Portents

 

In a portent of trouble to come, the Rev Ian Paisley escalated his campaign to topple Capt Terence O'Neill in the spring of 1968. On May 20th hostile demonstrators, chanting "O'Neill must go", pelted his car with stones in Belfast.

The episode was raised at a meeting of the Stormont cabinet three days later. The Minister of Finance, Mr Herbert Kirk, said that so far there had been no public comment about the outrageous behaviour to which the Prime Minister had been subjected. He felt the proper source for such a statement would be the cabinet as a whole and he considered ministers should take a strong public stand against such activities. Mr Kirk was supported by the entire cabinet, and it was agreed to issue a statement condemning the attack on the Prime Minister's car.

In a memo prepared for the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Craig, in August 1968, the RUC Inspector General, Mr Albert Kennedy, outlined the convictions recorded against Dr Paisley to date. These included a £5 fine at Belfast Magistrates' Court on December 23rd, 1957, for dangerous driving and a conviction at Ballymena Petty Sessions in 1959 for disorderly behaviour at a public meeting in the town. Later fines incurred by Dr Paisley concerned illegal processions in Belfast in June 1963 and July 1966.

AT a cabinet meeting on July 2nd, 1968, the Prime Minister revealed that at a recent meeting with Mr Eddie McAteer, MP for Foyle, the Nationalist leader had asked if he could be received by the cabinet. Capt O'Neill observed there appeared to be no precedent for such a meeting, although the Minister of Commerce, Mr Faulkner, had received a deputation from the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

After some discussion it was agreed Mr McAteer should be informed that he could not address the cabinet but might meet the Prime Minister and Ministers of Commerce, Home Affairs and Development to air his views on those issues in which he declared a particular interest.

The deteriorating security situation following events in Armagh, when a legal civil rights march was blocked by an unlawful assembly of 1,000 Paisleyite demonstrators, dominated a meeting of the O'Neill cabinet on December 2nd, 1968.

Ministers expressed concern at the way in which the general security situation was developing. Some expressed doubts about the RUC's ability to contain it. The discussion centred on the desirability of reinforcing the RUC by "the mobilisation of a reliable and well-disciplined force of B Specials". On the one hand, it was argued, such a move would restore public confidence and reduce the risk of massive public opposition to future civil rights demonstrations. On the other hand, it was feared such a mobilisation could be held to be inflammatory, while even a police force augmented in this way could not hope to cope with the situation in law-and-order terms.

On November 15th, 1968, the government Chief Whip, Maj James Chichester-Clark, reported to the O'Neill cabinet that he had sounded out Mr Roddy O'Connor on the Nationalist Party's view of the crisis and its underlying causes. The Minister reported that nationalists placed the highest priority upon the social issues of housing and employment. "They would consider a settlement of the Mater [Hospital] issue very beneficial in terms of RC opinion in Belfast. In Derry, the Nationalists sought some assurance that the area plan, which they supported, would really be put into effect. They were clearly worried about the atmosphere in Derry and anxious to contribute towards a lowering of the temperature there."

It was also clear, the Chief Whip told the cabinet, that the Nationalists were concerned about the way in which they had lost ground to the militants on their own side. Accordingly, if the government were to make any concessions, some degree of apparent consultation with Mr Eddie McAteer would help to strengthen the hand of the moderates on their side.