Northern Ireland: British fears of civil war and “a Portugal on our doorstep” in 1975 state papers

Warnings of the effect of a British withdrawal

The release of documents covering the year 1975 has shed new light on the thinking of the British government on Northern Ireland at that time. It would be a mistake to assume that such documents tell the whole story – not everything will have been committed to paper in the first place, some documents will never be revealed in their entirety and the ruling class do not always think or speak with one voice – but it is worth studying what does become public.

It is clear from the papers that Harold Wilson’s government, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Sunningdale Executive, considered all the options open to them, including withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The option was quickly dismissed, not because the British ruling class wished to hold onto the North for economic or military reasons, but because it feared the consequences of withdrawal.

In the records of comments made by government officials and members of the British embassy staff in Dublin it was argued that any steps in the direction of British withdrawal would lead to widespread civil conflict, "more or less permanent instability in the whole of Ireland" and ultimately a collapse of the authority of the Southern government "leaving the field open to extremists, even to the extent of some sort of extreme left wing takeover". One official warned of the danger of "a Portugal on our doorstep".

These comments demonstrate how the ruling class is concerned above all by any threat to its position in society. In 1975, Portugal was very much on the minds, and in the nightmares, of the ruling class. In April of that year the Portuguese working class, in a mass movement initiated by middle-ranking army officers, overthrew a 40 year old fascist regime. Eighty percent of the economy was nationalised and The Times proclaimed that capitalism was "dead" in Portugal. The ruling class in every European country feared the effects of a successful socialist revolution in Portugal. Fortunately for them, the main workers’ parties in Portugal did not seize the opportunity and saved the day for capitalism.

The actual consequences of a British withdrawal in 1975 would have been very different from that foreseen by the officials quoted above. An all-out civil war would have exploded in Northern Ireland with conflict spreading across the border and probably to major British cities such as Glasgow.

The result would not have been social revolution but reaction and re-partition. The most likely regime to emerge in a rump Northern Ireland would probably have been based on the extreme right wing elements of unionism. In the South, re-partition and civil war would more likely have led to an extremely right wing government coming to power, possibly under a "national unity" banner, but using authoritarian military methods to keep the working class movement in check.

The only force capable of preventing such a development was the labour movement. By 1975 the Northern Ireland Labour Party had all but disappeared – it had not in any case posed an alternative to the slide to conflict in the early 1970’s-and the labour movement thus lacked any political wing. The trade unions represented the only bulwark against sectarianism, uniting as they did, and continue to do, the majority of working-class people in the workplaces. Indeed in 1975 and especially in 1976, trade unionists took mass action again and again against sectarian killings. These actions pushed back the extremists on both sides for a time.

In 1975 the Provisionals, led by Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Daithi O’Connail, were convinced that a British withdrawal was imminent. They were probably deliberately misled by the British government into thinking that this was the likelihood, rather than an option considered and then quickly discarded. On this basis, the IRA were officially on ceasefire for most of 1975 – though the Provisionals carried out many vicious sectarian attacks during this period.

The collapse of the ceasefire led in time to the emergence of a new leadership around Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. They argued that the IRA had been severely weakened by the 1975 ceasefire and that there would be no new ceasefire until there was "a British declaration of intent to withdraw".

The ceasefire eventually came in 1994, without any such declaration. The Republican version of history holds that all changed at the start of the 1990s, as indicated by Secretary of State Peter Brooke’s statement that Britain had no "selfish economic or strategic interest in Ireland". The Republican leadership took this statement at face value as indicating a major shift in the stance of the British ruling class, whereas the real truth was that, precisely to protect their own "selfish, economic and strategic" interests, the British ruling class had long wished to extract itself from Northern Ireland.

They were unable to do so because they feared the consequences. The long war of the IRA made it more, not less, difficult for them to do so.

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