1979 papers
1979 papers

A review of the declassified documents released in Dublin, London and Belfast under the 30 years rule.

Concern that Dublin officials were secretly providing information to the British government were expressed in a letter from the 26-County ambassador in London to the top civil servant at the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978.

The Irish ambassador in London Paul Keating wrote, in a letter marked “personal” on July 17th, 1978: “I am somewhat concerned at the development of quasi-secret links between branches of the administration in Ireland and their opposite numbers here, of which this embassy is not informed.

“It has always been a problem as far as the links between the Home Office and the Department of Justice are concerned and there have, in the past, been very close links between the Treasury and the Department of Finance.

“Partnership in the Community encourages the development of further direct contact,” continues the letter, which has been released under the 30-year rule.

But the ambassador stresses that “the contacts as such” are not a cause of concern. “What I am worried about is the secrecy that relates to them in many cases and the fact that they may have repercussions in more than just the technical field they are intended to cover.”

Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office passed a copy of a British army assessment of the Provisional IRA to an official at the Irish Embassy in London.

The document, Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends, was prepared in November 1978 by the senior British Army officer involved with intelligence work in the North who had since become Commander of British Land Forces in Ireland.

Known as “The Glover Report”, the document fell into the hands of the Provisional IRA and reports of its contents appeared in the media shortly before it was given to the embassy official in May 1979.

The news stories were a source of embarrassment to the British government because of the document’s contention that the Provisional IRA had the capacity and support to continue its activities for the foreseeable future, and that it appeared to confirm a shared consensus that the continuation of British direct rule was the only option which “offers any real prospect of political calm and hence waning support for the terrorists during the next five years”.


A newly released document at the National Archives in London describes a tense meeting between Mrs Thatcher and Humphrey Atkins, the Northern Ireland secretary, at Downing Street on August 23rd, 1979. The meeting concerned the proposed visit of New York governor Hugh Carey to Ireland.

A furious Mrs Thatcher banned Mr Atkins from meeting him, following reports that he was planning to put pressure on the British government over the Six Counties. She “would not think of discussing with President Carter, for example, US policy towards their black population”.

However, top White House staff in the administration of president Jimmy Carter were not just “ignorant” of the basic facts about Ireland but also apparently unwilling to study the northern issue or even to take it seriously, according to Ireland’s Washington envoy at the time.

“It is clear that his senior advisers have little understanding not just of Ireland but even of Irish America,” wrote Sean Donlon.

“Casual conversations which I have had with a number of them over the last year reveal a complete ignorance of the facts and an apparent unwillingness to acquire a basic knowledge or to take the issue seriously.”

But this had worked to the Irish advantage “to an extent”.

As long as former senator Edward Kennedy and former speaker of the House of Representatives, TP “Tip” O’Neill agreed on “what it was the president should do in relation to Ireland or the Irish-Americans” then Mr Carter did it, “without seriously questioning and possibly without understanding what it was he was doing”.


The British government regarded the outcome of the first direct European elections in the Six Counties as entrenching polarisation in the North.

In an analysis of the results for the British government, dated June 26th, 1979, a British official, felt that the results -- which put Ian Paisley top the poll for the DUP, followed by the SDLP’s deputy leader John Hume -- revealed “a positive shift towards the extremes within both the Unionist and non-Unionist blocs”.

In February, before the election, some officials detected that Paisley was already seeking out a “more moderate vote”, by “floating ideas and arranging meetings to discuss them”.

On July 4th, British Direct Ruler Humphrey Atkins told his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that Paisley “wanted to be prime minister of Northern Ireland” and “might be prepared to make some concessions in order to achieve his ambition”.

Thatcher “expressed some doubts about this”. She feared he would simply withdraw his support from any settlement if he was not placed at the top of it.

Following the election, an official noted that Paisley had “sent a telegram to the prime minister demanding a meeting as the undisputed ‘leader of Ulster’”.

“It is possible that his bombast will lead him to demand full majority rule devolution and, failing that, independence.”


The question of allowing armed warders at Long Kesh prison to open fire on escaping prisoners features in confidential files released from the Public Record Office in Belfast from 1978-79.

Difficulties in guarding the prison, the centre of the then H-Block “dirty protest” in the late 1970s, were considered by a committee British political and military authorities.

The committee considered that any mass escape attempt would likely be accompanied by an external attack on the prison by the Provisional IRA.

The best protection was considered to be the removal of “large numbers of disciplined, hardened and potentially violent” IRA prisoners from less secure compounds to the cellular H-Blocks, whose security was not questioned.

In 1983, due partly to these British misconceptions, a successful mass breakout took place from inside the H-Blocks without any external attack.


Moving the Dublin parliament to a reconstructed Tara’s hall on the Hill of Tara was the proposal of a New Zealand-born writer, who lodged a hundred thousand US dollars in a Dublin bank for that purpose.

William Edward Patrick O’Donnell wished to move Irish government in 1975 back to the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland. The donation, he believed, would be the first of many millions from other well-to-do expatriates once the project was under way.

“The way to build up the Irish economy is through contributions from people now scattered throughout the world,” he told Richie Ryan, the minister for finance, according to State papers.

“The great sum which will be required for this development will, when placed in circulation, restore the economy of Ireland,” he said.

“When the level of the economy in the Republic of Ireland is raised so that prosperity is equalised throughout the whole of Ireland, the Ulster problem will automatically disappear.”

O’Donnell’s offer was declined by Richie Ryan, who told him that the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane were national monuments and development around them was strictly controlled.

“The architectural content of the ground around them and the general topography of the sites are not interfered with,” the minister said.

Later documents from the file show O’Donnell, described by then Taoiseach Jack Lynch as “a very old man”, was eventually persuaded by Lynch to part with his money for general government expenses.


* An official at the British Foreign Office produced a document in January 1979 describing what he said was the “inferiority felt by Irish Catholics with regard to English Catholicism”.

Leaving aside “the vexed though topical question of red hats” , he put together a list of “provoking statistics” to support his view. These included the greater proportion of Catholic cathedrals in Britain than in Ireland and the fact that England had 42 canonised martyrs, to Ireland’s one.

* British officials tried to suppress televison signals from the 26 Counties being broadcast into the Six Counties in 1979. The British government proposed to ask “the Eire administration” to limit the power of a transmitter in Donegal to 5kw in the direction of Derry.

Even with this restriction, the official noted, RTE programmes would be received in Derry and the North West. The official added: “There is some speculation that this may be the first move by the Irish to extend coverage of their television services to Northern Ireland.”

* The then 26-County President, Patrick Hillery, was obliged to seek government consent for a sailing holiday outside Irish territorial waters and a cabinet decision had to be taken before he could depart.

Hillery was also advised to decline an invitation to present a literary award to Liam O’Flaherty, as the writer from the Aran Islands was “frequently very cranky” and also because the award was being sponsored by a bank.

* The Department of Foreign Affairs reluctantly paid four thousand pounds to transport an elephant to Ireland which was a gift from the Tanzanian president to the Irish president.

Newly released records show the Tanzanian ministry of foreign affairs wrote to the Irish Embassy in Dar es Salaam in 1980 asking to be reimbursed for shipping costs, much to the bewilderment of officials.

The Embassy eventually sent a cheque to the Tanzanians urging them to cash it before December 31st.

The baby elephant was ultimately sent to a zoo in England in 1983.

* Irish diplomats in Saudi Arabia smuggled in alcohol concealed under false shipping labels to dodge the Islamic state’s drink ban, official files reveal.

* Some 68 prisoners were released early from custody under an amnesty to mark the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979, according to State papers released by the National Archives.

But the prisoners were not released until the last day of the pope’s visit because of fears Dublin homes would be burgled.

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