O'Neill was given civil rights warning
The Prime Minister, Capt Terence O'Neill, circulated a letter from Mr Edmond Warnock KC, MP for St Anne's and a former Attorney General, underlining the need for an amnesty for those prosecuted as a result of the civil rights march in Derry on October 5th and the urgent need for radical reform.
Mr Warnock warned Capt O'Neill that the prosecution of the civil rights demonstrators would be disastrous: "It will almost certainly give new life to republicanism. It will alienate all moderate opinion in the Nationalist Party."
Mr Warnock, associated with the unionist right wing in the 1950s, was openly sympathetic to the sense of injustice of the Derry marchers: "If ever a community had a right to demonstrate against a denial of civil rights, Derry is the finest example. A Roman Catholic and nationalist city has for three or four decades been administered (and none too fairly administered) by a Protestant and unionist majority, secured by manipulation of the ward boundaries for the sole purpose of retaining unionist control."
Mr Warnock provided a personal insight into the gerrymandering of Derry in 1936. "I was consulted by Sir James Craig, Dawson Bates and R.D. Megaw at the time it was done. Craig thought that the fate of our constitution was on a knife edge at that time, and in the circumstances it was defensible. It was clearly understood that the arrangement was to be a temporary measure - five years was mentioned."
On the question of an amnesty, Mr Warnock acknowledged that "we have a number of hardliners in parliament but who wouldn't give a fig for the views of men like John Brooke or Desmond Boal. There is a pretty solid lot of moderates, and the country should not be led to the brink of ruin by violent men again."
Mr Warnock warned the Prime Minister of the need for change if disaster was to be averted. "Great concessions will have to be made before long. My personal view is that there would be a vocal clerical protest, but Northern Ireland cannot survive in its present form if it goes to war with Britain. The financial power is perhaps not appreciated, but Westminster is in a difficult mood." He urged Capt O'Neill to make a bold decision.
Mr Warnock's letter was raised at the cabinet meeting on November 14th, 1968. The Prime Minister said that before the recent meeting with Mr Wilson he had urged the need to bring to Downing Street a programme of realistic reform. The cabinet had not been able to agree to any such proposals. For his part, he was not convinced that things would settle down; rather, it was his fear that scenes of dissension and riot would be repeated.
Since the entire future of Northern Ireland was at stake, the government must take the action necessary, however unpopular.
THE Minister of Agriculture, Maj James Chichester-Clark, supported Mr Warnock's view that an amnesty should be considered "in return for an undertaking by responsible nationalists to try to prevent further agitation". In the upshot, it was agreed that the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Craig, and the Attorney General should explore the possibility of an adjournment of the cases and that the Minister of Agriculture should sound out the Nationalist Chief Whip, Mr R.H. O'Connor, about the possibility of "taking the heat out of the situation".
Turning to the longer-term situation, Maj Chichester-Clark argued that it would be a grave mistake to view the situation purely in law-and-order terms. They must consider a "package deal" which would address the situation. "So far the record had been one of too little conceded too late. They ought now to offer, not a grudging instalment of reform, but the maximum concessions compatible with their vital political interests. The Londonderry grievances were real grievances."
For his part, Capt O'Neill warned that further demonstrations were in prospect. The government would, if it were not careful, slide into a policy of repression which the UK government would not support. All along certain people had been saying that the situation was not serious and nothing need be done. Downing Street had proved that this was quite wrong.
Maj Chichester-Clark outlined his "package deal", including the establishment of a commission to report on grievances. The minority would be given fair representation. Such a move would give time, though they would not be in control of the commission's recommendations.
The Minister of Home Affairs was attracted to the idea as a device to "cool down" the civil rights situation. Other proposed measures included the abolition of the company vote in local elections, the settling of the dispute with the Mater Hospital and measures to ensure fair allocation of public housing.
Ministers failed to agree, however, on the reform of the local government franchise. The Prime Minister reminded his colleagues that their arguments in favour of the present franchise had been rejected by the British Prime Minister.