The embargo on stories about the 1976 state papers ended today. The Times carries details of an ‘apocalyptic note for the record’ about the North of Ireland by Harold Wilson:
By January 9, after 15 people had died in a rapid spate of killings in
the Province, the Prime Minister was considering worst-case scenarios.
With his premiership drawing to a close, and little sign of political
progress in Belfast, he dictated an eight-page document raising the
prospect of a Rhodesian-style unilateral declaration of independence by
Unionist hardliners. (Times)
The civil servants did not share Wilson’s pessimism, but it was not as irrational as The Times account might be taken to imply. It was undoubtedly shaped by the experience of the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement, which was destroyed by what was effectively a loyalist-backed armed revolt by the Ulster Workers Council.
Where Wilson was mistaken, like many British observers, was in believing that the strike was evidence of the strength of ‘Ulster nationalism.’ In fact, it owed a great deal to the connivance of sections of the British establishment.
A study for the Northern Ireland Office by civil servant Stephen J Leach concluded that the strike could have been broken if the Army had confronted loyalist intimidation. This, however, was something that senior officers were in no mood to do given the atmosphere of the time.
The Times dismisses the theory that the security services were plotting against Harold Wilson. Wilson himself believed it, as did his secretary Marcia Williams. Colin Wallace and Peter Wright would later emerge to corroborate the story, which would be documented by journalists and contemporary historians including Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, Paul Foot, David Leigh, Robin Ramsay and Stephen Dorril.
Only this year, a BBC documentary on the Wilson plots included testimony from William Waldegrave and Jonathan Aitken.
The immediate cause of Wilson’s reflections was a spate of sectarian murders in January 1976, including the killings of six Catholic civilians from the Reavey and O’Dowd families on 4 January and the killing of ten Protestant civilians by the IRA in the Kingsmills massacre on 5 January.
The Reavey and O’Dowd attacks were carried out by the Glennane Gang, a loyalist group that had links to the security forces, and is also believed to have been responsible for the Dublin-Monaghan bombings during the UWC Strike.
The truth is that Ulster UDI was never likely because the most reactionary elements in unionism were too closely entwined with their counterparts in Britain.