237. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Ford1


  • Crisis in Ulster

The off-and-on ceasefire that has prevailed in Northern Ireland since Christmas and the gradual erosion of popular support for terrorism have encouraged British hopes that a foundation for moderation can be built that eventually will permit establishment of a workable government in Ulster based on power-sharing between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. The UK feels that if London can assert control throughout the province and if the truce holds, proposed elections for representatives to a constitutional convention may be held this year. However, those two ifs and the separate question of whether a convention could draft a constitution that would protect Catholic minority rights indicate the long odds the British face in resolving the Ulster crisis. Religious differences and resulting hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland are so deep-rooted that the prospects of a settlement remain very slim.


The effects of the Catholic-Protestant feud are far-reaching. Catholic charges of discrimination in jobs, housing and other aspects of daily life are justified. On the other hand, hardline Protestants fear that Catholics will usurp their jobs and erode Protestant domination, and that the province will be annexed by the Republic of Ireland.

The current strife began in the late 1960s as a civil rights protest which quickly turned militant. The Provisional IRA, which split off from the parent organization in 1969, soon became the protector of Catholic interests in Ulster. Despite the fact that many early supporters of the IRA have sickened of the violence that has killed 1200 since 1969, so long as prospects for a just settlement appear dim, the IRA will have the support of many Catholics who see it as their last and only means of defense.

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London’s efforts to play a constructive role in Ulster are deeply affected by ancient distrust between Britain and Ireland, and ingrained prejudices on both sides. The UK would like to rid itself of the Irish problem, but opinion at home would turn against a government which deserted the Ulster loyalists. Northern Ireland is in fact both an economic liability and a drain on British military manpower. Last year’s subsidies cost London approximately $700 million and some 15,000 British troops are presently stationed in Ulster. Dublin’s interest in Ulster stems from its desire to protect the Catholic minority and its aspiration for an eventually united Ireland, a goal nearly all Irish Catholics in both the north and south at least tacitly support.

The Sunningdale Initiative

A plan for a viable government in Ulster worked out by representatives from London, Dublin and Belfast at the Sunningdale conference in 1973 collapsed last May only five months after it was offered. That plan called for a bisectarian 11-man Executive body to head the 78-member Belfast Assembly, Ulster’s local government. In a second stage, a Council of Ireland—the so-called “Irish dimension”—would have been set up with representatives from both parts of Ireland. The new system seemed initially to hold some promise but failed because:

—a devastating general strike in May by dissident Protestant trade unionists brought the province to a standstill and forced the government, headed by moderate Protestant Brian Faulkner, to resign.

—London was too eager to push ahead with the Council of Ireland.

The power-sharing idea remains alive, however, and London has continued to put forward plans to implement it.

The Ceasefire

An opportunity temporarily to end the violence occurred early last December, when the IRA agreed to a Christmas truce. Although the ceasefire finally ran out on January 16, the IRA did not resume large-scale hostilities and talks continued, with a group of Protestant and Catholic clergymen acting as an intermediary between the IRA and the British authorities in Northern Ireland. On February 8, the IRA declared an open-ended truce. To obtain the ceasefire, London agreed to end the policy of internment of terrorists without trial and to the withdrawal of some British forces in Ulster.

One innovation in the ceasefire has been the establishment of “incident centers,” manned by British authorities throughout Northern Ireland, to report minor incidents to a central authority so that troops or police can be dispatched to prevent the development of major crises. The new approach seems to be working, but a decision by the IRA to [Page 757] establish its own incident centers now threatens the truce. The IRA centers in Belfast apparently have assumed some policing functions in the Catholic areas—causing Protestant extremists to announce that they, too, will begin policing their areas. In effect, the controversial “no go” areas that accompanied the previous strife are being reconstituted, thus increasing the possibility of renewed sectarian violence.

Current Political Initiatives

The current British plan calls for the election of a 78-man convention to draft a new constitution. The British and the loyalist hardliners want early elections. The Protestant hardliners are convinced, probably correctly, that if elections were held now their candidates would fare quite well, thus making it difficult—if not impossible—for a convention to come up with a constitution that would adequately protect the interests of the Catholic minority.

The Dublin government and most Ulster moderates would rather postpone the election until fall, thereby giving moderate politicians—particularly on the Protestant side—time to regain the credibility they lost when the Executive failed last May. A delay would afford voters the opportunity to become accustomed to peace, lend credence to the moderate line, and reduce the hardliners’ appeal. The moderate Catholics in Ulster have in fact improved their position in recent months. The moderate Protestants are not as fortunate. There has been little mention of Brian Faulkner and his followers since last spring, while Protestant hardliners such as Paisley have continued to enhance their image as champions of the majority. Despite the probable advantages of delay described above, the British nevertheless seem intent on adhering to a schedule that calls for elections this spring and the convention in early summer.


If the ceasefire fails and the British are unable successfully to carry through their plan for the convention, or if that body fails to work out a satisfactory constitution, the prospects are grim. Short of complete abandonment, nearly all other options would result in Britain’s increased involvement. Most conceivable solutions would be so unacceptable to one side or the other that only the continued—and possibly strengthened—presence of British troops would insure compliance.

—Further integration into the UK would incite the IRA and probably increase violence.

—Restoration of the old Protestant-dominated Belfast government would have the same effect.

—Further partitioning to delineate officially the Protestant areas would result in isolated patches of loyalist territory that probably would never be safe from IRA harassment.

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—A British pull-out could trigger a civil war, with the powerful Protestant militants in a good position to annihilate the Catholic minority.

In the event of a civil war, it would be difficult to prevent outsiders, such as the Dublin government and elements of the Irish-American community in the U.S., from supporting the Ulster Catholics. UN intercession is another possibility.

Before further progress can be realized, the hold of the extremists must be broken. Only this can clear the stage for a political campaign in which moderates would be able to regain their influence. At the same time, the British may have to abandon, at least for the time being, the concept of an “Irish dimension,” perceived by Protestants as the first step toward unification with the Irish Republic.

  1. Summary: Kissinger discussed the crisis in Northern Ireland.

    Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Europe, Canada, and Ocean Affairs Staff Files, Box 12, Ireland (2) WH. Confidential. Sent for information. Kissinger did not initial the memorandum. Clift forwarded the memorandum to Kissinger for his signature under cover of a March 6 memorandum, on which Scowcroft wrote, “Discussed with the President.”