Page last updated at 22:03 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

War of words follow atrocity

By Dr Eamon Phoenix

Taoiseach Jack Lynch
Comments by Irish PM Jack Lynch caused the British "a lot of concern"

The first face-to-face meeting between the NI secretary Roy Mason and the Irish foreign affairs minister, Michael O'Kennedy was marred by a war of words.

The dispute arose over commentsby Taoiseach Jack Lynch on Irish unity and Mr Mason's suggestion that the perpetrators of the La Mon atrocity had "fled south".

The meeting took place at Iveagh House on May 5, 1978.

At the outset Mr O'Kennedy said that his government had been very concerned that, without any notice to them, the secretary of state indicated that those responsible for La Mon might have come south.

It had provoked a severe reaction in Dublin. He believed that there was the closest cooperation between the two police forces on the island.

"The IRA were looking for a long-term role for themselves at the expense of the Irish government," the papers report Mr O'Kennedy as saying.

"There need be no public or private apprehension about their commitment against the IRA. They were very concerned that the UK government showed any doubt about this."

For his part, Mr Mason said there had been irritants on both sides including references to Irish unity. When the British prime minister, Jim Callaghan had met the taoiseach, they agreed to differ.

'Irish unity speeches'

The papers report Mr Mason explaining that "he had simply said that those responsible might possibly have gone to the south because of the wave of revulsion against them in the north".

Mr O'Kennedy said that even to refer to it as a possibility caused a serious problem in the south.

The secretary of state replied that Mr Lynch's January interview - in which he called for a British declaration of intent to withdraw from the north and hinted at an amnesty for paramilitary prisoners at some point - had stopped inter-party talks on the north and caused the British side a lot of concern.

Mr O'Kennedy rejected this view, saying that "Mr Lynch was the last person to want to give succour to the terrorists".

Turning to the unionists, Mr O'Kennedy said that one of the central themes of Irish policy was to show an understanding of the unionist position.

He recognised that the good faith would not always be accepted but they had been reasonably encouraged by the private response from unionists.

Mr Mason replied that "speeches on Irish unity frightened the unionists and undermined the Irish government's own long-term aim."

Mr O'Kennedy said that Irish unity was the only possible long-term basis for peace.

His government was convinced that there could be no real move until the UK government accepted this and said so.

Mr Mason stressed that Irish government references to Irish unity could hamper political progress.

The papers report that Mr O'Kennedy said on Irish unity: "It must be totally clear that, although PIRA talked of unity, the Irish government were totally against PIRA."

The secretary of state said that the UK aim was to bring the violence to an end in such a way that it did not recur.

"Therefore there were no political prisoners, there would be no amnesty, there were no repressive measures," Mr Mason told the meeting.

"The police should receive more backing from church leaders and from the SDLP."

He wanted the "right percentage of the minority" in the police.

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