London pinned hopes on `liberal' O'Neill
When civil rights supporters marched through Derry on October 5th, 1968, to protest against housing discrimination in the city the day ended with a pitched battle with the RUC. Catholic emotions ran so high that the event paved the way for the first large-scale civil rights march in Northern Ireland a month later.
However, according to cabinet papers released in London yesterday under the 30-year rule, the British government's private view in those early days was to "maintain a dignified silence" if publicly challenged by the press. In private, London was pinning its hopes for reform on the "liberal" unionism of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Capt Terence O'Neill, especially since in its view he had successfully countered the challenge mounted against him by his deputy, Brian Faulkner, in 1967.
In the event, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Home Office urged caution when considering what response, if any, should be conveyed to the Irish government.
In a memo written by Eric Le Tocq, a counsellor at the FCO to Roland Hunt, the assistant under-secretary at the FCO, dated October 9th, 1968, his assessment was that London should keep Dublin at bay. Neither the United Kingdom government nor the Northern Ireland government was in any way called upon to justify to Dublin its actions in Northern Ireland, the memo said.
"The Irish Republican government, Dublin press and the great majority of people in the Republic will not be prepared to hear any apologia for the Northern Ireland government."
The memo insisted that the UK government was not constitutionally responsible for maintaining law and order in Northern Ireland, but went on to say that London "does not universally support the methods and objectives of all organs of the government of Northern Ireland".
Tensions had already arisen the previous year between Harold Wilson's Labour government and Capt O'Neill. At Downing Street Wilson made it clear on January 12th, 1967, that he was already facing difficult questions about allegations of discrimination between both traditions in the North. The press notice of the meeting stated that there had been a frank and friendly exchange of views.
But according to a secret note written by Wilson's private secretary, Peter Le Cheminant, Wilson told Capt O'Neill, who was accompanied by Brian Faulkner and William Craig, Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, that Labour MPs were exercised by allegations of discrimination, particularly in local government.
Wilson had been informed in advance that in the presence of his Stormont colleagues, Capt O'Neill might not be as "liberal" as when they had last met. In the event, Capt O'Neill and his colleagues told Wilson that, while restricted franchise was a source of criticism, discrimination arose from the small size of local government units rather than from any religious or political motive. Therefore the issue was not of great importance. In a secret memo from the FCO to the Home Office written on October 30th, 1968, after the Taoiseach, Mr Jack Lynch, met Wilson in the House of Commons, there was a pointer to increasing Irish concerns about the North. According to the memo, Wilson told Lynch that, although he recognised the internal pressure the Irish government was under concerning the North, Capt O'Neill had demonstrated that he wanted to see reform and liberalisation, and he supported him in that plan. On Partition, Wilson told Lynch it was "a matter for Irish people both sides of the Border". If there was a growing sense of respect between Lynch and Wilson during their meetings in 1968, British observations about contact between the Stormont government and Dublin were somewhat gloomy. The first visit of a Northern Ireland Prime Minister to Lynch as Taoiseach in Dublin on January 8th, 1968, found diplomats at the British embassy in Dublin wondering how the impetus of the summit meetings could be maintained.
They concurred with a comment in the Cork Examiner, which said the summit meetings might go some way to removing the atmosphere of hostility in areas such as religion and politics, "which might in turn pave the way for harmony of spirit. We shall see." Dublin's refusal to recognise the Stormont government was a matter of some irritation at the FCO. Over lunch with Dr T.K. Whitaker, Secretary of the Department of Finance, in December 1967, Peter Carter, a counsellor in the British embassy in Dublin, suggested the time was right for change. If only Dublin could give constitutional recognition to Stormont, it would be "a great step forward", Carter wrote in his report.
Dr Whitaker was sympathetic to the idea as he regarded himself as belonging "to the school of realists". However, he told Carter that the matter was "too sensitive" for Irish Ministers to accept. Later in 1968 diplomats at the British embassy in Dublin were once again keeping a close eye on the shifting fortunes and political direction of the IRA. In January the press had been speculating about a possible split in the ranks. There were a number of skirmishes and raids in the Border region, carried out by an "illegal organisation".
In July an embassy diplomat sent a "depressing" report to the FCO about the possibility of renewed IRA violence. He pointed out that because tensions still ran high over Partition "we cannot exclude the possibility of trouble from the Irish Republican government, as well as their more lunatic citizens . . ." And in a secret memo sent to the FCO in July the then British ambassador, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, noted that the organisation was in possession of "considerable stocks of arms and explosives". The "apparent passivity" of the IRA in recent years had led to the formation of one or more "ginger groups".
There were perhaps 1,500 active members, he wrote, but it would be wrong to imagine that, although the IRA had been manipulated by left-wingers and had made contact with international subversive groups, it would entirely abandon its old ways. .