Seeds of peace were sown in Troubles’ darkest days

If the Council of Ireland agreed at Sunningdale was a Trojan horse for Irish unity, it was one that most senior Dublin civil servants outside Foreign Affairs shied away from

 Taoiseach Mr Liam Cosgrave and British prime minister  Edward Heath sign the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973

Taoiseach Mr Liam Cosgrave and British prime minister Edward Heath sign the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973


The period between 1972 and 1975 was the most violent of the Northern Ireland conflict. Almost 1,300 people were killed, over a third of all deaths during the course of the conflict. Yet, this was also a time of political experimentation, witnessing the creation of the region’s first government involving powersharing between nationalists and unionists. These years also saw the British and Irish governments, and the powersharing executive, sign the Sunningdale Agreement, which promised to usher in a new era of co-operation in Ireland.

Given the contemporary focus on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, and the vast tranches of archival material now available to researchers, it is an opportune time to reflect on developments during one of its most turbulent eras. Most of the debates concerning Northern Ireland’s past revolve around atrocities committed by the Provisional IRA, loyalist groups or the security forces. However, there have latterly been calls for much closer scrutiny of the role played by successive Dublin governments in how the conflict developed.

Some commentators have suggested that successive Irish governments were not proactive enough in combating terrorism during the worst years of the violence. This criticism, in particular, focuses on the inadequacy of the Republic’s record on border security, namely its pursuit of the Provisional IRA. Provisional IRA operatives often fled across the border to evade the attention of security forces in Northern Ireland. This left some with the impression that the southern state was a haven for militant republicans.

Here, the state papers held in national archives suggest contrasting approaches between the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch, and the Fine Gael/Labour coalition led by Liam Cosgrave. Under Cosgrave’s leadership, the British believed that security co-operation on the Northern Ireland border significantly improved.

The British ambassador to Ireland considered the coalition “more active and determined” on border security “than their [Fianna Fáil] predecessors”, even if “many of their efforts have been faltering and fumbling”. It must also be noted that British forces in Northern Ireland were often incapable of clamping down on violence on their side of the border, a point successive taoisigh were not slow to make during this time.

Incidents such as the Littlejohn affair of 1973 also hindered moves towards closer British-Irish co-operation. Three British men (the Littlejohn brothers and Robert Stockman), who were charged with a Dublin bank robbery, claimed to be British intelligence operatives. The British insisted the suspects’ extradition hearings in London be held in camera, and pressed their ambassador in Dublin not to reveal their reasons for this.

When Garret FitzGerald, then minister for foreign affairs, raised the case with the British ambassador, Arthur Galsworthy, he received a dismissive reply. Galsworthy mentioned the difficult circumstances faced by British security services, and cited the Arms Crisis of 1970 as a prominent example. Here, he claimed, some members of the previous Irish government had organised “the supply of money and arms to the terrorists”. It seems clear, therefore, that British intelligence services felt justified in utilising all necessary tactics in the war against the IRA, however dubious their legality.

The nature of these activities have led to calls for further scrutiny of the behaviour of British, and Northern Ireland, security forces during this period, concerning possible collusion with loyalists, and the mistreatment of nationalists. Archival evidence certainly hints that antipathy towards nationalists was a factor for some members of the security forces. The author of a British army report on rioting in Derry in 1974 stated the view that “the scum of Europe live west of the Foyle”. It is unlikely that such attitudes were unique to the author of this report.

Another source of controversy, at the time and subsequently, was the Irish government’s approach to the Sunningdale Council of Ireland, a body established to improve cross-border security co-operation, but also to oversee the sharing of services between north and south.

Much debate continues about the purpose of the council. Many unionists were outraged by it, fearing Dublin would seek to use it to create the structures for an embryonic all-Ireland government. Some historians, to this day, share this view.

Archival evidence, however, tells a different story. While Dublin did originally view the council’s evolutionary potential as significant, this changed considerably between 1973 and 1974.

The Department of Foreign Affairs asked other Irish departments to consider which of their functions could be ceded to the council, encouraging them to be as inclusive as possible. Their fellow departments, however, viewed the council as much with suspicion as enthusiasm.

The functions which they considered could be devolved to it were insignificant. Foreign Affairs continued to push the idea of the council as a potential all-Ireland government in embryo. But it was isolated and, to a large extent, ignored by other departments.

The truth was that most of the Dublin establishment were perfectly happy with partition, whatever politicised utterances they occasionally made on the subject: utterances which, coupled with the Republic’s ongoing territorial claim on Northern Ireland, did little to improve north-south relations.

However, despite tensions on security matters, this period was crucial in the development of British-Irish relations. The Sunningdale Agreement, and the subsequent commitment of successive British governments that there should be an Irish dimension to any settlement, ensured Dublin would play a key supporting role – and most of the mandarins in Dublin wished for no more than that – in Northern Ireland’s political future.

While the two governments faced many challenges, the state papers suggest the overall picture in British-Irish relations was one of improvement. These advances during the “Sunningdale period” paved the way for the intergovernmental approach to Northern Ireland, culminating in the Anglo-Irish and Belfast Agreements.

Both governments continue to seek common approaches to Northern Ireland’s contemporary challenges, as the recent Fresh Start negotiations demonstrate. The journey has not always been smooth, but the foundations of the British-Irish relationship, laid during the 1970s, have rarely been stronger: at least, for now.

Shaun McDaid’s Template for Peace: Northern Ireland, 1972-75 (Manchester University Press) is now available in paperback

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