The North in British politics
SINCE OCTOBER 1968 there has been a great deal of-usually loosetalk about the Irish problem in British politics. The essence of that talk has been that, the problem of Home Rule and independence for Ireland having been a wrecking agent in British politics for nearly half a century from the time Gladstone fell on the Home Rule issue in 1886, the Civil Rights crisis of the 1960s might yet provide the material for yet another Anglo-Irish explosion in our own time, the consequences of which none of us could foresee, but which would certainly be appalling.
That may well be so: though the thesis is one I found to be very popular in Ireland when I visited Dublin in the week the Prince of Wales's Own went into Derry, it is far from unfamiliar in Westminster. Last October, for example, Transport House (the Labour Party HQ) officials and Ministry of Defence civil servants, using Denis Healy as their advocate, pleaded with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary not to let the Army get involved in Ulster: the consequences, they were sure, would be civil war in the United Kingdom and the ensuing destruction of the Labour Party. That advice was heeded as long as possible. It was not until just before the fall of Terence O'NeiU that James Callaghan and the Home Office made a radical reappraisal of the situation: from April last they have been convinced both that disturbances in the North would continue and that it would be necessary eventually to send in the Army. (The formula loosely used in conversation, which gave rise to no end of dangerous misunderstanding, was that Westminster would have to " take over "). Since April, though, it has been a question of "when" rather than "whether" the Army would be needed.
Fear of Armageddon
What was noticeable about all discussion and conversation between October and April, in a more or less marked degree, was the instinctive fear of Armageddon-a fear produced by too great a respect for the destrictive record of Ireland's role in British politics. I personally found Irish Nationalists convinced that Armageddon would bring about a dissolution of Partition and, in February in Belfast, civil rights workers werepersuaded beyond a doubt that only Armageddon could precipitate the reforms that could bring into the lives of Northern Catholics the dignity, security and freedom that they had been denied for fifty years. Conversely, many Unionists-and not only the diehards-feared that only rigid adherence to the status quo could stave off Armageddon and dissolution of the Union, while at Westminster, Labour ministers freely confessed that, though they would put what pressure they could on Stormont, they feared to create a situation which might eventually involve the electoral destruction of their own party.
That was all before April last. I have gone into it because it was an essential prelude to what has happened since. The evolution of opinion on all sides is of crucial importance to understanding the nature of the crisis in which the North, the Republic and the British government find themselves now, and the steps which need to be taken for its resolution. Further, what happens in the future will be determined by what the British government does or fears to do: it may do too much, and precipitate a Unionist explosion; or too little, and bring the Catholics on to the streets again in despair. But what matters now is the actions and attitudes of \Vestminster and how other parties to the situation can influence those actions and attitudes. In consequence, everybody involved ought to base his own actions (in the light, of course, of his objectives), on the fullest possible undcrstanding of Wesiminster.
Review of Constitutional Relationship
Some careless remarks and even more careless analysis have in the past obscured such an understanding. It has been commonly said, for example, that the intervention of British troops would necessarily lead to a review of the constitutional relationship between London and Belfast: and it has been as commonly concluded from that that the structure of Partition might be endangered, that the British government might, in certain circumstances, hand the North over to the Republic. Nothing could be further from the truth: what Stormont might have to fear if it cannot keep order and bring about reform, is further absorption in the United Kingdom, the endangering of its Home Rule status vis-a-vis Westminster. As long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, speaking through their Parliament in Stormont, wish to remain within the United Kingdom, the first principle of every or any British government will be the preservation of the Union.
No ambiguity ought to be allowed to conceal the significance of this fact, whether it is palatable or not. The principle of preserving the Union, moreover, does not in any way impede the power of a British government to insist on reform. Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act (as amended in 1923) gives Westminster power to amend and clarify existing Northern Ireland legislation; the act and the Governor's Letters Patent both give to the Queen the right to reserve the Royal Assent to Northern legislation her \Vestminster government does not favour. Nobody, of course, wants to risk a Unionist explosion by invoking these powers: that is why London chooses to proceed by argument and exhortation. But the powers are there: and a "review of the constitutional relationship" is a loose way of saying they might be used. Moreover, the 1920 Act also provides for the transfer to Westminster of responsibility for internal security: that is the legal basis on which General Freeland is now acting; it has neither connection with nor influence upon the question of Partition.
Tories committed to Reform
Further, British politicians are personally and politically, as well as legally, committed to reform. One of the satisfying features of the situation in London is the agreement of both government and opposition on this subject, a state of affairs so very different from the last Ulster crisis, in the early years of this century. On one of Captain O'Neill's visits to London he and Mr. Heath discussed both the constitutional situation and reform: and Mr. Heath authorised Captain O'Neill to convey to his own diehards the utter commitment of the Tory party to reform and to the Union. The same communication was made to Unionist diehards at the Conservative conference in Blackpool last October and it has been repeated many times since by the Shadow Home Secretary, Mr. Quintin Hogg, both publicly and privately.
In an inaccurate and potentially highly misleading article in The Sunday Times of August 17, it was suggested that the Unionists might have won some new commitment from the Tory party in the person of its deputy leader, Mr. Maudling. Contrary to impressions, there has been no change in the Conservative position. But Mr. Heath has made it quite clear that he is deeply concerned about the meaning of the Government's statements. The opposition is anxious to avoid the kind of misunderstanding which leads to mistrust and danger and to this end Mr. Heath is now insisting that, when Parliament re-assembles, it should be clear who-whether the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary or some other minister-will be directly answerable to M.P.s on the subject of government policy. But it is on the expediency and wisdom of individual actions that discussion will take place, not on constitutional principle, and, to express this fundamental agreement between the parties, there is now some talk of setting up an all-party committee to keep the Northern situation under review and report to Parliament.
From this situation as it exists certain important consequences flow. When I was in Dublin in August, I found :! certain ambiguity in the attitude of people I talked to. For one thing, there was a tendency to expect some radical action from the British government-of the king expressed in the Civil Rights demand for direct rule from Westminster-commensurate with the size and gravity of the problem as seen from Dublin. For another, though since last October one of the fundamental reasons for the success of the Civil Rights movement in capturing British opinion had been its dissociation from the question of Partition, there was a tendency, in the aftermath of the August riots, to resurrect the issue of Partition and fuse it, in an
emotional synthesis, with the Derry and Belfast riots and the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, on Friday, August 15, an unrepentantly Nationalist friend said to me, "Now I just want the trouble to stop. When it's like this, I can't care about the Border."
The Timing of Troop Intervention
No Irish attitude to the British government is entirely objective: it depends entirely on what you want to achieve and what you are willing to pay to achieve it. Some of my Irish friends were angrily criticising the British government for not sending in troops earlier, or for not taking over the entire internal security of the North at that stage (the weekend of August 15-17). I, on the other hand, have reason to believe that the government and its military advisers saw the problem as an imperial one, that is, in the light of imperial experience. Now, I know that the formulation of this attitude often gives offence in Ireland, but it means simply this: experience dictates that sending in troops does not automatically restore order, that, indeed, sending them in too early or too late may precipitate the situation the action is designed to avoid, may make it impossible for the troops to act as umpires, may actually involve them in the conflict. The intervention in Derry was a masterpiece because it fulfilled the criteria that, in the light of experience around the world, the British government laid down: it took place exactly at the moment when both sides were exhausted.
At every ministerial meeting that has taken place since last October (and the same is true of every meeting between Government and Opposition leaders) the attempt has been made to separate (at least in the mind) security from reform, though it is generally recognised that ultimately they are interdependent. This might be expressed epigrammatically, by saying that, in the security question, the experience of imperial military administration is being brought to bear, while in the case of reform the relevant standard for judging Stormont's plans is that of the rest of the United Kingdom. But no senior politician at Westminster can be shaken from the conviction that, though the intervention of the Army may appear in Ireland to have been tardy, any rushed or precipitate intervention would ultimately have produced much greater bloodshed that it averted.
Distinction between Security and Reform
None of this is to suggest that the judgement of Westminster is unfailingly either sensitive or accurate. But the separation of the problems of security and reform is important. Westminster is satisfied both with the reforms to which the Unionist government is contracted and, broadly, with the timetable laid down for their implementation. The problem is how to prevent, in the meantime, such a disruption of the situation as might either threaten the implementation of reforms (through reaction from Unionist diehards) or render them valueless (through explosion from oppressed Catholics). Until the watershed of last April, it was possible to hope this could be done, by following the advice and judgement of Captain O'Neill: the strength of his personality, his understanding of the necessity for reform and his commitment to it, as well as the trust and confidence he enjoyed in London, meant that the British government had a source of advice it could rely on for disinterestedness. No such perfect understanding and confidence has since existed between London and Stormont.
But the fali of O'Neill was a double tragedy. For the election of February which ultimately lost him his position, was called by him on the advice of Harold Wilson, and this was the first of a series of (now admitted) tactical mistakes in the handling of the North by London.The most important mistake since then was Mr. Callaghan's failure to understand the significance of the use of " B" Specials in Derry last month.
Callaghan and The Specials
It has been suggested that Mr. Callaghan insisted on the use of the Specials to ensure the exhaustion of the civil power before the military moved in. The plain fact of the matter is that, though he realised the Specials were unpopular, he did not begin to grasp the detestation Catholics felt for them, and the Stormont government were incapable of conveying it to him, so he did not discourage their mobilisation. From the use of the Specials came the controversy over their continued employment, and even the subsequent and dangerous controversy over storing their arms in a central armory. In the critical days that lie ahead, everybody realises that an other such blunder by Westminster could cause a catastrophe. To avert such a blunder, the Conservative opposition will concentrate, when Parliament re-assembles, on trying to ensure that the Government understands every step it takes, by means of the closest possible parliamentary questioning.
The British Government will have no shortage of advisers to weigh for it the strength of Unionist feeling. Mr. Callaghan will also have his own men in Belfast. What he lacks, and what the Government feel the lack of, is a disinterested souce of advice from the Catholic and Civil Rights position.
By its flirtation with nationalism in August, and its unreal demand for direct rule from Westminster, the Civil Rights movement disqualifies itself for such a role. Miss Devlin, though unequalled as an exponent of the wholly justified emotion of civil rights, came to be regarded as untrustworthy after her election for Mid-Ulster by her advocacy of anarchistic and internationalistic socialist fringe causes in England. She has now disillusioned even her supporters on the Labour back benches.
Lynch may have right but. . .
But Miss Devlin is wholly consistent: she sees constructive anarchy as the only way to a millenium of reform in the North. She may even be right. Mr. Jack Lynch may also be right: he has continually insisted on the indissolubility of the link between partition and oppression and between partition and disruption. On the basis of that analysis, his policy since August has been wholly consistent and may have served the additional purpose of quieting extremists at home.Un fortunately, however, it has totally broken his lines with the British government and ensured that any advice he may offer will be distrusted and disregarded.
But, as I said earlier, it is entirely a matter of objectives. Mr. Quintin Hogg has tried to bring about a meeting of Irish minds by suggesting a declaration of religious and civil rights north and south of the Border and he passionately believes that a solution will be in the offing only when Belfast, Dublin and London agree that civil and religious liberty are everybody's first priority. He also knows-every politician in London knows-that that might be a bitter pill for a Dublin government to swallow. It might have to be swallowed in secret. But if one's first objective is not the ending of Partition, or the securing of the status quo, but the return of peace and the advent of progress to Northern Ireland, then one must accept the fundamental principles of the British government and try to ensure that tactically, in security matters, they make no more mistakes. To that end, from the Catholic point of view, there is no better expedient than mutual confidence, now destroyed, between Dublin and London.
If the Dublin government wanted to accept peace and progress as a priority above abolition of the Border, they could do nothing better than appoint a special envoy to London; an envoy solely charged with this question and wholly concerned to establish trust and the right to convey the feelings and convictions of the Catholic minority to the British government. His appointment would require both sacrifice and statesmanship from Ireland. He would have to be a man enjoying the utmost respect and confidence in London. If he could be persuaded to interrupt his retirement, the right choice would clearly be Dr. F. H. Boland. But, of course, to make such an appointment would involve accepting that the real responsibility for peace in the North, and the real hope for social reform lies, not in any further disruption, but in developing the sensitivity and responsibility of London: it lies in accepting the London view of priorities and trying to influence London's tactics. It is a clear if not an easy choice.