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History should tell Foster she'd be very foolish to trust May and Tories on Union


Arlene Foster and Theresa May at Stormont last year

Arlene Foster and Theresa May at Stormont last year

Arlene Foster and Theresa May at Stormont last year

Arlene Foster hailed Theresa May last week as "a solid and reliable unionist". If that's what she's counting on to secure the north within the Union, she may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

The Tories have never played fair with unionists.

Back in 1972 a group of senior British ministers met with Stormont Prime Minister Brian Faulkner to discuss the future of the north, including the constitutional position. There was naught for the comfort of unionism in the exchanges.

The meeting took place at Downing Street on February 4, five days after Bloody Sunday. It had been convened by UK premier Edward Heath to consider the deteriorating political and security situation.

The north still trembled with shock. Two nights earlier the British Embassy in Dublin had been burnt down. Across both islands, anxiety was rising about what might come next.

Among suggestions put to Faulkner to restore stability were: the withdrawal of troops from Catholic areas; the Bogside and Creggan ceded to the Republic; mandatory power-sharing with nationalists, the link with Britain guaranteed for 20 years and then opened up for discussion.

None of the British contingent showed any sense of kith and kin with unionists. The impression was of Faulkner at bay in face of belligerent interlocutors with only a flimsy grasp of Northern Ireland realities.

Heath was accompanied by Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Defence Secretary Lord Carrington, Cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend, deputy secretary Neil Cairncross and the Prime Minister's private secretary Robert Armstrong. Alongside Faulkner were Stormont deputy secretary Kenneth Bloomfield and Faulkner's private secretary Robert Ramsey.

The minutes of the meeting were made available to legal teams at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. However, it scarcely figured in the proceedings and has remained largely forgotten.

But it threw harsh light on the reality of relations between Belfast and London in the aftermath of the Derry killings. It may reasonably have seemed to Faulkner that Ulster unionists were being asked to pay the price for a massacre inflicted on Irish nationalists by British soldiers.

Heath warned Faulkner of mounting frustration in Britain.

"There was a growing feeling that (British soldiers) could not go on indefinitely doing a horrible job with no sign of an improvement." Douglas-Home declared: "In the event of further trouble... people would demand some change of course."

Maudling reported that at a meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee the previous evening: "It had been clear... that the party felt they could not continue indefinitely on the present course without coming under intense public pressure." Heath added that "major concern" had also been expressed at the Cabinet.

Faulkner asked what was meant by "change of course".

"There was surely no thought of pulling out the troops?" Nobody intervened to set his mind at rest. When Faulkner suggested that senior Army officers in Belfast took a more upbeat view, Carrington mentioned that "he could not entirely remove from the back of his mind a slight reservation about the Army's tendency to be over-optimistic".

The minutes add that: "Mr Maudling shared that view."

Heath spelt it out that his government would only consider direct rule in the event of "total breakdown". In that event, he asked: "Why should unionists regard their closer integration into the UK as in any way threatening the basic unionist position?"

Faulkner restated what had been the unionist position since the foundation of the state. The Stormont parliament served "as a bar to any move towards reunification of Ireland. It would be easier to make such a move if one did not first have to dismantle a parliament".

Heath asked whether giving nationalists seats as of right in a northern administration would not copper-fasten the position of Stormont and help bring stability?

Faulkner wondered "how an MP elected on a 'united Ireland' ticket could be credible to his own electorate as a member of a government trying to improve standards in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom?"

Maudling commented that: "He, who had dealt in other days with Jomo Kenyatta (leader of the Land and Freedom Army, which had helped achieve Kenyan independence) was conscious of the unexpected things which could become possible in changed circumstances."

Faulkner suggested that mandatory coalition between unionism and nationalism "seemed to discriminate against other minorities, including those (eg the Northern Ireland Labour Party) which cut across sectarian divisions. Many interests, such as the trade unions, were entirely opposed on principle to any system of religious quotas".

None of the British minsters commented on this observation.

The minutes reveal the depth of British rulers' unconcern at a time of political turmoil about the constitutional status of the north.

Five months later, on July 9, Cabinet secretary Trend was to tell Heath, in a secret briefing note, that there were only two practicable options for the north: permanent direct rule or "wash our hands of the whole business, which would mean in effect declaring that Northern Ireland was no longer part of Her Majesty's dominion, but was an independent entity, which must be left to sink or swim as best it could".

If Arlene Foster thinks she can depend on Theresa May to stand up for the Union, she might usefully read up on the history of unionist-Tory relations.

Eamonn McCann was People Before Profit Alliance MLA for Foyle from May 2016 to January 2017

Belfast Telegraph