Fissile material: Ireland and Trident replacement

Within the next few months, Parliament is due to vote on the Government’s plan to replace Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent.

With Trident submarines based at Faslane, and the Scottish elections only a few months away, this decision was bound to become entwined with the debate about Scotland’s future. The most recent manifestation of this was Alex Salmond’s threat that an SNP-led executive would tax nuclear weapons in a bid to prevent them being deployed in Scotland.

Trident’s implications for Ireland may be less obvious, but they emerge clearly from a British Government file released recently under the thirty year rule.

The relevant document is a letter from Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt dated 16 January 1976, in response to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘apocalyptic note for the record,’ which envisaged the possibility of a more or less independent Northern Ireland.

Towards the end of the letter, Hunt suggests there are ‘strong arguments on merits’ for Northern Ireland being an independent member of the EEC, because ‘in practice virtually all Northern Ireland’s interests in the EEC are similar to those in the South and different from those in Great Britain.’  He goes on to add:

Defence is however, a different matter . Although we now make comparatively little use of Northern Ireland for defence purposes it is vital to ensure that it remains in friendly hands. The North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland is as narrow as 11 miles and through it pass both British and United States submarines from the Clyde bases. It is also the vital channel for shipborne supply to this country. Thus we should need a water-tight defence agreement with an "associated state" of Northern Ireland. (National Archives PREM 16/960)

Although this document is over thirty years old, it’s difficult to see why its logic would no longer apply today, especially given the British Government’s intention to base a new generation of nuclear submarines at Faslane.

That raises an obvious question mark over one of the foundation stones of the Irish peace process, the British Government’s claim that that they have "no selfish strategic
or economic interest in Northern Ireland



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