THE RELEASE of official papers from 1972 has revealed the extent to
which the British government felt that the situation in Northern Ireland was
spiralling beyond their control at the time. As a result, it considered a
series of radical and desperate "solutions" including repartition and
an independent Northern Ireland.
Under the repartition proposal scheme, 300,000 Catholics would be moved west of the Bann and 200,000 Protestants in the opposite direction. If necessary, force would be used against those who refused to move.
The British government was considering this option within three months of the
suspension of Stormont and the imposition of Direct Rule. These measures had
failed to stabilise the situation. In 1972, a total of 467 people died violent
deaths and there were more than 10,000 recorded shooting incidents.
Making Northern Ireland "an independent state within the Commonwealth" was also under active consideration. Both proposals were discussed at a Cabinet meeting on 13 July 1972 following the breakdown of a temporary Provisional IRA
ceasefire. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, ordered the drawing up of various
contingency plans in case the ceasefire breakdown became "irrevocable".
Heath feared a scenario where "the security situation in Northern Ireland
had deteriorated so far that the government were on the point of losing control
plans excluded a "direct military assault upon extremist-dominated Roman
Catholic areas of the Province with the aim of securing a total victory over
the IRA coupled with a neutral, if not acquiescent, attitude towards the
activities of the UDA". A huge increase in the number of British troops on
the ground was considered more seriously as was the disarming of the Protestant
population through the withdrawal of licensed guns.
Repartition would be preceded by two earlier measures. On "P-Day" a State of
Emergency would be declared and on "R-Day" the number of army
battalions would be increased from 20 to 47 (bringing troop levels to 50,000).
The huge increase in troop numbers would have been necessary to enforce
officials who drew up the plans admitted that they were "extremely
doubtful" that the plans would work as "great resistance" would
result and the government would have to be "completely ruthless in the use
papers are not just of historical interest. They illustrate that far from
having a resolute attachment to the union of Northern Ireland and Britain, the
British establishment were prepared to consider options that ceded control of
parts of or all of Northern Ireland. Indeed by this time Britain would have
been quite prepared to see the creation of a united Ireland. They simply could
not move in this direction because of the opposition of one million
1970-1971, the IRA calculated wrongly that Britain was wedded to the union and
would only be shifted by an armed campaign. In reality, their campaign had the
opposite effect making it less likely that Protestants would ever agree to a
capitalist united Ireland.
government policy has been by and large one of pragmatism. Over the first two
decades of the Troubles, it relied on a policy of repression directed against
Republican areas allied with repeated attempts to create political solutions
based on the "constitutional" parties. All attempts at a political
solution failed, and it proved impossible to defeat the IRA. At the same time,
the IRA were contained and clearly could not win. In the late 1980s the British
government realised that the Republican leadership were seeking a way out and
the peace process began in an attempt to incorporate former paramilitaries in a
does not mean that the Good Friday Agreement is in any sense a solution.
Instead, it has institutionalised sectarianism and on the ground a drawn out
war of attrition over territory continues. The violence has diminished but not
ended - nearly fifty people have died over the last three years. In a certain
sense, one of the lunatic plans under discussion 30 years ago has been partly
realised. Demographic changes mean that the west of the Bann is now largely
Catholic and that Protestants are increasingly concentrated in south Antrim and
north Down. The vast majority of the working class now live in areas that are
more than 90% Catholic or more than 90% Protestant in make up.
This slow and piecemeal form of repartition has solved absolutely nothing. Indeed the increase in the number of Catholics in Belfast rules out the possibility of drawing neat lines on the map as a way of separating communities forever.
There is no solution to the problems of the North on the
basis of capitalism. A solution only lies in the building of a movement of
Protestant and Catholic workers which unites on the basis of class, which takes
on poverty and sectarianism, and which builds a socialist Ireland.
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