347. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Northern Ireland


  • Sir Stewart Crawford, FCO Deputy Under Secretary
  • Philip Woodfield, Home Office Asst. Under Secretary
  • Kelvin White, FCO Asst. Head Western European Dept.
  • Hon. Martin Hillenbrand, Department of State
  • Hon. Earl Sohm, Minister of American Embassy
  • Robert M. Scott, American Embassy
  • Grover Penberthy, Consul General Belfast
  • Jack Sulser, American Embassy

Mr. Hillenbrand said he had requested an opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland with British officials because he had been invited to appear before the “Irish caucus” of the U.S. House of Representatives about December 1. For this reason he had also just had a two-hour chat with Mr. Penberthy, our Consul General in Belfast. He would like to put some of the questions he expected to be asked by the Congressmen. Sir Stewart explained that, because of the border across Ireland, there was a division of responsibility in London. The Foreign Office was concerned with relations with the Republic of Ireland, and the Home Office was responsible for Northern Ireland. He had thus invited Mr. Woodfield to join the discussion.

Mr. Hillenbrand first asked why internment had been deemed necessary. Mr. Woodfield pointed out that internment had often been resorted to in Ireland, in the Republic as well as Northern Ireland. Irish Prime Minister Lynch had threatened internment as recently as ten months ago when some incidents had occurred which were not nearly as serious as those of the past year in Northern Ireland. Internment had begun in Northern Ireland in August after a heavy build up of IRA violence. A commission headed by a British judge of Roman Catholic faith had been set up at the same time to review cases of internees and advise on those instances when evidence and circumstances did not justify continued detention. Although the commission has only advisory powers, Prime Minister Faulkner had said he “could not imagine” not accepting its recommendations. Of cases reviewed thus far by the commission, it had recommended release in only about 10% of the cases. [Page 1024] Although the Special Powers Act did not put a limit on the time a person could be detained without an internment order, the Northern Ireland Government followed the practice of issuing an internment order or releasing the detainee after not more than one month because the advisory commission did not review the cases of detainees. Although the commission was designed as an appeal body, in practice it reviewed the cases of all internees because many IRA men declined to appeal on the ground that they would thereby acknowledge Northern Ireland authority. Sir Stewart pointed out that detention and internment without trial was resorted to largely in cases where trial was impossible because of intimidation of witnesses and jurors.

Mr. Hillenbrand asked whether use of the Army in Northern Ireland was necessary in order to restore and maintain order. Mr. Woodfield replied that, although no one could be certain, it was probable that something like civil war between Protestant and Catholic communities would occur if the Army were withdrawn. The troops had been welcomed by the Catholic minority at the beginning as protection against the Protestants, but IRA attacks on the Army had involved the troops in violence with the Catholics.

Mr. Hillenbrand asked what direction British policy might take. Mr. Woodfield replied that the basic problem is that Stormont has followed for 50 years the Westminster model, in which the certainty of changing majorities acts as a restraint on the Government of the day and as a source of hope and reassurance to the minority. In Northern Ireland, on the contrary, full implementation of the complete reform program would still doom the Catholics to perpetual opposition as long as politics continue to be organized on a sectarian basis. HMG could not prescribe how it should be done, but a way must be found to give the minority a role in government in Northern Ireland. The Home Secretary had invited representatives of all sides to meet with him to examine alternative methods of achieving this, but so far the main Opposition parties had refused to join the talks until internment was ended.

Mr. Hillenbrand asked about the possibility of direct rule of Northern Ireland by London. Mr. Woodfield replied that, although direct rule was the immediate objective of the IRA, it would not end the violence because they would then agitate for unification of Ireland. Prime Minister Heath and Opposition Leader Wilson had both recently spoken against direct rule as a “solution” by itself, but perhaps it would be possible as an interim stage toward some new system for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hillenbrand asked about the Northern Ireland economic situation. Mr. Woodfield said it was normally weak as a peripheral area separated from the rest of the United Kingdom by a significant stretch of [Page 1025] water. Unemployment was higher than the rest of the U.K. but strangely, at least until recently, so was productivity. Sectarian rivalry and violence did not seem to affect shop floor relations. Sir Alec Cairncross, former Chief Economic Adviser to HMG, was heading a committee to study possibilities for increasing investments in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hillenbrand inquired about IRA organization and objectives. Sir Stewart explained that the Provisional Wing had broken off from the official IRA a few years ago because it had become too Marxist and insufficiently devoted to violence. Total strength in Northern Ireland was estimated to be between 800 and 2,000 before internment. Others assisted IRA operations occasionally or to a limited extent. There was still some recruitment, but the security forces hoped to deprive the organization of its leadership. The Provisionals wanted to demonstrate by violence that Northern Ireland is ungovernable; to them direct rule would be a step toward unification. Mr. Woodfield said the IRA really comprised three groups: idealistic radicals, revolutionaries, and criminal thugs who enjoyed the violence. Members in Northern Ireland were mostly from the province, but they received support, sanctuary and some guidance from the Republic. In practice, IRA groups in Northern Ireland were fairly autonomous. The Provisionals are closer to IRA traditions than the Officials. MP Bernadette Devlin stated in Parliament last week that she sympathizes with the official IRA, but she is probably not formally a member. She was thrown in politics by the civil rights movement of three years ago and objects to the Dublin Government almost as much as Stormont.

Mr. Hillenbrand said Miss Devlin claimed in America that Northern Ireland Catholics are “in despair.” Mr. Woodfield agreed that that was increasingly true. Even middle-class Catholics now see no hope. He said Cardinal Conway had stated a few years ago that the majority of Northern Ireland Catholics would vote for unification with the Republic as long as there was no chance of it being implemented, but the reverse would be true if there were a real possibility. This was presumably because the standard of living is higher in Northern Ireland, the province benefits from British subsidies and higher social benefits, and life under Britain in Northern Ireland is freer and more modern. Liberal Northern Ireland Catholics regard life in the Republic as too old-fashioned and Church-dominated.

Mr. Hillenbrand asked about HMG policies other than ending violence. Mr. White pointed out that the U.K. is perfectly willing to see Northern Ireland united with the Republic if that is what the population wished. It would be in nobody’s interest, especially not the Republic’s, if one million Northern Ireland Protestants were united with the Republic against their will. Mr. Woodfield summarized HMG policy as [Page 1026] obtaining UK-wide standards in every respect in Northern Ireland, seeking a role for the minority in public life, but not permitting unification with the Republic without the consent of the majority. There was speculation that U.K. and Irish membership in the European Communities might help the Northern Ireland situation. The province and the Republic would have a common stake in EC regional policies. Gradual harmonization of economies and social benefits would reduce disparities between the two parts of the island. Both would become accustomed to a higher authority, giving Dublin some assurance against London domination.

In response to Mr. Hillenbrand’s question about organization of the Protestant community, Mr. Woodfield said it was probably less centrally controlled than the Catholics for para-military purposes. Vigilante groups that protect Protestant neighborhoods at night are quite effective. The ability of the Orange Order to command, control or prohibit Protestant violence is unknown. He agreed with Mr. White that no single leader could “unleash” Protestant potential violence.

Mr. Hillenbrand inquired whether the military forces of the Republic could conquer Northern Ireland even if British forces were not engaged. Mr. White said the Republic has only small, poorly armed forces which would probably not be able to subdue an aroused Northern Ireland Protestant community. Even the “Doomsday” plans of the Irish forces only foresaw the possibility of crossing the border to nearby Londonderry to defend the Catholic Bogside against Protestant attack if British forces were not available to do the job themselves. Sir Stewart added that, as a matter of policy, the Republic did not equip or train its forces for offensive operations.

In response to a query by Mr. Scott, Mr. White acknowledged that discrimination against Protestants in the Republic was “not a problem” However, he noted that the Protestant population had declined substantially since independence, perhaps because economic opportunities were better in Britain or elsewhere and because inter-marriage converts the next generation to Catholic. Protestants who could not afford to send their children to private schools had no choice but to send them to Catholic schools.

Asked by Mr. Scott about Northern Ireland Protestants and internment, Mr. White said only one or two non-Catholics had been detained but probably not interned. However, numerous Protestants had been arrested, charged and some convicted, as had some Catholics. That the internees were Catholic was due to the greater problem of getting judicable evidence due to IRA intimidation of witnesses.

In response to Mr. Hillenbrand’s question about conditions in internment camps, Mr. Woodfield and Mr. White acknowledged that [Page 1027] they left a lot to be desired. Mr. White said they rather reminded him of life in crowded Army camps of the early 1940s.

Mr. Hillenbrand thanked the British officials for a very useful discussion and said he hoped to be able to leave the problems of Northern Ireland to them.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 23–9 UK. Confidential.