Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Northern Ireland 1979 archives

Historian Dr Eamon Phoenix reveals some of the details contained in classified government files which have been released under the 30-year rule.


The British government was so concerned at an attack in the United States on its human rights record by a leading Northern Ireland priest in October 1978 that it considered asking Catholic Church authorities to remove him from his post as a prison chaplain.

H Blocks at the Maze prison
Fr Murray said conditions in the H Blocks were deplorable

The NIO learned that Fr Raymond Murray, a chaplain to Armagh Prison, had urged members of the Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs on Capitol Hill to intervene in "the deplorable conditions in the H Blocks" at the Maze Prison.

Fr Murray, a well-known civil rights campaigner, said the treatment of prisoners in the H Blocks was "squalid, cowardly and bestial".

He alleged that women prisoners were being ill-treated in Armagh Jail, saying: "I saw with my own eyes the bruising, burning and after-effects of electricity used in torture."

An NIO official suggested in a memo that the British government should approach the priest's bishop with a view to having him removed as a prison chaplain, adding: "He cannot reasonably fulfil such a role when he is so obviously opposed to 'the system'."

However, he admitted, "we are not likely to accomplish much," as Fr Murray's ecclesiastical superior was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Tomas O Fiaich, who had already condemned conditions in the H Blocks.


The uniqueness of the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency in political terms was commented on by British government officials.

NIO official Alan Huckle stated that the "question of national identity" had always dominated elections in the constituency owing to its proximity to the border and "remoteness from national politics".

"County Fermanagh has a Catholic population that is nationalist... and they are popularly regarded as being slower and more rural than their colleagues in Dungannon and Coalisland," he wrote.


The issue of whether armed sentries at the Maze Prison could open fire on escaping prisoners was considered by a working committee of the NIO, British Army, RUC and prison authorities in February 1978.

The prison was at the centre of the H Block 'dirty protest' in the late 1970s, and jail authorities had no doubt that armed guards were "the decisive psychological factor in deterring a mass escape", adding that the inmates were impressed by the precedent set by the shooting dead of two men by soldiers during previous attempts.

However, Army GOC Sir Tim Creasey said the law allowed troops to use only "reasonable force" to apprehend escapees, a fact of which prisoners were "well aware".

He believed the inability of his troops to open fire was "very bad for morale".

Ironically, as the debate continued, on 31 March 1978 three IRA Special Category prisoners, including BJ ('Bik') McFarlane, attempted to escape from the Maze, disguised as prison officers but were captured.

In a final letter on the file dated 25 April 1978, Sir Tim was informed the law on opening fire could not be changed because of "insurmountable practical and political difficulties".

The acrimonious debate helps to explain why, during the mass IRA break-out from the Maze in 1983, the military guard failed to fire on the escapers.


There is an early pen-picture of the current SDLP deputy leader and MP for South Belfast, Dr Alasdair McDonnell in this year's files.

The party's candidate in the constituency, then registrar in the Royal Victoria Hospital, is described by an official, Alan Huckle, as "a newcomer with an impatient, aggressive manner".


Growing British government concern at the viability of the De Lorean Motor Company which was about to begin production in west Belfast is disclosed in the declassified files.

John De Lorean
John De Lorean wanted a joint advertising campaign

In August 1978 the Labour Government had announced that the project to produce the stainless-steel, gull-winged sportscar would go ahead, with the Treasury providing £56m out of a total cost of £65m.

JCB Lyttle of the Stormont Department of Commerce said that at a meeting in New York, John De Lorean had raised the issue of a joint advertising strategy with the Northern Ireland government in order to showcase the province's engineering tradition.

The proposal did not impress Reg Browne of the Northern Ireland Development Agency in New York, who warned: "We have been the butt of some ridicule because of the massive speculative nature of the investment and my advice to the department would be that we should allow De Lorean to get on with his own campaign."

Mr De Lorean wrote to Dr George Quigley, a senior Stormont official, declaring that he had assembled "one of the finest teams in Europe" while the site and technical programme were "on target". However, he stressed the importance of a joint advertising campaign with the British government and De Lorean each contributing $5m to launch the car.

In his reply Dr Quigley expressed delight that the project was "moving ahead" but privately warned against the government becoming too closely identified with the De Lorean product before it had proven itself commercially.

The lingering suspicion surrounding the industrialist re-emerged under the new Conservative government in November 1979 when Stormont Commerce Minister Giles Shaw joined Mr and Mrs De Lorean for dinner in New York. At the meal, De Lorean surprised his guests by raising a totally new business proposal involving British government funding.

According to the report, "Mr Shaw made it clear to Mr De Lorean that while he would continue to defend the car project in the House, he and his colleagues were looking to Mr De Lorean to focus his energies on making a success of the project before the government considered supporting any other proposals from him."

The enterprise minister also ruled out a joint advertising campaign with the De Lorean Motor Company.

The De Lorean company went into receivership in February 1982 with the loss of 1,500 jobs in west Belfast.


The possible political implications of the erection of a new RTE transmitter on the Derry-Donegal border concerned Whitehall and Stormont officials in 1979.

The Home Office feared that the decision of the Irish government to establish a television station at Holywell Hill on the border might involve an ulterior motive.

An official informed the NIO of concern that "this may be the first move by the Irish to extend coverage of their television services to Northern Ireland".

The "political implications" of the move were raised by Paul Buxton of the NIO with BD Palmer of the Stormont Secretariat in May 1979 .

In his reply Mr Palmer cited RTE's statutory duty to promote "understanding and peace" on the island.

"This issue has never been raised directly by the Irish government with us but Conor Cruise O'Brien (when Minister of Posts and Telegraphs) had a grandiose idea of an all-Ireland cultural exchange by television with RTE being extended to cover all NI and in return for BBC and UTV to cover the Republic," he wrote.

"So far as I know nothing came of this idea."


The RUC advised against removing a republican monument in Crossmaglen, County Armagh in 1979 despite intense pressure from the Ulster Unionist MP, the late Harold McCusker.

In September 1979, Mr McCusker wrote to the NIO Minister, Philip Goodhart, protesting against the "illegal monument" and urging the government to have it removed.

According to a memo by Mr (now Sir) Ken Bloomfield to the Minister, the MP had claimed that the statue was "an affront to the soldiers and police serving in Crossmaglen".

The matter was passed to Alan Huckle of the NIO who warned that the government had little to gain from the controversy while both Sinn Fein and the unionists were hoping to exploit the government's predicament.

"Firm action against this monument would undoubtedly lead to retaliatory action against loyalist monuments - for example the many paintings of King Billy which exist on gable ends, none of which I suspect have planning approval," he wrote.

The monument's survival was finally determined by the reaction of the RUC in South Armagh.

In a final note on the file on 9 October, 1979, an official noted that while the Army's preference would be to see the monument removed, "the RUC believed that an attempt to remove the structure could provoke local and possible wider disturbance out of proportion to the benefits which would be gained.

"They fear, moreover, that by countering such disturbance they would risk appearing to be acting at the behest of unionist politicians and this is a point on which they are rightly sensitive."

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