Socialist history: Irish civil war fears revealed

THIRTY YEARS ago, on 1 January 1974, a power-sharing government was established in Northern Ireland. Within months it had been brought down by a Loyalist stoppage and it would be 25 years before another power sharing government was established, similar to the 1973-1974 model.

The release of government papers from Ireland, Britain and the US on 1 January have shed light on the thinking of the ruling class at that time. The Sunday Tribune (4 January) has revealed that the US administration feared that the situation in the North was spiralling towards civil war. The British government shared this view and also feared that violence would spill over to British cities with large Irish populations such as Liverpool and Glasgow. The US was particularly concerned by the impact of such developments on NATO if more and more British troops were sucked into the conflict.

These revelations complement others over recent years which demonstrate that the main body of the British ruling class actively considered pulling out of the North in the early 1970’s. They did not take this course of action – not because they had strategic, military or economic reasons to stay – but because they feared the consequences if they left.

Staying meant they had to find a way to stabilise the situation and that meant leaning on the Protestant majority whilst attempting various political "solutions." Ruthless repression was used against mainly Catholic areas and the newly released papers reveal how the British government planned to give the army extensive powers to shoot on sight if they deemed it "necessary".

The ruling class will defend their position and privileges by any means necessary and that is what they did in Northern Ireland in the early 1970’s. The fact that repression was overwhelmingly directed against Catholics does not prove the correctness of the IRA’s war. Then, as now, the ruling class took a pragmatic approach. The IRA campaign did not shift them. Rather, by stiffening Protestant opposition, it took any thoughts the ruling class might have had about withdrawal out of the equation.

From Socialist Voice, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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January 2004