How the Troubles came to Northern Ireland by Peter Rose Macmillan Press Ltd/Institute of Contemporary British History 2000
by Gary KentJanuary 13, 2000
Would the "Troubles" have erupted if Harold Wilson's Governments of 1964 and 1966 had obliged the supposedly liberal Unionist administration of Terence O'Neill to implement democratic reforms more quickly and satisfy those many Catholics who accepted the British link? After 3,600 deaths, it remains one of history's biggest "what if" questions. This fair-minded, slim but expensive book draws on official records and personal memoirs to detail the developing storm in Ulster from Wilson's election in 1964 to the despatch of troops in 1969.
The North's wartime contribution had inspired senior Labour figures like Herbert Morrison, with previous "instinctive prejudices against Unionists," to accept Partition, but the Province then returned to the back-burner. Only one civil servant oversaw Ulster - part-time - as well as London cabs and nationalised pubs in Carlisle. A Speaker's ruling prevented MPs from raising issues that were the responsibility of Stormont. The Labour Party had no organic political links with Ulster politics. Jim Callaghan described these as a "hidden mystery" and advised against being "sucked into the Irish bog." The media ignored discrimination and gerrymandering although the Sunday Times famously described Ulster as "John Bull's political slum."
Rose asks why Wilson's Cabinet did not intervene earlier given intelligence advice that the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter rising would be marked by the IRA - estimated at 3,000 trained volunteers, although these reports were ridiculous fantasies. So it is perhaps not surprising that Wilson maintained a non-intervention policy, despite his own instincts, as he also faced political and economic meltdown and huge external challenges like the rebellion in Rhodesia.
But the Ulster crisis, including what Wilson called "quasi-fascist" loyalist violence, didn't dissipate. The ban on parliamentary discussion was broken by the ingenious efforts of the new Republican Labour MP, Gerry Fitt and others like the young Kevin McNamara. Televised images of Fitt, his head bleeding profusely after a baton attack, provided a powerful picture that wove itself into images of civil rights and anti-war protesters elsewhere.
The pace of reform quickened but not enough to prevent campaigns for "British rights for British citizens" eventually being turned by some Republicans into a bloody war for Irish unity.
Hindsight is wonderful but perhaps the most powerful lesson from this fascinating counter-factual account of these 5 crucial years is that decades of neglect and ignorance of Northern Ireland allowed a bad situation to fester and explode. A key factor in this was the inability of Labour-minded people in Northern Ireland to directly influence the Labour Government as they were not allowed to join the Labour Party, whilst the separate Northern Ireland Labour Party, which won 100,000 votes at its height, was broken by the violence.
Hopefully the Troubles have finally ended but never again should Northern Ireland be allowed to slip out of sight and out of mind - especially since the fraught process of reconciliation and realigning sectarian politics may take many years. This task is mainly the preserve of those who live there but they deserve our continuing solidarity and interest.
Gary Kent is the Westminster Correspondent of the Belfast based Fortnight Magazine. This article appears in the January 13, 2000 edition of the Tribune.