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5 January 2006 Edition

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1975 State Papers - Collusion, sectarianism and unionist intrigue


Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley

Unionists swing right while murder stalks the streets

In many ways there's no revelation to challenge our understanding of the nature of the Orange state in official state papers released last week by the British Government. It's sectarian business as usual.

It was business as usual for the unionist paramilitaries who targeted two teenagers as they arrived for work on February 11 1974. Thomas Donaghy (16) and 18-year year old Margaret McErlean were shot dead outside a factory in Newtownabbey, North Belfast. Three other people in the car in which they were travelling were also wounded.

It was business as usual for the Newtownabbey RUC officers who, having been alerted to suspicious behaviour outside Abbey Meats, did nothing to thwart the sectarian gang's murderous intent. And it was probably business as usual for the NIO Under Secretary Frank Cooper when he ignored nationalist complaints of sectarian violence, RUC collusion with the UDA and the state's reluctance to protect the nationalist community.


According to state papers released by the British Government under the 30-year rule the collusion of official state forces with unofficial unionist paramilitaries had been raised by the then West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt shortly after the Newtownabbey killings. The British Minister was informed that the RUC had been alerted to the loyalist attack half an hour before the shooting but only arrived at the scene five minutes after the teenagers had been fatally wounded.

It was not just a case of collusion by default, according to the documents, the question of unionist paramilitary 'sympathisers' operating within the RUC was also raised with the British Government.

An interim report by the Community Relations Commission claimed the British Army had admitted that there was a political decision not to intervene to protect Catholics in Rathcoole because of the risk of antagonising the loyalist majority. The British Army also conceded that there were a number of UDA sympathisers operating within the local RUC. Both admissions were suppressed and never appeared in the final CRC report.

Meanwhile, the NIO was urging the Dublin Government to arrest Martin McGuinness. Before its collapse at a meeting of the power-sharing executive in January 1974 Chief Minister Brian Faulkner reported on a meeting with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. "The Chief Minister made it clear to Mr Cosgrave that the apprehension of prominent IRA men like Martin McGuinness would do more to satisfy the Northern Ireland people than anything else."

Constitutional Convention

In May 1975 elections were held in the Six Counties for a promised Constitutional Convention set up by the British Labour Party to consider the possibility of a political agreement in the wake of the collapse of the power-sharing executive the year before.

In February 1975 following a promise by the then British Secretary of State Merlyn Rees to reduce British troop levels, phase out Internment and release internees, the IRA had extended its ceasefire indefinitely, further enhancing the potential for political progress. But once again unionist politicians used their power to thwart rather then secure political progress. The election secured a decisive victory for the anti-power sharing position of the United Ulster Unionist Coalition.

According state papers released by the 26-County Government the refusal of the UUUC to consider a voluntary coalition government with nationalists was orchestrated by DUP leader Ian Paisley and former British Cabinet Minister Enoch Powell.

The papers suggest Paisley initially accepted the idea of a voluntary coalition but changed his mind after he "saw the opportunity of capitalising on the fear and distrust that was growing up amongst unionist supporters". By playing on unionist fears and sectarianism Paisley believed he could create a political climate "form which to make a bid for the overall leadership of the UUUC".

According to the Dublin Government document a meeting of the UUUC called to discuss the possibility of a voluntary coalition "was dominated by Paisley, assisted by Enoch Powell", the then Unionist MP for South Down.

Powell "strongly influenced the Official Unionist delegation at the meeting by insisting that the British Government would demand an institutionalised agreement and would never accept a voluntary coalition".

A motion put to the meeting permanently excluding nationalist politicians from any future government was passed by 37 votes to one. UUUC deputy leader William Craig was faced with the public humiliation of publicly abandoning his own position and backing Paisley or by standing alone effectively abandoning the unionist position to the Paisleyites.

Craig misled by Paisley

Deputy leader of the UUUC and leader of Vanguard William Craig had been misled by Paisley into believing the DUP leader would support his position. Prior to the meeting Paisley had privately re-assured Craig that he accepted a voluntary coalition "was the only way forward".

Dumping Craig at the last minute allowed Paisley to emerge as the dominant voice of unionist opposition, destroying not only the possibility of a voluntary coalition but also the career of his political rival. After public humiliation at a series of meetings Craig resigned as the leader of Vanguard and from the deputy leadership of the UUUC.

According to an official note, "because of the weakness of the Official Unionists, he has moved into an almost impregnable position and many political commentators estimate that, if there were to be an election in the near future, Paisley would sweep the board".

Political expediency rather than integrity was already shaping the political career of a young David Trimble. A close colleague to William Craig, Trimble abandoned his leader to the fate Paisley had predetermined and abstained from the vote. According to the documents "the meeting left the loyalist coalition in disarray".

In 1975 the UVF were engaging in a sectarian killing spree attacking Catholics and Catholic-owned premises and including the notorious killing of three members of the Miami Showband in July.

The impact of unionist sectarian violence in the North led the Dublin Government to prepare contingency plans to transport 100,000 refugees from Belfast to the 26 Counties within four days. According to the documents up to 6,000 refugees would have been accommodated at Mosney Holiday Camp with an emergency headquarters in Dublin at the Customs House. The plans included the possibility of treating 1,000 seriously wounded people.

According to the documents plans to prepare for refugees fleeing south from sectarian pogroms in the North were curtailed by the then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave who feared that any large-scale purchase of supplies in anticipation of refugees would undermine the secrecy of the plans. The government also ruled out asking the International Red Cross for assistance to prevent any perception that Ireland was "in a state of war".

Miss Good Cheer

Perhaps the most bizarre item in the state papers released last week was the proposal by British Government Ministers to get involved in a "post truce battle for hearts and minds", promoting a 'sunny side up' philosophy that became an integral part of British propaganda in subsequent years. We all remember the "Belfast is Buzzing" campaigns but in 1975 it was the year of "Miss Good Cheer".

On the cards were an Ulster festival, and good cheer sales in the shops with a "Miss Good Cheer" beauty contest. Also proposed was a series of concerts with Morecambe and Wise and Frank Sinatra touted as possible guests, who might it was thought give their services for free!


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