A Call to the Unionists

Garret FitzGerald responds to Tom Wilson’s review of his memoirs in the last issue

Tom Wilson’s insight as a moderate Unionist into the Northern Ireland tragedy and his critique of my involvement with these events offers useful balance to my – inevitably – somewhat different position on these matters. There are, however, some points in his review upon which I should like to comment. First, as to Sunningdale. Professor Wilson says that I do not discuss what he describes as an ‘intensification’ of the IRA’s campaign arising from that Agreement. I made no mention of this because it did not happen. The number of killings in Northern Ireland declined from 467 in 1972 to 250 in 1973 – the year of the negotiation and signature of the Agreement – and fell to 216 in the following year. The total number of shooting incidents and explosions also declined during these years in broadly similar proportions. And in each six-month period from mid-1973 to mid-1975 the number of killings remained around the one hundred level – lower than in any other half-year during the 1972-6 quinquennium. Moreover the drop in IRA killings between 1973 and 1974 was significantly greater than the decline in the total number of deaths by violence, and this reduction in IRA violence persisted into 1975, when killings by other groups rose quite sharply.

The fact is that far from IRA violence being intensified at that time, Sunningdale and its aftermath coincided with a temporary reduction in the level of violence, and in particular of IRA violence in Northern Ireland. But the contrary myth seems to have become popular in Unionist circles – and even to be believed by Professor Wilson – as a partial rationalisation of the Loyalist Workers’ Strike which brought down the Executive in May 1974. That strike was directed against, and achieved the downfall of, the power-sharing Executive that had been formed by a majority of those elected democratically to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973. The failure to tackle the strike at the outset, before it gained widespread support, was a failure to sustain democratic devolved government against mob rule.

Professor Wilson questions whether the suppression of this revolutionary strike – to which he applies the mild word ‘protest’ – would have been consistent with Irish unity by consent. The issue at the time was not Irish unity, an aspiration which the SDLP, in contrast to all their predecessors in nationalist politics over the preceding half-century, had most courageously left to one side for an indefinite period when they took their places in the power-sharing Executive – a body which, as Professor Wilson observes, worked quite well during its short life. That said, it is clear in retrospect that the proposal to establish a Council of Ireland, albeit on a basis that gave every Unionist member an individual right of veto over the exercise by that body of any executive function, was more than Unionists were prepared to accept at that time.

Professor Wilson goes on to describe as ‘high-handed’ the British decision not to consult the Unionist parties about the Anglo-Irish negotiation of 1984-5. But in the previous dozen years every attempt by British governments to make progress towards a political solution in Northern Ireland had come up against the Unionists’ unyielding refusal to contemplate any system of devolved government in which the Unionist parties would not have a monopoly of executive power. And it was the exercise of such power by Unionists at the expense of the Nationalist minority over half a century from 1920 onwards which had precipitated the civil rights protests of the late Sixties. The suppression of these protests by methods that included the machine-gunning of a block of flats by the Police, and were accompanied by a pogrom of five hundred Catholic homes unfettered by police intervention, gave the IRA the opportunity to pose as defenders of the minority and to launch the campaign of terrorism which has endured for two decades.

Against this background it seems a little harsh of Professor Wilson to describe as ‘highhanded’ the British Government’s refusal to cave in to the many-times-repeated Unionist attempt to impose a veto on political progress of any kind, regardless of the extent to which, in the post-Hunger Strike climate of the early Eighties, such inaction was dangerously strengthening the IRA at the expense of constitutional nationalism. No sovereign government can allow a small minority within part of the state – and the state in this case is the United Kingdom – to put at risk the security of that state by applying a permanent veto to how that part of the state is to be governed. It was this same issue of national security in relation to our own state that lay at the root of the proposal made to the UK Government in 1984 by my government – for the threat posed by the IRA to the Irish state is potentially even greater than in the case of the UK. The reluctance of Unionist politicians, traumatised by the violence they have endured for two decades, to face this fundamental issue of security, and to recognise its dominant role in the concerns of the two sovereign governments, is one of the most powerful factors in the whole Northern Ireland tragedy.

Professor Wilson never seriously addresses this issue – which is quite remarkable given that it is the dominant theme of the relevant chapters in my autobiography. Instead, he represents my ‘basic objective’ as Irish unity by consent and appears to attribute all my initiatives to this motivation. Certainly I would like to think that one day the two parts of Ireland will find a way of working together in political harmony through whatever structures may seem to them best suited to that objective. But after almost a quarter of a century of IRA violence I know that Irish unity, in the form in which it has traditionally been thought of, is something that I shall not see in my lifetime. My ‘basic objective’ for many years past has been the disappearance of the IRA and the restoration of peace and stability to Northern Ireland and indeed to the whole island. And I find it hard to see how anyone reading my autobiography could fail to appreciate this – unless, of course, I am thought to have written a work of fiction, and in fairness nothing in Professor Wilson’s review suggests that he sees my autobiography in these terms!

The simple fact is that because of the overriding security consideration, Irish policy has for most of the past two decades been directed towards the defeat of the IRA by seeking to undermine the tolerance or support it secures from a small part of the Northern Nationalist community. Unhappily in the 15 years to 1984 this objective, which ought to be shared wholeheartedly by Northern Unionist politicians, was repeatedly undermined by pressure from many of these politicians for counter-productive measures affecting – and alienating – not just the IRA but almost the whole of the law-abiding Nationalist community.

And during much of this period British governments, partly in response to this pressure, but also because of the undue influence of the British Army on security policy, tolerated or authorised security tactics which played into the hands of the IRA – alternating these policies during the Seventies with discussions with the IRA, or their surrogates, Sinn Fein. The effect of this policy alternation was to maximise the ability of the IRA to operate successfully within a largely alienated nationalist community. At the same time, it inadvertently persuaded that organisation that if it continued its murder campaign for a long enough period, some British government would eventually go beyond discussions and actually negotiate with it over the heads of the 95 per cent of the Irish people who are united in one thing only – abhorrence of these terrorists.

In 1984-5, for the first time, an Irish government persuaded a British government, at least intellectually, to reconsider this counter-productive approach and to address the security problem in a constructive way. Perhaps we failed to persuade that government emotionally as well as intellectually, for in the after math of the Agreement the negative reaction of Unionists, encouraged by their leaders to misinterpret the Agreement as an underhand attempt to advance the cause of Irish unity, persuaded the British Government to back away from the policies underlying the Agreement, thus weakening its impact within the Nationalist community. Nevertheless political support for or tolerance of the IRA in Northern Ireland was sharply reduced following the Agreement, and while, as I record in my book, this decline in support began during the period the Agreement was being negotiated, I believe Professor Wilson to be incorrect in saying that ‘the big drop’ in the Sinn Fein vote had occurred before the Agreement was completed. In the Republic the limited support formerly enjoyed by the IRA amongst a small minority has almost completely disappeared. Moreover, despite the disappointing way in which the British Government has implemented the Agreement, much of the half-baked anti-British and anti-Unionist feeling in our state has also evaporated. And at no time in the history of the Irish state have public and parliamentary opinion been as sensitive to Unionist concerns and feelings as is the case today.

As to the eventual impact of the Agreement, it is far too soon for anyone, least of all myself, to attempt an evaluation. My only concern at this stage is that the motivation behind it be understood, above all by Unionists. For the defeat of the IRA will be most effectively secured when Unionists see through the propaganda with which they have been saturated and realise the intensity of the commitment against violence which now motivates the vast majority of people and politicians in the Republic. As I said earlier, 95 per cent of the people of this island are united by their abhorrence of these terrorists and their Loyalist mirror images. If Unionists can be convinced of this reality, then nothing will stand in their and our way as, together, we sweep the tiny minority of men of violence into the dustbin of history and restore to Northern Ireland the peace and stability it has not known for almost a quarter of a century – leaving the eventual political shape of the island to be determined freely by future generations. That is what I passionately want to get across to men of good will like Professor Wilson.