Internment and Bloody Sunday
Heath's shameful Irish legacy
BY FERN LANE
Edward Heath, the former Conservative Prime Minister, has announced his intention to retire from political life at the next election. The 84-year-old MP for Bexley Heath has been in the British parliament for 50 years; he was elected in 1950, gaining the leadership of the party in 1965. He entered Downing Street in 1970 after an unexpected victory over Harold Wilson's Labour Party, and with the Industrial Relations Act in 1971 began the attack on the Trade Union movement which reached its nadir under Margaret Thatcher. In 1972 he took Britain into the European Union with the signing of the Treaty of Accession, before his government was brought down in the February 1974 election by the striking coal miners, after he had declared the first state of emergency in 40 years. He was dumped by his party in favour of Margaret Thatcher the following year.
To say that Heath disliked Margaret Thatcher would be a huge understatement. In British political circles he is famously remembered for ``the longest sulk'' in political history after his defeat at her hands in the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party. ``They have made a grave mistake choosing that woman,'' he said at the time, refusing to serve under her and consigning himself to the back benches ever after. He continued to denounce her publicly throughout her term in office and beyond, commenting in 1989 that she had never once made a ``right decision''. As a result he was himself hated by Thatcher's acolytes inside and outside the party, who considered him unpardonably left-wing. The rabidly right-wing political commentator, Paul Johnson, called him a ``covert collectivist''.
However, whilst Heath has received fulsome tributes from all shades of British political opinion (with the exception of Thatcher) on his retirement, he will be remembered in Ireland, particularly by nationalists, for far more dubious achievements. He was the architect of the failed Sunningdale Agreement and oversaw the introduction of internment. Most notoriously, he was in office during the events of Bloody Sunday.
In 1995, a researcher going through government papers in the Public Records Office uncovered a memorandum from 1972 in which Heath directed the Widgery Tribunal to be aware that Britain was engaged in a ``propaganda as well as a military war'' as it carried out its investigations in to the killings. Not only was this a clear admission on the part of the British government that what was happening in the Six Counties was a war - then, as now, vigorously and consistently denied in public - it also amounted to a virtual instruction to cover up the truth of what happened on 30 January 1972, the consequences of which are still being felt today.
His attitude to Ireland surfaced again after the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Heath went on television to stoutly defend the Chinese authorities for using the army to suppress the protest, referring to the demonstrations as ``illegal'' and making a direct comparison with the actions of the British Army on Bloody Sunday who, he said, had also had to take appropriate action against an ``illegal protest''.