8 January 2009 Edition
Long war, dirty politics, failing economies
British and Irish state papers, 1978
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
LOOKING BACK at 1978 it is hard not to see the parallels between the economic and political environment we were in then and the one we find ourselves in today.
Then we were on the cusp of a serious economic downturn and, as is the case today, the absence of political competence had few negative effects for those in government. The ‘Golden Circle’ could and did retire with generous pensions and perks while working households bore the brunt of the inflationary recession and mass unemployment that was to come.
On conflict issues, Ireland 1978 was a bleak year. State records show officials clearly aware of the level of discrimination, social exclusion and, most importantly, mass brutality by British police and soldiers in local communities, as well as in Castlereagh and Long Kesh.
But the records from 1978 show that those in power in Britain and Ireland were uncaring and belligerent in their attitudes towards the misery economic and political policies were causing.
1978 was a crucial year for American tycoon John DeLorean.
Fianna Fáil Industry Minister Dessie O’Malley said no to DeLorean’s plan for making sports cars in the 26 Counties that would be sold in the USA.
As the doors shut in Dublin, others opened in the North and British Government civil servants and ministers at the NIO started a process that cost tax-payers £77m in what the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee called “one of the gravest cases of the misuse of public resources in many years”.
In August 1978, as Northern Secretary Roy Mason announced the DeLorean project, David Fell, a Department of Commerce official, wrote that “with the DeLorean project acting as an industrial and economic catalyst for the west Belfast/Twinbrook area, it would be highly desirable to improve the economic appearance of the immediate surroundings of the plant, as well as the arterial roads”.
While the British Government used DeLorean as a cosmetic job-creation exercise, state papers tell a different tale of the bleak economic situation on the ground.
Kenneth Bloomfield, then at the Department of the Environment, writing on the economic situation in Belfast, described how “some of its established industries are in an unstable position” and that much of Belfast’s housing stock was “deplorable”, with “large areas of the city characterised by multiple social need”.
Earlier that year, a British Army officer, Colonel Quayle, is reported as telling Stormont officials (including Education Minister Lord Melchett) in March that the citizens of Ardoyne were enduring “appalling social and environmental deprivation”.
So throughout the Six-County administration there were first-hand reports of the bleak economic hardship and poverty across communities, yet the solution was to pour money into the flawed DeLorean project. In 2009 we still suffer from cosmetic economic solutions that fail to address the root causes of the current crisis.
‘The Goon Squad’ exposed
The scale of RUC brutality has been highlighted in the 1978 papers revealing that police doctors, senior RUC officers and NIO officials knew of the police brutality in RUC interrogation centres more than a year before the March 1979 Bennett Inquiry concluded that injuries sustained by suspects in police custody were not ‘self inflicted’.
On 11 October 1977, NIO official A Pritchard reports on a meeting between RUC Chief Constable Kenneth Newman and the Police Doctors’ Association where the medics raised their “misgivings” about police brutality.
By March 1978, members of the Police Authority raised the issues of beatings and brutality during interrogation, while some of the police doctors had “intimated that they would have to consider approaching Amnesty International to express their views”.
The police doctors had identified a “group of 8 or 10 policemen... familiarly known as ‘The Goon Squad’”. This was reported by Maurice Hayes, who later became an Oireachtas senator in Dublin and an Ombudsman for the Six Counties. Hayes wrote that one doctor was “convinced that officers were maltreating prisoners under interrogation as a matter of policy approved by the chief constable”.
For the NIO the real concern about this issue was not the systematic abuses of civil rights through torture but that the issue was “uniting the SDLP, the Civil Rights Association, Sinn Féin and loyalist organisations”.
Lynch ‘huffs and puffs’
Publicly, 1978 began with a dispute between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and British Prime Minister James Callaghan. Jack Lynch had, in a January TV interview, restated Fianna Fáil’s policy of supporting Irish unity.
The two prime ministers eventually met at an EU summit in April in a meeting that Callaghan had only wanted to run for 15 minutes, but eventually became a 95-minute engagement with no firm outcomes.
State papers also show the Irish Government raising the issue of Northern Secretary Roy Mason’s hardline approaches while the issue of political status in British prisons was also raised.
In March 1978, Roy Mason had briefed unionist MPS, telling them that “increasing use was made of the SAS on the intelligence side and more personnel were being used in SAS-type activities”.
The complete failure of the Lynch approach was shown in reports of a press lunch given by Mason on 14 April when he told journalists that “Lynch could huff and puff as much as he liked on the North but would achieve nothing”. History proved Mason sadly right.
The weird, whacky and just plain wrong
Warning: Giving up smoking leads to Marxism and Joe Dolan was a commie. These are just two of the startling finds in the 1978 state papers.
The chairs of the Carolls, Gallagher’s and Player Wills tobacco companies wrote to Jack Lynch complaining that plans to ban cigarette advertising would damage sales and “there could be a fusion between Marxism and the IRA” as employment fell because the lack of investment in non-tobacco industries by the cigarette companies.
Joe Dolan’s 1978 tour of the Soviet Union lead to the Irish military’s security and intelligence unit, G2, classifying his visit in a “communist activities” dossier. Newspaper reports of Joe Dolan’s tour were kept in the file!
The risk of a nuclear accident in Ireland if the Government went ahead with plans to build a nuclear power station is described as “extremely low” and that the risk of death was as low as “being killed by lightning or as a result of a sting or bite from an insect or an animal”.
Nobel Prize winner, Irish Foreign Minister and IRA veteran Seán MacBride had written to Jack Lynch asking him to consider alterative sources of energy such as solar, wind, tidal and wind power.
Opposition to the building of civic offices at the Wood Quay site in Dublin did not halt the project and the destruction of a unique archaeological site which one government official, writes off to Tánaiste George Colley, as “the medieval equivalent of a modern municipal dump” with few of the finds of “intrinsic merit and/or importance”.
Finally, in 1978, a Store Street Garda inspector, writing to the Censorship Board, reported that his sergeant had found the Sex Pistols’ record, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, in five city centre shops. The top policeman concluded that “the title on the sleeve would indicate that the contents of the record are obscene” and, consequently, the intrepid sergeant “did not hear the record played”.