Echoes of the past from the Archives
The release of British state papers which deal with Ireland often raise interesting issues for past and present.
On January 7, 1980, Seán MacBride, former leader of Clann na Poblachta and Minister for External Affairs in the first interparty Government that came to power in February 1948, wrote privately to Charles Haughey over his concern about a matter in the newly-released British government papers relating to the period.
Sir Norman Brock, the Cabinet Secretary to the British government at that period, advised Clement Attlee, the socialist prime minster, that the government of the United Kingdom would be forced to take a more positive attitude to supporting the partition of Ireland, “…. partly because they must support the loyalists in the North, but mainly because it is essential for strategic reasons that some part of Ireland should remain within His Majesty’s dominions”.
This position, MacBride claimed, seemed to have been accepted by Attlee. What aroused MacBride was that the comment indicated that “the British Government’s attitude at that period – and probably now – stems from what they term ‘strategic reasons’, and not from any desire to comply with the wishes of the loyalist population.
Brook, by the way, had been deputy secretary (civil) to the war cabinet, and was later to be one of the 12 pall bearers at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.
His historic advice clearly had a bearing on the situation in Northern Ireland. MacBride suggested that Haughey “might consider it worthwhile to get someone from your office, or a qualified historian, to obtain copies of these papers for analysis”.
The comment by Sir Norman arose in the context of the passage of the Ireland Act 1949, itself a consequence of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 passed by the Dáil. The British act, in the eyes of nationalists, seemed to be ensuring the continuation of partition and was to have political consequences – not only the anti-partition campaign which MacBride initiated as minister in 1948, but also the revival of the IRA in the early 1950s.
That there was a broad continuity of a desire for a permanent British hold on the Six Counties became a credo of Irish nationalists and republicans.
In reply to MacBride – “Dear Seán” – Haughey said that “these papers certainly cast an interesting light on British thinking at the time. While clearly there have been changes in the British strategic outlook in the meantime, and although there is no direct evidence that Attlee accepted the point of view put to him in the memorandum, there are, I suppose, some people in Britain who continue to subscribe to Sir Norman Brock’s thesis.”
Haughey clearly had in mind Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who had become prime minister on May 4, 1979. Her views on the situation in the North were coloured by the assassinations of Airey Neave, an old friend, and Lord Mountbatten.
With reformist ideas in hand to change Britain, she found the early months of her first term, and indeed the whole of her career as prime minister, deeply engaged by the hunger strikes, shootings, bombings and the intractable attitudes she encountered in Northern Ireland.
Though Sir Norman admitted he had not obtained a formal expression of opinion from the Chiefs of Staff – it “seems self-evident and fresh in everybody’s mind as a result of experience in the last war”.
This, he added, involved a radical change in attitudes of the political parties in Britain towards the Irish question. “And I recognise that it also involves some political inconveniences. For it implies a policy of positive support for the Northern Ireland Government – with whose outlook and activities ministers here [in London] and their supporters have not always been in sympathy.”
He concluded that “it means that there are overriding political and strategic reasons for giving these proposals a rather more sympathetic hearing than they might be thought to deserve on their strict merits”.