude that the Stormont government’s (incorrect) assumption that a request for British troops would lead to the immediate abolition of Stormont had created a context in which an overstretched and badly organised police force was given responsibility for massive public-order problems, which the earlier utilisation of British troops would have averted.
The key element in London’s strategy was to replace the discredited B-Specials with a new non-sectarian force, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), to the great rage of many unionists. November was, however, to see a dramatic change in public perceptions of the UDR, which, crucially, was to be under British, not local, command like the B-men. At first, James Chichester-Clark continued to feel the tide of popular anger: on 12 November the prime minister, a war hero and the most prominent local Unionist politician and landowner, was voted out of his place as vice-chairman of the Castledawson Unionist branch to be replaced by a 53-year-old bus driver, Fred Taylor. Both John Hume and Austin Currie urged Catholics to join the UDR, seen as a new start for security policy in the province. They were denounced by Eamonn McCann for acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’ for the British army. It is easy enough to see why Callaghan’s memoir is so careful to note the effects of what he saw as destabilising ultra-leftism working alongside the local sectarian dynamic. Over the next week, however, the prime minister successfully persuaded the unionist political class to back the new force, stressing, amongst other things, its attractive terms and conditions. By 21 November John Wallace, the chief political reporter of the Belfast Telegraph, recorded what was to him an ‘astonishing turn of events’. The nationalists were beginning to back away from the new force, as the unionists got on board. It was a triumph for the new prime minister, who began to look much less like a stopgap figure—but it undoubtedly helped the rise of the Provisional IRA.

Cap badge, collar badges and tunic buttons of the Ulster Defence Regiment, formed in April 1970 to replace the discredited B-Specials. By the end of the year nationalists were beginning to back away from the new force, as the unionists got on board. (Irish Regiments of the British Army)

Cap badge, collar badges and tunic buttons of the Ulster Defence Regiment, formed in April 1970 to replace the discredited B-Specials. By the end of the year nationalists were beginning to back away from the new force, as the unionists got on board. (Irish Regiments of the British Army)

Behind the scenes, the leadership of a new IRA was preparing for war. It was this decision to attack the British army that transformed the relations between the army and the Catholic community. Early in January 1970 the Provisional Army Council formally confirmed an all-out offensive against the ‘British occupation system’; from June 1970 the newly elected Heath government was to deal with the early consequences. HI

Paul Bew is Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is grateful to the Institute of Contemporary British History for his involvement in the Northern Ireland Witness Seminars, involving senior politicians and officials, from which some of this material has been drawn.

Further reading:

Anon., ‘Explosion in Ulster: the PD militants speak’, New Left Review no. 55 (May/June 1969).

P. Bew and H. Patterson, The British state and the Ulster crisis (London, 1985).

T. Hennessy, The origins of the Troubles (Dublin, 2005).

M. Mulholland, Northern Ireland at the crossroads: Ulster Unionism in the O’Neill years (London, 2000).

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