The Gathering Storm


On the wilder shores of unionism there are still some who believe that the emergence of the civil rights movement in the summer of 1968 was part of an anti-Partitionist strategy fomented by Jack Lynch's government in Dublin.

But even the most ardent conspiracy theorist would be convinced from a study of the files just released that Jack Lynch's government was as surprised by the outbreak of the Troubles as was the unionist government of Terence O'Neill. Lynch had inherited from Lemass a policy of functional co-operation between ministers North and South which had followed the historic Lemass-O'Neill summit at Stormont in January 1965.

A powerful advocate of this policy was T.K. Whitaker, secretary of the Department of Finance. In February 1968, in the margins of the Lynch-Wilson summit in London, he asked Sir Arthur Snelling, deputy secretary at the Commonwealth Relations Office, what the British authorities "saw, or would like to see, as the ultimate outcome".

He reported Snelling's line that the British, "having been plagued with the Irish Question for so long", now wanted not to be disturbed. While not "frigidly neutral" on the question, and unwilling to coerce the unionists, they remained benevolent "towards any solution that might be agreed upon in Ireland between Irishmen".

This was against a background of an exchange of summits between Lynch and O'Neill which had resulted in some initiatives in cross-Border co-operation in culture, transport and trade.

Traditional anti-Partitionists characterised Dublin's new policy as inaction and apathy: James C. Heaney of the American Congress of Irish Freedom in March 1968 asked Lynch why did he not "place the question of alien rule in Ireland before the United Nations".

Nor was Eddie McAteer, leader of the Nationalist Party in Northern Ireland, content with what he termed "the widening gulf" opening up between his followers and the Dublin government. He was specifically irritated by a speech to a student society at Queen's in which former Taoiseach Lemass had stated that there was fault in both communities in Northern Ireland.

To McAteer this was heresy and he confided to the Secretary of the Taoiseach's Department, Mr N.S. O Nuaillain, that he would be "greatly disturbed" if the Lynch cabinet thought likewise. He claimed that the nationalists now felt they were "nobody's children".

McAteer was promiscuous with ideas as to how Dublin could help: he lobbied to be considered for the Council of State and he phoned Lynch's office in March 1968 saying "it was time" that he, as leader of Northern nationalists, was invited to meet the Taoiseach "for public appearance sake". The memo for Lynch advised that McAteer required "the same welcome" as O'Neill and indeed expected to be "lunched".

The earliest warning signal of the coming storm is a letter from Sinn Fein to Lynch on August 24th accusing his government of abandoning the Northern nationalists and calling on him to support their new "campaign of passive resistance and militant political action".

Within weeks - in the aftermath of the worldwide television pictures of the RUC batoning the civil rights march in Derry - Tomas MacGiolla as president of Sinn Fein was complaining to Lynch that his public response to these events was "a disgrace and unworthy of any Irish national leader".

Dublin was now on a fast learning curve. Lynch's statements about the Northern political crisis became harder in the weeks ahead, with one briefing note for his October 30th summit with Harold Wilson advising specifically that Derry nationalists had a deep sense of hopelessness because they were "not permitted a fair democratic use of the vote enabling them to affect a change. Those who deny them this must bear the responsibility if despair should drive them to violence."

Lynch was now coming under enormous pressure to revert to Fianna Fail orthodoxy and blame Partition as the root of all evil.

He was advised against taking such a line by a very wide spectrum of opinion: at their London summit Harold Wilson warned him against banging that drum; from Belfast the newly-formed People's Democracy advised Lynch should instead concentrate on the South's needs for civil rights such as divorce and contraception.

Conn McCluskey, one of the main begetters of the civil rights campaign through his Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland, expressed the hope that Lynch would "not consider it an impertinence" if his group were to ask Lynch not to emphasise Partition because the unionists exploited such references to the minority's disadvantage.

McCluskey quoted a recent Belfast Telegraph opinion poll which had shown that "over 80 per cent of all the people here wanted to continue to have some sort of connection with Britain". He added: "We have no reason to doubt this finding." He also cited another poll in which "only 6 per cent of the young people of Northern Ireland said that they would vote nationalist. These views are what the people hold, whether one agrees or disagrees with them."

Meanwhile, Lynch's cabinet and wider party was dividing between hawks and doves. Amidst all the turmoil, quite the sanest advice one reads in these files comes from the ubiquitous T.K. Whitaker.

In a modestly titled memorandum, A Note on North-South Policy, Whitaker takes a scythe to traditional anti-Partitionist rhetoric. His emphatic conclusion is that Dublin's policy must be to seek unity "by agreement in Ireland between Irishmen".

Of its nature, this had to be a long-term policy "requiring patience, understanding and forbearance" and also "resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism". He believed it "nonetheless patriotic for that" and noted that it had been the policy pursued by Lemass.

Whitaker emphasised that it was naive to expect the British to coerce the unionists into a united Ireland. The British were "not blameless" as far as the origins of Partition were concerned, but neither were they "wholly to blame".

Nobody could read the history of the past century "without some understanding of the deep, complex and powerful forces which went into the making of Partition". The Northern unionists, for their part, feared the loss of power, privilege and British subsidies.

Nor did he believe that the South could blame certain social ills in the North on Partition "without acknowledging (at least in private) that conditions for the Catholics in NI would be far worse if Partition were abolished overnight".

Dublin must appreciate that all British policy would be inspired by "short-term political party motives" and also by "the longer-term desideratum of cleaning up a `back yard' which gives Britain a bad image in the eyes of the world".

Whitaker argued cogently for the continuation of North-South functional co-operation based on mutual respect, with neither side abandoning its political principles or ideals. He added that the South should not "torment ourselves" by the thought that O'Neill's reforms might succeed and that nationalists would "some day be seduced" into becoming "happy citizens of a NI within the UK".

He reassured his colleagues that what he termed the "longer-term factors are working for us". Showing considerable prescience, he listed these as growing prosperity throughout Ireland, liberalisation of human rights, looser political groupings, greater local autonomy within the UK and greater tolerance - or indifference - on religious matters.

He advised that in pursuing reunification in the longer term "we should not be the prisoners of old ideas": rather should policymakers be open "to explore all kinds of possibilities - confederation, external association, condominium, the Benelux Arrangement, the political integration principles evolved in EEC". Whitaker believed "that a very special formula may have to be found".

He suggested that it was unfortunate that the 1937 Constitution "appears to claim for Dublin such a premature and dogmatic right, without reservations as to form, to rule the whole of Ireland". But there was "nothing we can do about this, in present circumstances, except to forget it!"

And, in his final paragraph, he especially warned against any resort to force which risked "creating a deeper and more real Partition" than had ever existed in the past. He complained that during the futile 1956-62 IRA campaign the Border had "resembled the Berlin Wall".

Incidentally, this document was dated November 11th, 1968, which was the 50th anniversary of the end of the first World War.