Irish Republican News · December 30, 2005
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]

The Dublin government had no plans in 1975 to defend or aid the nationalist people in the North, despite fears of a major escalation in the conflict following a predicted British withdrawal.

Newly declassified papers have shone further light on the policies of the then Dublin government in 1975, which differed markedly from public perceptions at the time.

However, many documents have not yet been released from the files on what were described as “security grounds”.

During the height of a unionist general strike in July 1974, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had drawn up plans for his government to disengage from the North. The plans were strongly opposed by Dublin.

In 1975, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government were wary of giving the British any excuse to make a withdrawal, in the belief that the South’s forces could quickly be overwhelmed by events.

British reassurances that this would not happen were simply not believed, and Harold Wilson was considered particularly untrustworthy.

Following the UWC strike by unionist workers, which brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive, the British government had proposed a Constitutional Convention be established to see if there was any political agreement on a form of government. The election to the Convention was held in May 1975.

Dublin’s Department of Foreign Affairs, headed by Garret Fitzgerald, predicted that there would be a further initiative from London following the election.

It noted the danger for Dublin in getting too closely involved in talks: “The more we participate, the more we facilitate the British in any plans they may be developing for shuffling off the Northern coil.”

This document commented on what might happen in the North in the event of a British withdrawal.

“The most commonly held opinion is that majority and minority interests would attempt to consolidate their own position in the areas where they were strongest. This, bluntly, means civil war.”

One official predicted the British “would get out as fast as their ships and planes would carry them.”

The possibilities in the event of a British military withdrawal are listed in a memorandum to government marked “Secret”, dated June, 1975.


The memo holds out three possible scenarios in the aftermath of a British pull-out: 1. an “independent Northern Ireland”; 2. The North being placed under United Nations trusteeship; and 3. repartition of the island of Ireland.

The prospect of Irish reunification was not considered, even as a remote possibility.

It was thought independence might come about in two models -- with and without regard to the views of nationalists -- and appeared to be the preferred option.

With many unionist politicians also believing British withdrawal was an imminent possibility, the memo said most of these “would favour independence in certain circumstances.” The more moderate unionist politicians would prefer a negotiated outcome, but “there are elements who would be prepared to seize independence if necessary”.

Belgium was seen as one possible model for an “independent Northern Ireland”. But there was concern that a referendum on Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution would be required as the Government could otherwise not recognise a northern statelet.

The memo warned that the British government had never rejected the option of withdrawal: “In inter-Governmental discussions, it has never been explicitly ruled out as have, for instance, integration and majority rule within the United Kingdom.”

In addition, the British were implicitly committed to withdrawing, if that were the expressed wish of a majority in the North. The memo warned that this majority need not include any Catholics.

The possibility of the Dublin government providing security in a “doomsday situation” was not considered at any point. It appears that this was due, at least in part, to an acknowledgement by the 26-County forces of their own limitations.

Instead, the predicted outcome was a violent repartition of the North through sectarian warfare, resulting in thousands of casualties.

“Any intimation of British withdrawal particularly in the absence of universal support for such a move within Northern Ireland seems more likely to lead to an attempt on the part of each community to consolidate territorial control by local majorities probably leading to large-scale intercommunal violence,” the memo declares.

A surge in the strength of the IRA and an increasingly militarised loyalist government taking the place of the departed British was predicted. A rump loyalist state in east Ulster “could only hope to survive by assuming a repressive character,” it warned.

However, the main concerns on the minds of the Dublin cabinet were fears of a large number of republican-minded refugees, and an increased threat from unionist paramilitaries.

Among the Dublin government plans prepared in 1975 was an option to transport 100,000 refugees from Belfast to the South within four days.

A report from the Garda Security Department, dated August 1st, recommended a policy of “maximum dispersal” of refugees from the North to avoid enclaves of IRA sympathisers emerging in the 26-Counties.

Calling for “the minimum number of refugees” in Border areas, the report stated: “Towns such as Dundalk, Monaghan, Buncrana, etc could well become shades of the Bogside, Ballymurphy or the Falls if there was no refugee dispersal policy.”

“Cross-Border activity in the wake of a mass exodus could easily become two-way, with attacks by Northern Ireland loyalist extremist elements on the security forces on the southern side of the Border, not to mention the placing of bombs in populated areas near the Border. This would pose a very serious problem.

“Looking at the potential situation even in the most optimistic light, a mass exodus following a doomsday situation in Northern Ireland would tax the resources of the security forces in the Republic to the limit.”

However, by April 2005, there were just enough blankets to cope with 500 refugees and it was estimated that supplies for 50,000 would take at least six months to acquire.

In a memo to Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, the urgency of implementing the plans was stressed:

“The Government would be subjected to considerable criticism, at a time when maintenance of its authority and of support for its policies was of the highest importance, while the refugees could suffer great hardship.”

It is not clear from the released papers if the plans for accommodating the refugees were ever realised. Dublin also ruled out any possibility of providing humanitarian relief directly to people on the ground in the North.

“The implications of trying to provide this type of protection inside Northern Ireland would be extremely serious,” the memo said.

As for the third option, a military intervention by UN peacekeepers, this would almost certainly have to arise out of a joint request by the British and Irish governments.

Such a “garrison” was seen operating in a situation where the Six Counties were placed under UN trusteeship, whereby the world body would administer the territory on an interim basis, pending a final settlement.

But Conor Cruise O’Brien, then a key Labour Party strategist and considered an expert on the United Nations, was wary of involving a UN peacekeeping force in the North. He claimed it would let Britain “off the hook, providing her with an honourable path of retreat” and increasing the pressure on Dublin to play a role in the North.

But on December 30th, all of these concerns had faded, with another document summarising the situation thus: The British “appear to have rejected integration, repartition and independence as options for serious discussion and all the present information points to a continuation of direct rule, though perhaps in a modified form.”

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