Economic woes and violence eclipsed forlorn task of finding political way ahead
OVERVIEW:The economic news was unrelentingly bad for NI secretary of state Jim Prior, writes JONATHAN BARDON
The early months of 1982 proved to be bleak ones for Jim Prior, the hapless Northern Ireland secretary of state in Margaret Thatcher’s government.
In the wake of the 1981 H-Block hunger strikes, his main concern was the evident large-scale alienation of the Catholic minority. However, for much of the year it was the dire economic state of the region that preoccupied him.
In a leap of faith, the previous Labour government in London had made a deal with John DeLorean to make sports cars in west Belfast for the high end of the market. It was becoming sickeningly clear that the grandiose enterprise was swerving out of control, heading for a messy pile-up.
In January, Prior turned down DeLorean’s request for yet more money – the British government had already sunk £80 million into the enterprise. The following month 1,100 of the 2,600 employees at Dunmurry were sacked. Closure was announced in October.
The economic news for Northern Ireland was unrelentingly bad. On March 1st, British Enkalon announced that it was to close its plant in Antrim with the loss of 850 jobs. Harland and Wolff had made 1,000 redundant in February; a further 1,280 jobs were lost at the shipyard in August.
Desperate attempts were made to persuade other international corporations to set up in Northern Ireland. On June 9th Prior wrote to Leon Brittan, chief secretary to the treasury in the British government: “As you know, the Hyster project which my officials had been pursuing for some months was lost to the Irish Republic. I am deeply concerned about its implications for the future . . . Moreover, it was the only project of its kind (or, indeed, of any substance) on the horizon . . . it was, in my view, of crucial importance to the province in terms of morale (since it was to be located in Antrim, which had lost British Enkalon) and of its contribution in the medium and long term to the drastically reduced industrial base.”
Brittan was not sympathetic to Prior’s appeal to attract “a significant share of sound internationally mobile investment”.
He responded: “We should be beware of indiscriminate and costly incentives aimed at attracting footloose international investment.” He warned that “the DeLoreans of this world bring no enduring benefit and, as we have sadly found, cost a great deal”.
On December 10th Prior was informed that the Belfast Co-operative Society, which employed 1,500 and whose Belfast department store was reputedly the largest in Ireland, was insolvent.
On December 14th, senior civil servant David Fell, in a letter urging “more generous assistance”, added bleakly that “the devastating news which has just reached me that Michelin plans to announce on Friday of this week the closure of its Belfast plant, with a loss of 2,200 jobs” demonstrated that . . “the horrendous economic prospects for Northern Ireland . . . are getting worse, not better”.
‘ Rolling devolution’
Meanwhile. Prior had been putting his mind to the forlorn task of finding a political way forward.
In February, he unveiled his plan for “rolling devolution”: a new assembly would be elected, this time only with an advisory and consultative role, executive power being transferred in stages only if cross-community support for a devolutionary government could be achieved.
Most of the Official Unionists demanded full integration with the rest of the United Kingdom. The DUP sought devolution without powersharing. The SDLP, disappointed by the lack of reference to the “Irish dimension”, pronounced the proposals “unworkable”.