Release of secret IRA document illustrates how far we have fallen

Bernard (now Lord) Donoughue in 2017: his secret 1978 correspondence about the IRA has just been published

A newly released Cabinet Office document (examined by H&D this morning) illustrates how far we have fallen since the far more principled era of the late 1970s, when a Labour government was serious about fighting terrorism.

The previously secret correspondence was between Dr Bernard Donoughue, top adviser in Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s Downing Street, and Sir Brian Cubbon, senior civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office, responsible to Secretary of State Roy Mason.

The background was the ‘dirty protest’ by Provisional IRA terrorist prisoners at the Maze Prison near Lisburn, Northern Ireland. These terrorists had been granted “special category status” as a concession by a Conservative government in 1972, but the status was withdrawn by a Labour government in March 1976.

“Special category” had meant that the terrorists were treated more like prisoners of war rather than ordinary criminals: for example they were not required to wear prison uniforms or do prison work; they could be housed together in IRA or INLA blocks; and had extra visiting and food parcel rights compared to ‘normal’ criminal prisoners.

Most importantly from an IRA standpoint, this special category entailed a ‘political’ status, giving them some ‘respectability’ to the outside world.

Senior civil servant Sir Brian Cubbon, who was himself seriously injured by an IRA car bomb in 1976

When special category status was withdrawn, the Provos responded with a militant campaign ranging from murdering prison officers to refusing to wear prison uniform (instead wrapping themselves in blankets) and refusing to leave their cells to ‘slop out’, soiling their own cells in the so-called ‘dirty protests’.

The newly published document reveals that Dr Donoughue was approached at Downing St by an Irish trade union contact, who proposed that the government could resolve this confrontation by arranging for trade unionists to visit the prisons and for IRA prisoners to take classes in lieu of work.

The interesting part of the story is that when Donoughue approached Sir Brian Cubbon, the latter insisted that no such compromise should even be discussed, as it would amount to a surrender to IRA demands – a “slippery slope to political status”. Reflecting the principled stand taken by his ministerial master Roy Mason, Sir Brian wrote:

“There will be no concessions on the basic issue at the Maze, and there will be no negotiations directly or indirectly with the Provisionals.
“…Any contact with potential mediators on this issue is liable to be misrepresented or misinterpreted. …We are not in the business of having any contact with them.”

IRA prisoners in a faeces-smeared cell during the ‘dirty protest’

Donoughue’s reply from Downing St included a slightly cynical paragraph:
“I was very impressed by the confidence of your ringing declaration that we will not have any contact with the Provisionals, direct or indirect. Remembering Eoka, the PLO and various other terrorist murderers, one realises how complex these things are and how times change.”

In fact we now know that a few years earlier some of Donoughue’s ministerial masters, including then Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, had been in favour of the radical option of withdrawing British troops from Northern Ireland and even some form of independence and Dominion status for the Province.

And despite the official insistence of Sir Brian Cubbon and his ilk that there would be no direct or indirect contact with the Provisionals, a ‘back-channel’ for negotiations was established as early as 1973-74 between MI6 officer Michael Oatley and the Provisional IRA leadership. This eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement and the present position where the political wing of the IRA shares power at Stormont.

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