1972 Cabinet Papers: Repartition - Still a Threat

By Ciaran Mulholland

THE RELEASE of official papers from 1972 has revealed the extent to which the British government felt that the situation in Northern Ireland was spiralling beyond their control at the time. As a result, it considered a series of radical and desperate "solutions" including repartition and an independent Northern Ireland.

Under the repartition proposal scheme, 300,000 Catholics would be moved west of the Bann and 200,000 Protestants in the opposite direction. If necessary, force would be used against those who refused to move.

The British government was considering this option within three months of the suspension of Stormont and the imposition of Direct Rule. These measures had failed to stabilise the situation. In 1972, a total of 467 people died violent deaths and there were more than 10,000 recorded shooting incidents.

Making Northern Ireland "an independent state within the Commonwealth" was also under active consideration. Both proposals were discussed at a Cabinet meeting on
13 July 1972 following the breakdown of a temporary Provisional IRA ceasefire. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, ordered the drawing up of various contingency plans in case the ceasefire breakdown became "irrevocable". Heath feared a scenariowhere "the security situation in Northern Ireland had deteriorated so far that the government were on the point of losing control of events".

The plans excluded a "direct military assault upon extremist-dominated Roman Catholic areas of the Province with the aim of securing a total victory over the IRA coupled with a neutral, if not acquiescent, attitude towards the activities of the UDA". A huge increase in the number of British troops on the ground was considered more seriously as was the disarming of the Protestant population through the withdrawal of licensed guns.

Repartition would be preceded by two earlier measures. On "P-Day" a State of Emergency would be declared and on "R-Day" the number of army battalions would be increased from 20 to 47 (bringing troop levels to 50,000). The huge increase in troop numbers would have been necessary to enforce repartition.

The officials who drew up the plans admitted that they were "extremely doubtful" that the plans would work as "great resistance" would result and the government would have to be "completely ruthless in the use of force".

These papers are not just of historical interest. They illustrate that far from having a resolute attachment to the union of Northern Ireland and Britain, the British establishment were prepared to consider options that ceded control of parts of or all of Northern Ireland. Indeed by this time Britain would have been quite prepared to see the creation of a united Ireland. They simply could not move in this direction because of the opposition of one million Protestants.

In 1970-1971, the IRA calculated wrongly that Britain was wedded to the union and would only be shifted by an armed campaign. In reality, their campaign had the opposite effect making it less likely that Protestants would ever agree to a capitalist united Ireland.

British government policy has been by and large one of pragmatism. Over the first two decades of the Troubles, it relied on a policy of repression directed against Republican areas allied with repeated attempts to create political solutions based on the "constitutional" parties. All attempts at a political solution failed, and it proved impossible to defeat the IRA. At the same time, the IRA were contained and clearly could not win. In the late 1980s the British government realised that the Republican leadership were seeking a way out and the peace process began in an attempt to incorporate former paramilitaries in a "solution."

This does not mean that the Good Friday Agreement is in any sense a solution. Instead, it has institutionalised sectarianism and on the ground a drawn out war of attrition over territory continues. The violence has diminished but not ended - nearly fifty people have died over the last three years. In a certain sense, one of the lunatic plans under discussion 30 years ago has been partly realised. Demographic changes mean that the west of the Bann is now largely Catholic and that Protestants are increasingly concentrated in south Antrim and north Down. The vast majority of the working class now live in areas that are more than 90% Catholic or more than 90% Protestant in make up.

This slow and piecemeal form of repartition has solved absolutely nothing. Indeed the increase in the number of Catholics in Belfast rules out the possibility of drawing neat lines on the map as a way of separating communities forever.

There is no solution to the problems of the North on the basis of capitalism. A solution only lies in the building of a movement of Protestant and Catholic workers which unites on the basis of class, which takes on poverty and sectarianism, and which builds a socialist Ireland.