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5 January 2006 Edition

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1975 State Papers - Partitionism and repression in the South


Liam Cosgrave

Liam Cosgrave

Growth of 'secret state' in 26 Counties

The Fine Gael/Labour Cabinet were playing an increasingly high-stakes game in relation to the crisis in the Six Counties in 1975. State papers reveal that in the year after the Ulster Workers' Council strike and the collapse of the Sunningdale Power Sharing Government between the SDLP and UUP, Dublin's policy was one of allowing the IRA ceasefire to be undermined, while the North slid further into violence, with a massive increase in loyalist sectarian murders.

Fine Gael under the direction of Liam Cosgrave and Garret Fitzgerald, were determined that any resolution to the conflict had to be one that had no ramifications for the 26 Counties. Their ideal was a solution that was partitionist, empowered the SDLP and avoided a so-called 'Doomsday' scenario or support growing for Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties.

Underpinning all of these developments was the growing power of the secret state in the 26 Counties where, at the same time as the Garda Heavy Gang routinely intimidating and assaulting republicans and other radicals, Military Intelligence kept files on republicans, trade unionists, women's groups, members of the Labour Party and even former and current Cabinet Ministers. The secret state is still in evidence today as more than 30 documents were withheld from public view this week.

Don't mention the war

The plan for accommodating 100,000 refugees has already been highlighted, but though the Dublin Government were alert to the chaos that was possible in the Six Counties, they were also alert to the other angles.

Liam Cosgrave personally intervened in the plan which involved the purchase of a substantial amount of clothing, bedding and food. He halved the contingency plan to be one that could deal with 50,000 refugees to avoid "any significant degree of speculation about the purpose of the orders". The purchases would also help to "mitigate current employment" difficulties.

Cosgrave also ruled out asking the Red Cross for assistance to prevent any international view that Ireland was "in a state of war".

Fitzgeralds' Doomsday scenario

A study of cabinet papers in Britain and Ireland over the past week shows a web of contacts with the British Government dissembling and stalling not just in their dealings with republicans but also with unionists and the Irish Government. On these three fronts the British Government sent conflicting messages while at the same its dirty war was increasingly the dominant reality on the ground in the Six Counties.

The Dublin Government position at this time is perhaps best summed up in a report written by Garret Fitzgerald after a dinner meeting with the then British Foreign Secretary James Callaghan and Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch. Callaghan had been holidaying in Cork as was Fitzgerald and the three families had a dinner party on 23 August 1975.

Fitzgerald writes of his agreement with Lynch that there would be little progress in resolving the conflict in the coming years. Lynch and Fitzgerald were unwilling to let the 26-County Army intervene in the North to protect nationalists. They were worried that the inability of the government to protect nationalists would "threaten democratic government" in the 26 Counties. This would create a "vacuum throughout Ireland", which according to Fitzgerald would pose a danger to Britain and Northwest Europe, which could be exploited by the Soviet Union, China or Libya.

In Fitzgerald's world the problem was not that Irish citizens were being butchered on the streets of the Six Counties but the potential of China to destabilise the Dublin Government. He was even prepared to consider internment, a position he claims in his report that Lynch tentatively agreed to.

British double dealing

While Callaghan and Fitzgerald were chatting over dinner in West Cork, other British officials in the North, Dublin and in Britain were playing a much wider game.

The Dublin Government and unionist politicians feared the British Government was negotiating with the IRA, while at the same time they were attempting to have their own negotiations.

Callaghan admitted to Fitzgerald that he had not been attending meetings of the British Government's Sub Committee on Ireland. He could not even name the other members of the Committee. This left more Junior Ministers and more importantly civil servants a free hand to formulate policy on Ireland which seemed with hindsight to be one of generating as much confusion, mistrust and disagreement between the parties to the conflict as possible.

Unionists and the SDLP were being sent around the houses about pointless negotiations on coalition and power sharing which few unionists had any real stomach for, at the same time in talks with the Republican Movement the same officials were discussing the possibility of British military withdrawal from Ireland, while the Irish Government were being placated with promises that no negotiations were in fact taking place. Meanwhile, the counterinsurgency agenda in the North was emerging as de facto British policy in Ireland.

De Valera's funeral

The detail to which British officials in Ireland would report on Irish life and the underlying racism of those observations were found in one report on the funeral of former President Eamon de Valera.

A British Embassy official noted that: "The exclusive use of Latin and Irish at the Requiem Mass and burial service must have irritated not only some of the visitors but also many Irishmen who cannot speak their first official language."

The writer continues that that the rush of mourners into Glasnevin, who pushed through police cordons added "an Irish touch to the proceedings".

IRA rearming

The extent of the southern establishment's fears about the possible destabilisation of the 26 Counties is found in a secret Garda report written for Patrick Cooney, then Minister for Justice.

The rearmed IRA were going to provoke loyalists into "over reaction" and also stage "border incidents" that would involve the 26-County Army part of which the Gardaí claimed had been infiltrated by the IRA.

The Gardaí were also concerned about dispersing any refugees that arrived in the 26 Counties otherwise: "Towns such as Dundalk, Monaghan, Buncrana, etc, could all become shades of the Bogside, Ballymurphy or the Falls."

The secret state

Opening security files on the most innocuous of people seems to be a routine part of the work of Military Intelligence in 1975. Files were kept on Foreign Affairs Minister Conor Cruise O'Brien, the Michael McDowell of the mid-'70s and former Health Minister Noel Browne. Files were also kept on unions including the ICTU and the then Workers' Union of Ireland, the Marine Port and General Workers' Union and the National Union of Journalists.

Also under the spotlight were the Small Farmers' Defence Association and the Association of Combined Residents' Association, but perhaps the most chilling aspect of the intelligence surveillance was the fact that files were opened on eight fifth-year students who wrote to the Irish Times condemning executions in Spain of Basques and leftists in the last days of Franco's fascist regime.

The real unanswered question is who created the culture where such surveillance was part of the daily work of military intelligence, and has it now stopped? Could it be the same mentality, the same policies that held 30 papers back from public view this week?


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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