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Last Updated: Friday, 29 December 2006, 11:15 GMT
Present day 'has echoes of 1976'
Previously confidential papers disclosed by the Public Record Office in Belfast reveal that the present situation has many echoes of 1976.

It was the year when yet another attempt to establish cross-community administration ended in failure; the fledgling Peace People rose and fell; and Catholic Church opposition to shared schools shocked officials.

mairead corrigan
The peace women came to the fore in 1976

But in one crucial way this was very much another era.

Bloodshed dominated. It was the year of the Kingsmills massacre when 10 Protestants were murdered by the IRA in south Armagh; the IRA murder of the British ambassador to Dublin, Sir Christopher Ewart Biggs; and the murder of the former Sinn Fein vice-president Maire Drumm.

In all, 295 would die violently making it the most violent year since the murder toll peaked in the early 70s.

The winding-up of the ill-fated Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention of 1975-76 is detailed in the papers.

Northern Ireland Secretary Merlin Rees wrote to the chairman of the convention, Sir Robert Lowry, on the failure of the body to reach agreement on a cross-community administration.

"The report of the inter-party talks and of the debates which have taken place have made it plain that no progress has been made, or is likely to be made, in the convention on reaching agreement on proposals which would command sufficiently widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland to provide stable and effective government," he wrote

One sign of hope was the rise of the Women's Peace Movement, led by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams.

'Overt assistance'

At one meeting, officials discussed the movement and whether, if it showed signs of flagging, it should be allowed to die.

It was accepted that it could not be seen to be given overt assistance by the government, nor could it by its nature move towards a political stance.

Stormont officials, according to the documents, did not rule out the possibility of "violent resistance" following the ending of special category status for paramilitary prisoners in March 1976.

merlyn rees
Merlyn Rees believed no progress was being made

A memo on the issue circulated to the members of the Policy Coordinating Committee at Stormont on 10 March 1976, admitted that there would be "difficult times ahead".

"And above all, we may expect resistance, possibly violent resistance, to the ending of new admissions to special category," the memo said.

"But there is widespread agreement that this problem simply must be tackled.

"We cannot go on bringing new prisoners into our institutions and treating them in a way so remote from proper prison discipline."

Within two weeks of the government's decision, the IRA issued a threat to prison warders operating the new scheme and on 16 September Kieran Nugent, the first IRA member convicted since the abolition of special category status, refused to wear prison clothes.


The "blanket protest" had begun.

The alleged influence of both republican and loyalist paramilitaries in the "black taxi trade" and a number of building firms was the subject of monitoring by Stormont officials in 1976.

On 26 October an NIO official at Stormont Castle, Mr J A Cradock, sent a detailed letter to Mr (now Sir) Ken Bloomfield at the Department of the Environment on a number of firms with strong paramilitary links.

"One," he wrote, "is managed by men with strong Provisional IRA/Provisional Sinn Fein connections.

"Since it was formed by detainees from within the Maze, it seems reasonable to assume that most, at least, of its 200 plus members share their views.

"It is generally regarded as a PIRA/PSF business."

The vehement opposition of the Catholic Church to the notion of integrated education is strongly reflected in the papers.

They show that the then Cardinal Conway dismissed the idea of shared schools, proposed by the group All Children Together.

One memo says: "Cardinal Conway's attitude was one of complete intransigence."

"He dismissed the idea as trivial, irrelevant and without popular support.

"He would not participate in any conference on the matter which would be set up by liberals for liberals and would be so constructed as to put the Catholic hierarchy 'in the dock'."


The present leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empey, warned the British government in 1976 that in Northern Ireland "no middle course was possible and the majority would have to be backed, with safeguards for the minority".

The then Mr Empey was speaking as part of a United Ulster Unionist Coalition deputation which met Northern Ireland Secretary Merlin Rees at Stormont Castle on 5 January to discuss the Northern Ireland Convention's majority report.

reg empey
Reg Empey, as he then was, warned the British government

The report demanded a return to majority rule at Stormont.

The former Northern Ireland first minister, David Trimble (now Lord Trimble) accused the Ulster Unionist Party of "self-deception" in talks with Merlin Rees in 1976.

Lord Trimble, then a Vanguard member of the convention, was meeting the secretary of state, along with his party leader, Bill Craig, at Stormont Castle on 9 January in the wake of the Kingsmills massacre.

The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, also features in papers dating back to 1968 but originally held back.

They show that the RUC believed civil rights marches had "lost their steam" in Northern Ireland by the summer of 1969, but that Mr Paisley was, by his policy of counter-marches, "playing into the hands of the civil rights activists".


RUC headquarters was responding to a request from the secretary to the home affairs minister as to whether the civil rights movement would "dissolve gradually or remain a coherent, if troublesome, force in Northern Ireland" for the future.

In a five page assessment, County Inspector David Johnston stressed the coalition nature of the Civil Rights Movement and the declining numbers at recent marches.

'If the reverend gentleman (Mr Paisley) could only be persuaded to leave it to the government and police, as he has been doing since his release (from prison), the civil rights attendances would probably continue to fall away," he said.

"Civil rights only feeds and thrives on such opposition, but I presume he too feels he must lead again to survive."

Inspector Johnston predicted that the civil rights movement would survive and surmount its difficulties, particularly "if Dr Paisley continued to pursue his confrontational tactics".

"It will continue to trouble us for some time to come," he said.

"It will certainly not prosper to the same extent if Paisley would get the message that he is playing the game their way and that they thrive mainly on his reactions."

The papers also reveal that the former SDLP leader, Gerry Fitt (who died in 2005) failed to turn up at a dinner party at Stormont because he "was embarrassed over a highly public gaffe concerning the SAS".

The story is contained in a report of a dinner party at Stormont House, attended by the leading SDLP figures John Hume, Austin Currie and Paddy Devlin, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Merlin Rees, on 8 January 1976.

On their arrival, Mr Currie apologised for the absence of Fitt who was, he said, depressed about recent developments and particularly unhappy with the British government's decision to put the SAS into Armagh.

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