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”.

The British cabinet gave its tepid approval, Prior recalling later that Margaret Thatcher was distinctly chilly in her reception of his plans.

Along with his junior minister, Chris Patten, Prior met the Labour shadow minister, Don Concannon, on May 6th. Concannon promised his support but observed that his party’s fear “was not for rolling devolution but that in due course things might roll back to a situation similar to that of Stormont”.

David Blatherwick, a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office, was particularly worried about the SDLP: “The SDLP is in a very unhappy state . . . They continue to fear that the White Paper proposals will lead back to majority rule . . . The SDLP have been in this mood of black despair before, and came out of it. This time I am not sure they will. Their difficulties are real. The party may split or collapse.”

The Falklands War was raging when the Bill was debated at Westminster but, even so, interest there was so flaccid that it gave a very strong indication of British boredom with the seemingly insoluble and interminable crisis in the region.

No major party leader spoke and all five of the former Northern Ireland secretaries of state remained silent. The unionists and a group of dissident Conservatives kept the debate going by denouncing the Bill’s provisions. Nevertheless, with Labour’s support, the Bill became law.

‘Lack of enthusiasm’

The NIO civil servant, EM Power, wrote an account of the debate for his boss, Sir Ewart Bell: “The dominant impression which I got was the lack of enthusiasm for the proposals on the Conservative benches . . . Of the active Northern Ireland MPs only Mr Kilfedder was absent, and of the 10 present only Mr McCusker and (praise be) Mr McQuade failed to speak . . . Mr Fitt was particularly entertaining – Mr Ross managed to fill almost 40 minutes with unrelieved tedium . . . The Labour benches resembled a Total Exclusion Zone: apart from the two Opposition spokesmen and a couple of friends on the front bench (notably Mr Rees), they were quite deserted throughout the debate.”

The SDLP decided to fight the elections for the Assembly on October 20th but otherwise to boycott the proceedings. Provisional Sinn Féin seized the opportunity to demonstrate its electoral muscle, which it did by winning five of the 78 seats and by obtaining 10.1 per cent of first-preference votes, much to Whitehall’s alarm.

With no representatives of the nationalist minority taking part, the Assembly simply became a unionist talking shop.

Having recently taken the ballot box in one hand, the Provisionals continued to deploy the Armalite with the other. They were responsible for 53 of the 112 people who died violently in 1982. The Provisionals’ deadliest attack of the year was in London: eight soldiers were killed by bombs at Knightsbridge and Regent’s Park on July 20th.

Horrific incident

Fifteen people died at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries. The RUC and army killed 14 people, some in engagements with all the appearance of being in the category of “shoot-to-kill”.

The INLA was responsible for the most horrific incident of 1982. Eleven soldiers and six other people (four of them women) were killed, and another 30 grievously injured, by a bomb detonated during a disco at the Droppin’ Well public house in Ballykelly on December 6th, a “gruesome slaughter” in the words of Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich.

Jonathan Bardon is author of A History of Ulster and The Plantation of Ulster