Socialist Worker

Secret 1972 cabinet papers released: Tories wrecked peace hope in Ireland

Issue No. 1832

The events of Bloody Sunday influenced the growth and development of the IRA, which was committed to the armed struggle against the British and Protestant state. Hundreds of angry young men and women flocked to join the IRA. A number of the leaders of the IRA came to the conclusion, however, that while the British army could not militarily defeat them, they could not defeat it.

A top secret letter from a British army commander on 9 February said that he and Harry Tuzo, the General Officer Commanding in the North, had made contact with a leading IRA member, Frank Morris: 'Morris said that the Provisionals could continue to struggle for a long time and could not defeat the British army. But the British army alone could not defeat them. He proposed a truce between the IRA and the British army.'

An even more important secret meeting was held between a British government senior official and two IRA leaders on 20 June to discuss a ceasefire. The IRA announced a ceasefire on 22 June. The two IRA leaders included Gerry Adams, who Willie Whitelaw, the Northern Ireland secretary, had 'released from detention (not internment)'.

'They asked, would the secretary of state agree to a personal meeting with representatives after the ceasefire?' wrote Woodfield, Whitelaw's emissary. 'On this the answer was yes. There is little doubt now that the prospect of peace is there. They have a strong personal incentive to try and get it.'

The government's determination to keep the sectarian set-up in Northern Ireland in place destroyed any hope of peace. The Tory government of the 1980s even censored Gerry Adams' voice from TV. The Tory press continues to attack him as a 'terrorist' today. Heath and his ministers knew that the IRA leadership wanted peace, even in 1972. So why did the people of Northern Ireland have to endure over two more decades of war?

The British army justified torture

THE AUTHORITIES subjected many of those interned to torture. This created a massive outcry which the government tried to stop. 'Ministers have decided that hooding, enforced wall standing, manufactured noise, restriction of diet and deprivation of sleep will not be used as an aid to interrogation,' the government proclaimed in March after the Parker report into torture.

But the military authorities were proud of the use of torture against innocent people and wanted to extend its use. 'It is clear that the Ministry of Defence are still in some doubt how to justify the various interrogation procedures, all of which they still want to retain-hooding, wall standing, obtrusive noise, deprivation of sleep and a sparse diet,' said Trevalyn at the Northern Ireland office.

'It is seeking for ways to justify them by making it appear that more restrictive measures are required for security purposes.'

Government was prepared to murder

THE BRUTALITY of Edward Heath's government was seen in its treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland. The British army's slaughter of 14 Catholics in Derry on Bloody Sunday was a defining moment of the year.

Heath was determined to crush the resistance by the Catholic minority to being treated as second class citizens. In August 1971 the Tories introduced internment. This meant locking up people indefinitely without charging them with any crime. Over 2,000 people had been rounded up by January 1972.

Protests against internment swept Northern Ireland despite a ban on marches. The British government was especially worried about a forthcoming march in Derry. Heath and other officials tried to demonise civil rights marchers in Derry in the run-up to the protest. The Protestant name for Derry was Londonderry. 'Information available to the authorities suggests that, though some hundreds of men have been interned, there is a considerable number of active terrorists still at large, particularly in Londonderry,' Heath told the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland on 23 January.

The government began to make plans to deal with any outcry caused by violence unleashed on the Derry protesters. 'Preparatory thought is being given to the public relations aspect of this event,' said an official at the Ministry of Defence on 26 January.

A few days later he added, 'It is being suggested that the Northern Ireland government put out a statement which stresses the illegality of any march in defiance of the ban and makes it clear that the security forces would ensure that any such march was halted, with no more force than was necessary.' 'The responsibility for violence must rest fairly and squarely on the shoulders of those who encourage people to break the law,' said a joint police and army statement on 29 January.

Burke Trend, the cabinet secretary, warned on 26 January of the violent behaviour of British troops towards Catholics: 'In particular soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, by being unnecessarily rough, have gratuitously provoked resentment among the peaceful element of the Roman Catholic population.'

Despite this the Parachute Regiment was sent to stop the Derry march, with bloody results. Troops from the Parachute Regiment shot at unarmed Catholic civil rights protesters in Derry on 30 January, which has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. The cover-up began immediately.

A telegram to Heath claimed, 'One Parachute Regiment were under indiscriminate fire from snipers in high flats nearby.' The prime minister of the Republic of Ireland phoned Heath on the evening of 30 January to complain about the 'massacre', and said the 'British troops reacted rather beyond what a disciplined force might be expected to'.

Heath justified the killings by saying, 'It was a march, it was against the law, and should never have been held or countenanced by anybody. 'The people who deliberately organised this march in circumstances in which the IRA were bound to intervene carry a very heavy responsibility.' Heath even said that if internment had been introduced in the Republic of Ireland the protest would not have happened.

Heath imposed direct rule over Northern Ireland in March, getting rid of the sectarian Unionist government, to ensure Britain's control of the state was continued.

BLOODY SUNDAY provoked protests against Britain across the world, including in Britain itself. The biggest demonstration was in Dublin, where 35,000 demonstrators burned down the British embassy.

'I had been in London for two days and was horrified to find my embassy in flames on my return,' Sir Peck, the British ambassador, told the prime minister of Northern Ireland. There were worries that Irish protesters would burn down the British ambassador's residence:

'Sir J Peck had an escape route available in case of need. The prime minister Edward Heath assured Sir J Peck that the RAF plane was on standby.'

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