Papers released show considerable political confusion in the British and 26 County governments in 1976 following the collapse of Sunningdale power-sharing efforts.
In particular, The British government considered creating an independent ‘Northern Ireland’ in the 1970s, according to documents released in both Dublin and London.
The revelation has emerged from a series of previously secret files on the possibility that unionist paramilitaries would attempt to make a “Unilateral Declaration of Independence”.
A memo written by the then British prime minister Harold Wilson records his concerns of “apocalyptic” violence following an apparently inevitable British withdrawal, a vision shared and feared in Dublin.
By January 9, after 15 people had died in a rapid spate of killings in the north of Ireland, the British Prime Minister was considering possible scenarios.
Entitled “Apocalyptic note for the record”, it described how “so-called loyalist” paramilitaries might “take the bit between their teeth” and attempt to separate from London rather than make concessions to the Catholic nationalist minority.
‘Northern Ireland’ could then become a “pariah state”, rejected by the EEC and United Nations, and impossible for Britain to govern even by force.
Making clear his frustration with intransigent Unionists, who had defeated government attempts to establish a power-sharing assembly in Belfast two years before, Wilson wrote that the Queen might even refuse to be monarch of such an “unruly mob”. He added: “It is possible, of course . . . that those in control of Northern Ireland would be so inward-looking that they would not even ask for the Queen’s continued sovereignty.”
Referring to William III of Orange, the Protestant king after whom the Orange Order is named, he said: “This would be a strange commentary on the claim to the use of the word “loyalist”; they would prove, as their actions for long have suggested, that they are loyal to no monarch except a long-dead Dutchman.”
The Prime Minister called for contingency planning for a UDI scenario, saying that Britain might be put in a difficult position as pro-Irish parts of the USA pushed for sanctions against the rump sectarian state.
On top of that, he cautioned, Britain could face a period of “Ulster-inspired terrorism” emanating from Glasgow and Liverpool. But at least it would be free from the “purblind fanaticism of Northern Ireland”, and from the expense of ruling it. Instead, he envisaged “a clean cut-off of financial assistance from this side of the water”.
Wilson’s concerns were supported by Dublin officials, who also believed and feared that unionist paramilitaries were planning a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and this would facilitate a British withdrawal.
“There is considerable evidence that the discussion of independence as the ultimate solution for Northern Ireland is being pursued quite actively at the moment, particularly in paramilitary circles,” the document reads.
“There is also some evidence that the British will encourage this independence debate and would be quite happy to see it as the ultimate solution to the Northern Ireland problem.”
Officials spoke of “a dangerous adherence” amongst many unionist groups to the UDI formula and it is known that the UDA held a discussion on this aspect of independence in mid-June,” he writes.
While unionist paramilitaries feared for the Protestant population in largely nationalist areas of the North,
it waws recorded that former Ulster Unionist MP Martin Smyth was a potential supporter of the plan.
* Further coverage of the 1976 papers in our next issue.