4 January 2007 Edition

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1976 State papers: Key year for 'Ulsterisation', 'criminalisation' policies


Diplomats, securocrats and the politics of reaction

A heatwave, drought and international economic crises were just some of the features of 1976 in Ireland and Britain. However in terms of the government and politics of Ireland, it was a key year in forming the policies of Ulsterisation and criminalisation in the Six Counties. In terms of the decades of conflict 1976 had at 263 killings the second highest loss of life of any year in the 1968 to 1994 period, only 1972 was higher.

State papers released this week in Ireland and Britain show a British cabinet increasingly ceding control of the Six Counties to its own military and secret service interests growing an already potent “security” bureaucracy and the resulting war economy dependency which the Six Counties is still today suffering the side effects of.

1976 also saw an Irish government driven by its own bureaucracy on one hand and a Fine Gael Labour coalition who were only too willing to prop up the British “security” agenda while steadfastly refusing to take any positive steps themselves to break the log jam in conflict.


“Incapable of defeating the provos”

There were three strands to British Government policy in Ireland during 1976, first there was the British cabinet considering military withdrawal, in the throes of its own crisis before and after the resignation of Harold Wilson, then there was the increasing power of the Northern Ireland Office who were pursuing their own vicious policy of criminalising republicans while waging a public relations offensive. At the same time the British military were ramping up their own long-term dirty war with the SAS increasingly deployed across the Six Counties.

Despite all of the military and political resources being pumped into the North to defeat the republican struggle the NIO had secretly admitted in December 1976 that “it seemed the security forces were incapable of defeating the provos”, while in July, Brian Cubbon, head of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), who would be injured within days in the car bombing that killed the British Ambassador to Dublin wrote that, “any admission by the government that it was unable effectively to reduce the level of violence... could be extremely dangerous”. Bob Cooper under secretary at the NIO had concluded that the British needed to “adhere firmly to the decision to end special category status” for political prisoners.

In January Harold Wilson had considered the possibility of a British withdrawal from Ireland. He wrote that he was writing a memo to “sound a warning” rather than “prescribe a solution”. Loyalists, Wilson also wrote, were loyal to “no monarch except a long-dead Dutchman”.


SAS in Ireland

The British state papers also reveal that the British government had lied about the deployment of the SAS in Ireland. British troop levels reached 15,500 in 1976 and the British claimed that it was only in 1976 that the SAS were brought to Ireland but the newly released papers show that SAS had been training members of a Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU).

The Gardaí had arrested SAS members in plain clothes in May 1976 and the British government had also agreed to allow their troops to fire across the border while discussing sanctioning the use of an M79 mortar which could be fired into the 26 Counties.


“Best government Britain can hope for”

The acquiescence of the Irish government to the security agenda of the NIO was total; one British Government official describes the Fine Gael/Labour coalition as the “best government Britain can hope for in Dublin”.

The coalition had even banned the 60th anniversary Easter Rising commemoration in Dublin and in their notes describe their embarrassment at having taken a case against Britain in the European Court on Human Rights for the ill treatment of detainees in internment camps. In a meeting with Harold Wilson he had told them he supported the case, Wilson had been in opposition when the abuse happened in the early 1970s.

Dermot Nally the Dublin Government adviser on the North had told Cosgrave to “take whatever steps are possible to dispose of the case quickly and cleanly”


Pomp and protocol

In the 26-County state papers three events stand out in 1976 and they are all conflict related, including are the IRA bomb attack on the British Ambassador in July, the resulting Emergency Powers Act, which followed on the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act passed in May and the coalition governments deliberate undermining of President Ó Dálaigh that lead to his resignation in October 1976.


Our “common enemy”

The events after an IRA landmine on 21 July 1976 that killed Christopher Ewart Biggs, British Ambassador to Dublin and Judith Cook, NIO private secretary, while seriously injuring Brian Cubbon, the head of the NIO and a car driver Brian O’Driscoll, showed just how much the mindset of the coalition government was set in the maintaining British rule in Ireland.

Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave used the bombing to introduce a new Emergency Powers Bill, following on a Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act passed earlier in the year that allowed the 26 County government prosecute and imprison citizens through non-jury courts for acts that had taken place in the Six Counties.

The government offered a £20,000 reward, while Richard Stokes a principal officer in the Taoiseach’s department began to plan a public funeral for Ewart Biggs that, “would have the effect of emphasising in public, and especially in bringing it home to television viewers in Britain, that the state here and the general public would not be confused with the perpetrators of such outrage”.

NIO head Brian Cubbon wrote to Garret FitzGerald as he recuperated saying that he looked forward to returning to work and that there would be no doubt “some details on which we shall continue to disagree”, but that “in our hearts we both know that the true test is whether our two countries are in reality co-operating to the fullest possible degree on the ground against or common enemy”.


Frank Stagg’s funeral

The public perception of the funeral of IRA hunger striker Frank Stagg was also an issue for the coalition who didn’t want Stagg to have a republican funeral in Ireland even though the British government were indifferent.

Stagg died on12 February  and the Irish government ordered the plane carrying his remains to be diverted to Shannon and then airlifted by helicopter to be buried in Mayo, by the end of 1976, republicans had re-interred Frank Stagg in a republican burial plot in the same graveyard.


Ó Dálaigh’s resignation

Cearbhall Ó Dalaigh resigned as 26-County president on 24 October 1976, following a public criticism by the Fine Gael defence minister Paddy Donegan of Ó Dálaigh’s decision to send the Emergency Powers bill to the Supreme Court to decide on its constitutionality. The bill allowed Gardaí to arrest and detain any individual for up to seven days without charge and search any vehicle, vessel or premises without a search warrant.

It is still unclear whether Donegan described Ó Dálaigh or the decision to send the bill to the Supreme Court as a “thundering disgrace”, but Cosgrave refused to sack Donegan or to accept the resignation that he offered. The lack of public support for Ó Dálaigh from Cosgrave and his cabinet showed that they were prepared to undermine the highest elected political office for showing their support for the British “security” agenda.




An Phoblacht
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