Lemass-O'Neill talks focused on `purely practical matters'

Revealing new light on the exchange of meetings between the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Capt Terence O'Neill and the Taoiseach…

Revealing new light on the exchange of meetings between the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Capt Terence O'Neill and the Taoiseach, Mr Sean Lemass, is shed in confidential Cabinet files just released by the Public Record Office in Belfast. The two prime ministers met twice, first in Belfast on January 14th, 1965 and later in Dublin, during Capt O'Neill's return visit on Friday 9th, 1965.

A press statement from the Northern Ireland government on January 14th, 1965 announced the first encounter: "An historic meeting took place in Belfast today, when for the first time since the partition of Ireland over 40 years ago, the Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland and Republic met. Mr Sean Lemass accepted an invitation from Capt Terence O'Neill to lunch with himself and Mrs O'Neill at Stormont, seat of Northern Ireland's government.

After their talks the two men issued a terse joint statement: "We have today discussed matters in which there may prove to be a degree of common interest and have agreed to explore further what specific measures may be possible by way of practical consultation or co-operation."

The newly-released Stormont file, headed "Proposals for co-operation arising out of meeting with Mr Lemass" contains a note from Mrs Nora Whitaker, wife of Dr Ken Whitaker, secretary to the Irish Department of Finance and one of Mr Lemass's key advisers. She thanks the Stormont Prime Minister for "the gift you sent me by Ken . . . I was thrilled to be included in your thoughtfulness.


The core of the file is a secret note of the private discussions between the two prime ministers following their informal luncheon at Stormont Castle. Forwarding the document to a Whitehall official, C.J. Bateman, Secretary to the Stormont Cabinet, confided: "This is not an agreed note and indeed, has been compiled from memory as we did not indulged in any note during the talk. You will, no doubt, impress on the Home Office the conf1dential nature of this document." The memo records: "The discussion . . . was conducted in a most amicable atmosphere. It was fully accepted by both PMs that political and constitutional questions were not at issue. The theme was the possibility of co-operation on purely practical matters, particularly in the economic field." Apart from thetwo leaders, those present were Mr Bateman, Mr K.P. Bloomfield (Assistant Secretary to the Stormont Cabinet), Mr Jim Malley (Capt O'Neill's private secretary) and Dr T.K. Whitaker.

The main topics raised included tourism, cross--Border trade industrial development, agriculture and fisheries, educational co-operation and the problems of Border areas. On tourism, those present discussed "the possibility of increasing the flow of tourist traffic to both Northern Ireland and the Republic by facilitating in every way ease of travel across the Border by measure of joint promotional effort (possibly on a British Isle basis) and the co-operation over such projects as the Shannon/Erne waterway".

The memo continues: "The possibility of promoting a further expansion of cross-Border trade was discussed. Mr Lemass appreciates that external trade is a "reserved" matter (i.e. under Westminster jurisdiction) and that most of the barriers are on his side. Lemass admitted that southern manufacturers were not very enthusiastic about tariff reductions but gave the impression that further tariff reductions on Northern Ireland were very possible once the North's import surcharge was lifted.

Regarding industrial development promotion, Mr Lemass said there seemed to be cases where North and South were "bidding" against each other. Discussion also ranged over possible co-operation in agricultural research to avoid any duplication of effort. On education, "the Republic would welcome an award of university scholarships in Northern Ireland to be held at universities in the Republic and vice versa".

The historic note concludes: "No final conclusion was, of course, reached on any of these matters. The discussion was purely in the nature of a preliminary tour d'horizon. It was agreed that the two sides would exchange papers outlining matters on which they would welcome consultation and/or co-operation.

Following the meeting, Mr Bateman obtained "heads" for possible discussion between the two governments. An official in the North's Ministry of Agriculture, J.C. Baird, informed him: "perhaps it is because we have already had considerable liaison with the Dublin Department of Agriculture in the past that I find it difficult to suggest very much new."

Not all the Stormont Ministers seemed exhilarated by Capt O'Neill's initiative, however. The secretary of the Ministry of Health and Social Services reported-that the Minister, Mr William Morgan, "is inclined to feel that, so far as his department is concerned, there are really no questions upon which he would himself wish to initiate discussion with his opposite number. Our social services generally are so far advanced in relation to the Republic that our main concern over the years has been to protect them from the incursions of the inhabitants of Eire."

A note in the file from the Ulster agent in London must have surprised Capt O'Neill, however. The London official reported to O'Neill's private secretary the views of the former Stormont prime minister, Lord Brooke-borough. These seem remarkable in view of his deserved reputation for hostility towards both the minority and the South. Brookeborough is quoted as saying: "Had circumstances in which it was my duty to operate been those in which the Prime Minister is now working. I should have had no hesitation in doing what Cap O'Neill has done. I do not think either the constitution or Protestantism is threatened in any way."