Archive reveals senior British civil servant's frank view of Northern Ireland


The “Micks” enjoyed provoking the “Prods”, who equally enjoyed retaliating.

This was part of a lesson in modern Irish history that a top British civil servant delivered in 1970 to James Callaghan, the then Labour home secretary and future British prime minister.

Oliver Wright, who was seconded from the British foreign office to serve in the home office, provided Callaghan with an elevated mandarin-style analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland. After years in which Westminster ignored the North, Wright was the first official “representative of the United Kingdom government”.

In 1970 28 people died as a consequence of the Troubles and Wright, attempting to put into focus the violence and unionist-nationalist tensions of the time, confidentially wrote: “For 700 years the English in their folly sought to govern the Irish and employed every method including, alas, the plantation of colonists to achieve their aim. When they grew weary of ill-doing and decided towards the end of the 19th century to leave the Irish to their own devices their Scots-Calvinist colonists shouted, ‘Hey, what about us?’ ”

He said the North was a “tribal society and the two tribes” trusted “each other about as well as dog and cat, Arab and Jew, Greek and Turkish Cypriot”.

‘Dominate the North’

Wright, in the 10-page letter, which was uncovered from the British archives at Kew in London by the Pat Finucane Centre – full text is on– told Callaghan that “in fear of domination by the South unionists took care to dominate the North”, with the British government perpetuating a “most unBritish-style injustice towards the Catholic minority”.

He added: “But the minority, though perhaps more sinned against than sinning, has been far from blameless . . . In true Irish fashion the Micks have enjoyed provoking the Prods as much as the Prods have enjoyed retaliating.

“Catholic attitudes have been at best ambivalent and at worst treacherous. It makes the Prods’ blood boil – and all Irish blood boils at a very low temperature – to see the Micks enjoy the superior material benefits of the British connexion while continuing to wave the tricolour at them.”

Of unionists he wrote that too many of them had a feeling of hatred and a desire for vengeance for the “humiliation” of seeing “the Protestant ascendancy dispensing justice to Catholics at Westminster’s insistence”.

“Altogether too many of them look to the one man with charisma in Ulster, a man of God, the Reverend Ian Paisley, to give it to them. It is small wonder that Ulstermen seem in my short experience to be a nation of pessimists: they have a lot to be pessimistic about.”

Wright indicated his admiration for politicians such as John Hume and Brian Faulkner, both of whom were central to the doomed Sunningdale powersharing deal in 1973 and which became a template for the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

He praised then Fianna Fáil taoiseach Jack Lynch’s realism.

“He must come to realise that the only prospect of Irish unity lies in the seduction not the rape of the North. The South will, I suspect, be a long time a-wooing, if they ever start: the Irish tend to marry late, I believe.”

He also wrote of plans, achieved in August of 1970, to form the SDLP from a disparate “medley” of “nationalists, republicans, Labour and independents”; a “fusion with some pretty fissionable material”.

‘Strong-arm squad’

He described the B Specials as the RUC’s “paramilitary strong-arm squad” and wrote of how “two Paisleyites have won seats to that disgrace to democracy, the Belfast Corporation”, now Belfast City Council.

Wright, who died in 2009 aged 88, could write well but he was not prescient. He informed Callaghan, the home secretary who sent British troops to Northern Ireland to assist the RUC in 1969, that he was “cautiously optimistic” for the future, “for things are immeasurably better than when I unpacked six months ago”.

“Your policy clearly has been right: to offer help, to insist on reform but to allow and enable Stormont to be the instrument of reform. Indeed there is no alternative except direct rule and no-one in their right mind wants that if it can be avoided.”

Two years later Stormont was prorogued with direct rule imposed from Westminster. The North was experiencing the worst of the Troubles: 180 deaths in 1971; 496 in 1972; 263 in 1973; 303 in 1974; 267 in 1975; and 308 in 1976.