The TimesDecember 29, 2006
1976: Public Record Office

Wilson's fear for Northern Ireland: UDI and then a pariah state

Fran Yeoman

Government files covering 1976 are open to the public today under the 30-year rule

British soldiers shot dead 14 people during Bloody Sunday in 1972 at the height of the War between the British and the Irish Republican Army.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson had an apocalyptic vision of Northern Ireland as 1976 began, with a Loyalist (pro-British) declaration of independence sparking terrorist violence throughout the UK, documents at the National Archives in Kew, West London, show.

By January 9, after 15 people had died in a rapid spate of killings in the Province, the Prime Minister was considering worst-case scenarios. With his premiership drawing to a close, and little sign of political progress in Belfast, he dictated an eight-page document raising the prospect of a Rhodesian-style unilateral declaration of independence by Unionist hardliners.

Dramatically entitled “Apocalyptic note for the record”, it described how “so-called loyalist” terrorists might “take the bit between their teeth” and attempt to separate from the UK rather than make concessions to the Roman Catholic (mostly pro-Irish) nationalist minority. Northern Ireland could then become a “pariah state”, rejected by the EEC and United Nations, and impossible for Britain to govern even by force.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson

Making clear his frustration with intransigent Unionists, who had defeated government attempts to establish a power-sharing assembly in Belfast two years before, Wilson wrote that the Queen might even refuse to be monarch of such an “unruly mob”. He added: “It is possible, of course . . . that those in control of Northern Ireland would be so inward-looking that they would not even ask for the Queen’s continued sovereignty.”

Referring to William III of Orange (who became King of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1688 ), the Protestant king after whom the Orange Order is named, he said: “This would be a strange commentary on the claim to the use of the word “loyalist”; they would prove, as their actions for long have suggested, that they are loyal to no monarch except a long-dead Dutchman.”

The Prime Minister called for contingency planning for a UDI scenario, saying that Britain might be put in a difficult position as pro-Irish parts of the US pushed for UN sanctions against the newly independent state.

On top of that, he cautioned, the UK could face a period of “Ulster-inspired terrorism” em- anating from Glasgow and Liverpool. But at least it would be free from the “purblind fanaticism of Northern Ireland”, and from the expense of ruling it. Instead, he envisaged “a clean cut-off of financial assistance from this side of the water”.

Wilson’s irritation with Northern Ireland by 1976 was shared by many within the London-based Government, but his more dramatic visions were less common.

John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary and one of the few people to see his memo, suggested gently a week later that “civil war or industrial action now seems rather less likely than it did when you dictated your minute”. He detailed one obstacle that he saw to progress — “Dr [Ian] Paisley, who does not want to see a settlement, is basically a man of opposition” — but said that there was still a hope for power-sharing.

Anxious not to irritate Wilson further, however, he suggested that some of the ideas in the memo could possibly be useful — “in a non-apocalyptic situation”.

An anonymous official distanced himself a little more explicitly from the Prime Minister’s paranoia, saying: “There are too many unknowns for crystal ball-gazing to be worth much at present.”

Two months later Wilson resigned.

Despite various conspiracy theories that he was being bugged by the intelligence services, his decision was prompted by exhaustion and a long standing plan to leave Downing Street that spring. He was replaced by James Callaghan, the first Prime Minister to have held all three great offices of state.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Dec 29th, 2006 at 06:22 AM..