The US embassy in Dublin warned Washington after Bloody Sunday in 1972 that its failure to press Britain to change its policy in the North threatened to plunge Ireland into civil war, it has emerged.
According to recently declassified US State Department and White House papers, the embassy wrote in February 1972 that US national interests could suffer if a deepening conflict diverted British troops from NATO duties.
“The sober view of people in the Government here, and of most of the diplomatic corps - including ourselves and members of the British mission - is that the present course of events on this island, if not modified by a change in British policy, runs a grave risk of leading to civil war, or at least further bloodshed . . .
“Further, if the present course is not altered and this island becomes convulsed, it is difficult to predict what sort of Dublin government would emerge in the aftermath, with significant consequences for ourselves, the EEC and western Europe.
“Finally, we think that our government would wish to say it did not stand by unconcernedly as Ireland headed towards bloodshed,” it said.
Since the recent conflict began in 1969, Washington had refused to intervene with Britain, either publicly or in private, on the basis that the political problems were a domestic concern of Britain.
In July 1972, president Richard Nixon asked the National Security Council to consider what the US could do to help achieve “a solution to the Ulster problem”. Nixon’s national security adviser Al Haig acknowledged that the US administration’s refusal to intervene created political problems for the president and angered Irish-Americans.
Haig believed, however, that any change in policy would be self-defeating and that “there is no way we can out-Kennedy Kennedy” on the issue.
“The very fact that US Catholics are heartened by our domestic policies on abortion, busing and aid to parochial schools should more than compensate for a lack of do-goodism on the Ulster problem,” he wrote.
The American embassy in Dublin compiled secret reports on dozens of prominent figures in Irish politics, business and diplomacy. Among those profiled were former president Mary Robinson, former taoiseach John Bruton, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Desmond O’Malley, Garret FitzGerald, Anthony O’Reilly and rising stars in all the main political parties.
The reports were sent to Washington as part of the Potential Leader Biographic Reporting Programme, which focused until the late 1960s on Third World countries.
“When this programme was initiated, heavy emphasis was placed on its implementation in the new and emerging nations of Africa and Asian and in Latin America. However, its applicability to more stable and politically developed nations in Europe and elsewhere was also amply demonstrated in the first cycle,” the State Department wrote to the embassy in Dublin in 1969.
Apart from basic biographical data, the reports included details of “personal appearance, habits, mannerisms, interests and hobbies, attitudes and views regarding significant issues”.