Northern Ireland Prime Minister’s speech on 24 March 1972

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On Wednesday Senator Andrews and I travelled to London for what we well knew would be a crucially important meeting with Mr Heath and his colleagues. We were determined to do anything we could reasonably do to restore peace and stability to Ulster and confident that we would hear from Mr Heath realistic proposals to help end the violence and find a new way forward for this community. Even as we sat down at the Cabinet table at 10 Downing Street, news reached me of yet another massive explosion in the centre of Belfast with further casualties to innocent civilians who were once again the victims of foul and callous terrorism. We were deeply conscious, too, of the appalling situation in such places as Londonderry, a city of the United Kingdom which includes enclaves of total lawlessness from which come those who day and daily wreck more and more of the commercial and business centre. Our objective and I had hoped the objective of the whole United Kingdom was to end this violence. to end it completely and to end it once and for all.

We went to Downing Street fully prepared to acknowledge that in defeating the violence military means would have to be buttressed by realistic political proposals designed to unite the communities and detach them from any sympathy or support for violent men. We had indeed in a comprehensive letter, made such proposals ourselves to the United Kingdom Government. But I was faced at the Cabinet table not with a wide-ranging review of all these aspects or with a comprehensive, coherent and final "package" of proposals which we ourselves had suggested but with the idea of a constitutional referendum and some movement on internment both of which we found perfectly acceptable, and firm proposals to appoint a Secretary of State and to transfer to Westminster vital and fundamental powers which we had exercised for over half a century. The proposition put to us was that all statutory and executive responsibility for law and order should be vested in the United Kingdom Parliament and Government.

These included criminal law and procedure (including the organization of and appointment to the courts), public order, prison and penal establishments. the creation of new penal offences. special powers, the public prose, cutting power and the police. Even these radical changes were simply to pave the way for further entirely open-ended discussion with continuing speculation and uncertainty as we have seen in recent weeks. I asked naturally whether the drastic proposal to transfer security powers was rooted in any conviction on their part that we had abused these powers. It was made clear to me that no such suggestion was made: that this diminution in the powers, prestige and authority of Stormont was in reality simply a response to the criticism of our opponents which Mr Heath and his colleagues neither substantiated nor supported. Of course chief among those who have sought the emasculation and ultimately the downfall of Stormont have been the IRA terrorists themselves. And when it was made clear to me that the United Kingdom Government could not give an assurance of any further positive measures against terrorism, I felt bound to ask whether the end of violence was being sought not, as we have always asserted, by defeating the terrorists but by surrendering to them.

Nevertheless because we fully realized the gravity of all the issues at stake, we expressed a willingness to identify areas of security policy in which the United Kingdom Government could reasonably expect a more effective voice. Chief among these was internment policy. The operation of detaining men for internment depends largely on the use of troops, and the United Kingdom Government is responsible internationally for the defence of the policy, as for example by derogation from the European Human Rights Convention. Recognizing this joint interest we offered to make future decisions both on new internments and on a policy for releases, joint decisions. However, in an attempt to bring a de-escalation of the entire situation we offered to make an immediate gesture by way of the release of certain internees of a lower risk category, with further releases dependent upon a matching response. It was made clear to us, however. that the United Kingdom Cabinet at its meeting next day was likely to reaffirm the decision to transfer all law and order responsibilities. I then informed Mr Heath and his colleagues that, as I had stated publicly on many previous occasions, the Government of Northern Ireland would not accept such a situation. I told him that it would be widely construed as an acceptance of totally baseless criticism of our stewardship; that it would be seen by the IRA and others as a first and major step on the road to a terrorist victory, and that it would leave the Government of Northern Ireland bereft of any real influence and authority by removing the most fundamental power of any government. I said clearly that we were not interested in maintaining a mere sham or a face-saving charade.

Yesterday morning we reported this situation to our respective cabinets. Our colleagues here affirmed with complete unanimity the stand which Senator Andrews and I had taken, and in the early afternoon Mr Heath telephoned me to say that the British Cabinet found our counter-proposals unacceptable and reaffirmed their earlier decision to transfer law and order power. In view of the gravity of this position he invited us to return at once to London for further discussion. Last night at 10 Downing Street I handed to Mr Heath a letter signed by all those who were present at our Cabinet meeting and endorsed by those members of the Government who were not present. It is quite brief and I will read it to you:

“Dear Prime Minister

You have just conveyed to us by telephone the decision of the United Kingdom Cabinet that all responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Government and Parliament in relation to law and order should be transferred to Westminster. You have also made it clear that even this change is intended only to create a further situation in which further radical changes of a nature we believe to be unrealistic and unacceptable will be discussed.

We now convey to you formally the unanimous view of the Cabinet of Northern Ireland that such a transfer is not justifiable and cannot be supported or accepted by us. It would fully undermine the powers, authority and standing of this Government without justification and for no clear advantage to those who are suffering in Northern Ireland today. We wish to point out with a sense of the heavy responsibility involved that the imposition of this proposal involving as it will the resignation of the Government of Northern Ireland as a whole, may have the gravest consequences, yet the full extent of which cannot now be foreseen."

Mr Heath told us in view of our decision he would propose to announce in Westminster today a temporary suspension of our devolved institution of government under which the Stormont Parliament would be prorogued and a Bill would be introduced to vest the powers of the Government of Northern Ireland for the time being in a Secretary of State. So that there would be no breach in the orderly government of the country he asked if we would be willing to remain in office for a few days until this legislation had become effective, a request which I felt it my duty to meet. Mr. Heath has now made this statement at Westminster. It includes a proposal to nominate an advisory commission, a proposal which we oppose as basically undemocratic.

This is a serious and sad situation reached after three years of the most strenuous efforts to reform our society on a basis at once fair and realistic. I thought that by our actions and our attitude we had earned the right to the confidence and the support of the United Kingdom Government. I fear too that many people will draw a sinister and depressing message from these events that violence can pay, that violence does pay, that those who shout, lie, denigrate and even destroy, earn for themselves an attention that responsible conduct and honourable behaviour do not. They may ask if Belfast is to bow to violence today where will it be next year? Birmingham? Battersea?

But I give this message to the people of Northern Ireland, we in the Government have preferred to give up our offices rather than surrender what we regard as a vital principle. We have had a grave disagreement with the United Kingdom Government but we had endeavoured to conduct that disagreement with dignity and in a way which will least damage the Ulster we love and the United Kingdom as a whole. I ask, all our people, concerned as they are bound to be, also to have regard to what is vital and to behave always with dignity. We will continue to assert and defend in other lawful ways the legitimate interests of the great majority of Ulster people. And so I ask our people at this difficult and trying time to remain calm and on no account to be led by unwise agitation into any possible confrontation with the security forces which have been making such tremendous sacrifices on our behalf. We will work, with total determination and utter firmness, but responsibly and under the law to ensure that the voice of the Ulster majority which is not a sectarian majority but a majority of responsible people loyal to the Crown is heard loud and clear throughout the land.