Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

As featured in BBC Northern Ireland's CABINET CONFIDENTIAL programme shown on 1 January, which focused on original documents from 1972 now available for the public to view at The National Archives in Kew.

The views expressed here are those of the producers of Cabinet Confidential and do not necessarily represent the views of The National Archives.

1972 was the worst year of the Troubles. Nearly 500 people died and 5,000 were injured. There were almost 2,000 explosions and over 10,000 shootings. 1972 was also the year when Stormont, Northern Ireland's own Parliament and Government, was suspended and direct rule from Westminster began.

The previous year Northern Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Faulkner had introduced internment without trial which had led to a significant escalation in violence. In July alone, almost a hundred people died in Loyalist and Republican violence.

Marches had been banned, but many took place in protest nevertheless, particularly against internment. The British Government were clearly concerned, and as the one year ban neared its end, they considered their next move.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1000

10 January

From the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, to the Prime Minister, Edward Heath:

(page 4) "...if we are putting our money on Mr Faulkner's survival, we cannot afford to expose him indefinitely to the accusation that he is using kid gloves to deal with provocation and intimidation. As you have yourself observed, the ringleaders of such marches ought to be prosecuted with the minimum of delay."


On 31 January the most infamous event of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, occurred. Telegrams flew between No 10 and Chequers, where Prime Minister Edward Heath was.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1001

Message no 3 of 30 January 1972

From Lord Bridges to Prime Minister:

"Londonderry Riot


Latest confirmed reports received in Ministry of Defence are that about five people killed in Londonderry this afternoon and a further twelve in hospital. They are not able to confirm report carried by agencies that twelve were killed: this is based on a statement made by a spokesman for a Londonderry hospital, who said that the twelve had been brought in dead with gunshot wounds and all were in their early 20s."


An inquiry into the events was quickly set up, and conducted by Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice. The Cabinet Minutes detail the terms he set out for his inquiry.

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Document reference: CAB 128/48

3 February 1972 Cabinet Minutes (confidential annexe)

Lord Widgery judged that he would be able to form an opinion by questioning eye-witnesses, and that he could conclude the inquiry more quickly if he conducted it alone.

The results of the Inquiry did not settle the issue, and it remains emotive today. The Savill Inquiry is currently reviewing the evidence. Their website can be found at:

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Document reference: PREM 15/1007

14 April 1972

Meeting between Defence Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary.

"It was agreed the report showed the Army in a generally favourable light … it would be undesirable to take any action which might look like making scapegoats. Some damaging criticisms had been made about one individual soldier, but it would be undesirable for the Ministry of Defence to institute disciplinary action."


The British Government of the time however felt the issue was now settled and that they should now turn to other pressing issues, namely the political future of Northern Ireland. It is clear from the documents that the Government considered options that would have been highly controversial had they been known.

Document reference: CAB 128/48

3 February 1972

Cabinet Minutes

"The long-term solution might … have to involve some kind of constitutional association between the two parts of Ireland, while permitting the Six Counties of Northern Ireland to continue to form part of the United Kingdom."


Whatever the path they chose in the end, Heath's cabinet saw clearly that the time had come for action and not talk.

Document reference: CAB 130/560

9 February 1972

Ministerial Committee on Northern Ireland

"The alienation of the minority population is growing and world opinion is becoming increasingly critical. A purely military solution could not guarantee success and made a political initiative more urgent. The implementation of our plan might well involve an interregnum, during which Northern Ireland would be subject to direct rule."


But a political solution required at least the tacit support of the terrorists. A few days after Bloody Sunday, an unnamed Government official had met Frank Morris, a leading Provisional IRA figure in the Londonderry region, to sound out the latest Republican thinking.

Document reference: FCO 87/5

9 February 1972

Contacts with IRA

The Provisionals would expect an assumption by Westminster of responsibility for law, order and security in Northern Ireland, and a guarantee that internment would be phased out by submitting some cases to the courts and the gradual release of the remainder.

It seemed to provide the basis for the hope of constructive talks.

Meanwhile Heath had no shortage of advice from his backbenchers.

Document reference: PREM 15/1002

14 February 1972

Letter to PM from Norman St John Stevas

"There is a danger of losing one¹s temper and becoming exasperated with both sides. One has to remember effectively at all times that the Irish are not English (unfortunately)."


Brian Faulkner, however, seemed completely oblivious to the Cabinet's thinking on direct rule and the prorogation of Stormont.

Document reference: PREM 15/1002

16 February 2002

Letter from Faulkner to Heath

"Dear Ted, I was very much impressed by what you yourself said to me, at one of our earlier meetings to the effect that the two Governments must stick closely together and on no account allow a wedge to be driven through them."


However, all was not united in the Cabinet. No less a person that the Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was strongly opposed to Direct Rule, and wrote to Heath to set out his objections.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1004

13 March 2002

Letter to PM from Alec Douglas-Home

"I do not believe that they are like the Scots or the Welsh and doubt if they ever will be. The real British interest would I think be served best by pushing them towards a United Ireland rather than tying them closer to the United Kingdom. Our own parliamentary history is one long story of trouble with the Irish."


However, Heath's view that direct rule was the only possible solution, at least in the short term, prevailed.

On 22 March, after long discussions in Cabinet, Faulkner was finally summoned by Heath to No 10. A record of the phone conversation exists in the files.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1004

Record of a telephone conversation between Mr Faulkner the Prime Minister of NI and the PM at 4.15pm on Wednesday 15 March 1972.

Faulkner arrived in London and was told of the Cabinet's decision to take over the control of law and order in Northern Ireland. In theory if he accepted this, Direct Rule would be avoided. However Faulkner had made several public statements that he would never allow Westminster control of law and order and he and his Cabinet resigned.

Meanwhile, contacts with the IRA were continuing in secret. The Cabinet Minutes show that this was so secret, even the Cabinet themselves were kept in the dark.

Document reference: CAB 128/48

15 June 2002

Cabinet Minutes

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland "proposed to take this opportunity to make it clear that he had no intention of going behind the backs of the elected representatives of the minority community in order to enter into direct negotiations with the IRA".


Yet only a week later, British officials were meeting with Gerry Adams and David O'Connell, described in the file as "representatives of the IRA". The files contain a fascinating note by the British official on the character and bearing of the two men at this meeting.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1009

21 June 2002

Top Secret Meeting with Representatives of Provisional IRA

"There is no doubt whatever that these two at least genuinely want a cease fire and a permanent end to violence. Their appearance and manner were respectable and respectful. Their behaviour and attitude appeared to bear no relation to the indiscriminate campaigns of bombing and shooting in which they have both been prominent leaders."


Terms for a meeting with William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, were agreed, and the IRA announced a ceasefire. Two weeks later leading members of the IRA were flown secretly to London to enter into discussions. They did not go well.

Document reference: PREM 15/1010

7 July 1972

Secret and Personal: Robert Armstrong to Heath

The leadership of the IRA welcomed the discussions with Secretary of State, which they hoped would lead to a settlement of the problems of Ireland. They took the view that this could be achieved by following their peace plan. Mr MacStiofain made it clear that the crucial item was the Declaration of Intent -

"the British Government should recognise publicly that it is the right of the whole of the people of Ireland acting as a unit to decide the future of Ireland."


The ceasefire broke down, the talks came to nothing, and the British government decided to adopt a tougher approach. The files clearly show this was to be military and decisive.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1011

26 July 1972

Letter (marked "Top Secret Perimeter" from Ronnie Custis at MoD to Christopher Roberts in PM's office)

"Army now may fire without warning to protect themselves or others. They may also use heavy weapons, such as the Carl Gustav rocket launchers."


The army pressed for even stronger measures including a return to internment.

Document reference: PREM 15/1011

26 July 1972

Army Operations in Northern Ireland. Report by CGS

"The Army's search operations have been based on old or non-existent intelligence. Their success has been exaggerated for political and PR reasons."


(The paper argues for a reintroduction of selective internment and an invasion of the Bogside, Creggan and maybe Andersonstown and Ballymurphy, bringing in an extra three battalions for Londonderry and four for Belfast. A troop of AVRE (Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers -converted tanks) will also be used.)

One of the most fascinating documents in the files is a Contingency Plan. It discusses possible alternatives should the situation in Northern Ireland degenerate still further and considers some radical possibilities.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1010

22 July 1972

Northern Ireland: Contingency Planning

Another hot issue of the year was the treatment of prisoners, and there were numerous allegations of police brutality. The Parker report, published shortly after Bloody Sunday, had examined the issue. Two of the three judges had concluded the methods were illegal, but morally justifiable in the circumstances, while the third considered them both illegal and immoral. The issue was therefore extremely sensitive, and Heath was well aware of this; he clearly considered a new report on methods of interrogation to be a little too sensitive.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1012

2 August 1972

Directive on Interrogation by the Armed Forces (dated 29 June)

Methods of interrogation to include four main approaches: harsh approach with frequent raised voice, monotonous approach, apparently unprofessional, friendly.

Document reference: PREM 15/1012

4 August 1972

Letter to Northern Ireland Office

"The Prime Minister has seen the proposed directive on interrogation. He would like to propose a number of modifications, in case the document ever becomes public."


Also in the files we can see the evolution of what came to be known as the Diplock Courts.

Document reference: PREM 15/1015

2 August 1972

Note from Attorney General's office

Preventive Detention as currently framed couldn't be described as a court and was unacceptable in legal terms. Should be described as a tribunal and if judges were asked to preside he, the Attorney General, should be consulted.

Whitelaw now wanted to restart political dialogue. But with many nationalists still interned, the SDLP were reluctant.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1013

8 September 2002

Memo from Cabinet Secretary to PM.

There were also suspicions that growing Loyalist violence was seen very differently from Nationalist violence. The files seem to show that these concerns were not entirely unfounded. Some members of the Loyalist paramilitary group the UDA (The Ulster Defence Association) were found to be in the supposedly neutral Ulster Defence Regiment.

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Document reference: PREM 15/1016

29 November 2002

Letter from MOD to PM's office.

"An important function of the UDA is to channel into a constructive and disciplined direction Protestant energies which might otherwise become disruptive."


Despite political progress which was eventually to lead to the Sunningdale Agreement - at the end of the year the government remained ready for a State of Emergency.

Document reference: PREM 15/1016

12 December 1972

Memo from Cabinet Secretary to PM.

"Officials have, as directed, been keeping under review the state of contingency planning for the drastic and comprehensive operation (FOLKLORE) whose implications were considered by Ministers in July before they decided to initiate the more limited operation MOTORMAN … the publication of the Government's final proposals in a White Paper might provoke disturbances on such a scale as to call their implementation into question."