Attempts by British government to restore devolution end in failure


WHEN JOHN Hermon took over as chief constable of the RUC on January 1st, 1980, the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland appeared as remote as ever.

On January 4th, three members of the Ulster Defence Regiment were killed by a booby-trap bomb, bringing the number of deaths arising from the Troubles since 1969 to more than 2,000; the IRA shot dead a policeman at a football ground in north Belfast three days later and, on January 13th, three passengers were killed by an incendiary device on a train travelling between Belfast and Lisburn.

The Peace People, founded in 1976, was riven by internal disagreements, leading in the spring to the resignations of a co-founder, Betty Williams, and its chairman, Peter McLachlan.

The economic downturn hit the region particularly hard. In June, Courtaulds closed its viscose plant at Carrickfergus and Grundig shut its Belfast factory. In the autumn, DuPont closed its Orlon plant in Derry and ICI its fibre plant at Kilroot. Throughout the year, 80 jobs were being lost on average each day, bringing the total of unemployed to 94,000 by December.

Northern Ireland secretary of state Humphrey Atkins met John DeLorean at Hillsborough Castle on August 5th. There, Atkins learned that the £14 million the British government was prepared to lend – “on reasonable commercial terms” – to help DeLorean launch his gull-winged sports car, which was to be manufactured at Dunmurry – “would not, however, be sufficient to bring the car to the market”. Vague assurances that more money could be raised in New York were less than convincing.

On the political front, Atkins was determined to see if devolution could be restored by agreement of the main parties. His working paper for a constitutional conference ruled out discussion of an Irish dimension.

As the conference began on January 7th, it became plain that the SDLP had become greener under its new leader, John Hume. Although Hume said the SDLP “did not advocate traditional Irish unity” – only an “agreed Ireland” – he insisted that the Irish dimension had to be considered: “It was foolish to suggest that partnership should be confined to one part of Ireland.”

The Ulster Unionist Party, led by James Molyneaux, refused to attend. For the Alliance Party, John Cushnahan said there could not be a return to simple majority rule. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley said that if “a party was given an electoral majority, the verdict of the ballot box had to be accepted”.

Paisley said he “was not at the table to obtain agreement to an Irish dimension or to any form of new, agreed or united Ireland”. He would, he added, “take great pleasure in smashing any attempt by HMG to set up arrangements which would put Northern Ireland on the road to a united Ireland”.

At the 34th – and the last – session on March 24th, the DUP insisted that any agreement reached should be put to a referendum.

Jim Allister of the DUP argued that “the test of acceptability in Scotland and Wales, ie 40 per cent of the electorate, should not be applied in Northern Ireland . . . a realistic figure to aim for would be the consent of 60 per cent of those voting [about 40 per cent of the electorate]”. In November, seeing that this exercise was futile, Atkins abandoned efforts to restore devolution.

The government was encouraged to take a harder line with prisoners convicted of terrorist offences when, on June 19th, the European Commission of Human Rights (in response to a case brought by four republican prisoners alleging inhuman treatment) reported that “it does not consider there to be anything inherently degrading or objectionable about the requirement to wear a prison uniform or to work”.

Republican prisoners in the Maze and Armagh stepped up their blanket and dirty protests.

In a paper – intended for the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland but not sent – a senior civil servant outlined the situation: “This is a campaign inside the prisons for the restoration of special category status . . . now in its ‘dirty’ form it chiefly involves some republican male and female convicted prisoners. Supporters of the prisoners back the protest outside the prison by furthering grotesque propaganda, whilst the terrorist organisations add weight through the cold-blooded murder of prison staff.”

Protest action by female prisoners in Armagh prompted John Fraser MP to ask prisons minister Michael Alison MP for details. “Last year female prisoners with IRA affiliations held a full-dress paramilitary parade inside the prison” replied Alison. “Such a flagrant breach of discipline could not be allowed to go unchallenged”.

On March 13th, one prisoner “kicked a basin containing urine and excreta towards Senior Officer Sandford, the contents went over the legs of Officer Mawhinney and Senior Officer Sandford”.

Alison wrote elsewhere of the “prisoners’ bizarre behaviour” and “wilful self-deprivation”:

“The ‘dirty protesters’ have smashed the contents of their cells, smear excrement, food and other items on the walls and pour urine under the doors; they refuse to use the toilets, to take exercise, to use the library facilities or to write to their relations . . . The Government will not weaken in its resolve to refuse any return to special category, no matter what protests are made.”

The authorities got hold of a long letter written on a single piece of toilet paper by Eugene McCormick, a prisoner in H5: “I am writing this letter to ask for your help. Not just for your help but for all the 360 men who are in the same predicament as myself.

“You see I am ‘on the blanket’ in protest against the removal of special category status . . . Just take a very, very small example. For over 20 months we have been sleeping on damp sponges on the floor with three threadbare blankets for protection against the cold . . . In the interest of human dignity if not justice, I ask you to help end the torture here.”

Failing to achieve their objective, seven republican prisoners embarked on a hunger strike on October 27th. A further 23 joined the strike on December 15th.

By then, one of the republican hunger strikers, Seán McKenna, had lost his sight and was close to death. Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich appealed to Margaret Thatcher to intervene personally and called on the prisoners “in the name of God” to end their protest. Claiming they had received a document from the Northern Ireland Office which effectively conceded their demands, the republicans called off their hunger strike on December 18th.

The last killing of the year was of a prison officer in east Belfast, shot dead by a group calling itself the Loyalist Prisoners’ Action Force. That brought the 1980 death toll from the violence to 86 – 39 fewer victims than in 1979.