March 2022 marks 50 years since the introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland. Brian Faulkner, the sixth and last prime minister of Northern Ireland, had refused to allow control of security to be handed over to the government in London, and so the British government under Edward Heath announced that devolved government would be suspended. The announcement brought “immediate relief” to Catholics in Ballymurphy, Ardoyne and Creggan – which had recently seen violence – wrote the Irish historian and academic Liam de Paor. But Northern Ireland now held a “colonial status”. People in the Republic were generally initially relieved at the announcement, “if only because it offered hope that the bombing would stop”. But soon confusion arose, and the Irish people were fearful and uneasy about what would happen next. Groups such as Sinn Féin would have preferred any Irish government to a British one. “Their misgivings will be widely shared,” De Paor wrote.
Mr Heath’s announcement of direct rule in Northern Ireland and of the phasing out of internment without trial brought immediate relief to the hard-pressed Catholics of Ballymurphy, Ardoyne and Creggan. Their enemy, the unionist government, had suffered a striking defeat, and there was prospect of an end, at least for a while, to military raids and bombs in the streets. But in Dublin, and in the Republic in general, Mr Heath’s decisions received a cooler reception.
Mr Lynch has every reason for caution in accepting Northern lreland’s new colonial status as more than a temporary measure, and for holding the IRA as a possible trump for the Orange card. There are of course two IRAs, not one, as well as other private armies in Ireland. The more aggressive Provisionals, who reacted with some confusion to the first news of Mr Heath’s decision, were obliged to bow to the firm wish of the people who had supported them in Belfast and Derry, that the initiative should be given some chance to work. The Provisionals are politically weak and know it. They regard the period after the ceasefire with trepidation, not feeling greatly confident in their own ability to follow through from military to political activity.
The Officials too, who have been increasingly active in military terms, are faced with self-doubt. Like the Provisionals, they regard the Heath decision as a step forward, but unlike the Provisionals they have consistently laid greater stress on their political than on their military policy. They are bitter about the Provisionals’ bombing campaign, because it alienated the Protestant working class in the North and so, they believe, set back for a generation their own policy for creating working-class unity against what they see as systems of exploitation North and South. At the same time, they themselves, somewhat reluctantly, have found it necessary to divert energy and attention from their campaigns on housing, the EEC, and other such matters to the violent struggle in Ulster. One of their chief concerns in the breathing space provided, however briefly, by the new British policy will be to restore their political structure, and especially the republican clubs which were banned in Northern Ireland under the unionist regime.
People in general in the Republic reacted with initial relief to the direct rule decision, if only because it offered hope that the bombing would stop. Television, and the intimacy of urban guerrilla warfare, have made sickeningly clear just what bombs do. It is not like sending aircraft out to do the same work in distant cities. But after relief has come some confusion, while fear and uneasiness remain. One of the significant differences between the Republic and Northern Ireland in terms of public relations is that Stormont and the unionist establishment have never made the same kind of impact on opinions in the South as they have in the North, where every detail of daily life was affected. The ending of Stormont then seems much less of a breakthrough in Dublin than in Belfast, and the imposition of British rule in any part of Ireland does not seem a cause for joy. Some political groups, such as the official wing of Sinn Féin, have opposed direct rule, preferring any Irish government to a British one. Their misgivings will be widely shared.
The chief interest in the Republic, for some weeks, will be in two Northern matters: internment, and the unionist response to Whitelaw. The quick release of all internees is confidently expected. What the unionists do is much less clear, but most informed people in Dublin will be watching Mr Faulkner rather than Mr Craig. There is a great desire for peace and reconciliation, and, perhaps for the first time in Ireland’s history, Ulster Protestant voices are being listened to with serious consideration in Dublin and Cork. Two of the Northern politicians who can now command some sympathetic attention of almost any Southern audience are Mr Bob Cooper, of the Alliance Party, and the Reverend Ian Paisley. Mr Lynch is letting pressure build up for the changes in the Irish constitution, and, more important, in Irish attitude, which will be necessary for the new Ireland that must now emerge. But how much time remains for this no one knows.
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