That dreadful year of 1972

 

The British and Irish governments' Cabinet papers for 1972 throw a revealing light on the relations between London, Dublin and Belfast in what was the most critical and dangerous year of the Northern Ireland "Troubles."

This was the year which began with Ireland and Britain signing the treaty for their entry into the European Economic Community only to be followed a week later by Bloody Sunday in Derry and the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin. By the end of March, the Stormont parliament and administration had been suspended and British ministers and officials took over the running of Northern Ireland under direct rule.

As the British Prime Minister, Mr Edward Heath, continued his criticism, public and private, of the Taoiseach, Mr Jack Lynch, for not cracking down on the IRA, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr William Whitelaw, held secret talks with the IRA leaders in London. The talks proved futile and two weeks later, on July 21st, the IRA exploded 26 bombs in Belfast on what became known as Bloody Friday. The British response was Operation Motorman when the army used tanks to clear the barricades in the IRA no-go areas in West Belfast and the Bogside and Creggan in Derry. The death and injuries toll mounted, making 1972 the worst year of the "Troubles" for loss of life and damage to property.

The newly released Cabinet papers show that the relationship between London and Dublin came near to total breakdown after Bloody Sunday. Mr Heath, we now learn, ordered his officials to draw up a list of sanctions to be used against the Republic if Dublin made difficulties over direct rule. It is strange that he did not appear to realise that the suspension of Stormont would be welcomed in Dublin. Later in the year as the IRA seemed to be gaining in strength and confidence, Mr Heath ordered "contingency planning" for what would have amounted to a re-partition of Ireland and the large-scale movements of the Catholic and Protestant populations of Northern Ireland.

This doomsday scenario fortunately never came to pass. Behind the scenes, Mr Whitelaw under Mr Heath's direction worked hard for a political agreement which would win back the moderate but largely alienated Catholic/nationalist population, isolate the IRA, and convince the unionist majority that it was worth making concessions on power-sharing to end violence. The Dublin Government pushed for a Council of Ireland to be part of the package and took tougher security measures such as bringing in the Special Criminal Court sitting without a jury, closing down the Sinn Féin headquarters, and arresting senior figures, including IRA Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofain. Slowly, Mr Heath realised the value of Mr Lynch as an ally rather than an adversary. By the end of a traumatic year, their co-operation was paying off and Britain was recognising an "Irish dimension" to any solution in Northern Ireland.