Belfast Telegraph

Don Anderson: Why London's 'Doomsday' plan for Northern Ireland may not have gone away

Prime Minister Harold Wilson debated cutting the province adrift during the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike. Could his acolyte Jeremy Corbyn revive the so-called 'Newfoundland option' if Theresa May's Government falls, asks Don Anderson

Harold Wilson, PM arrives in Belfast for a visit
Harold Wilson, PM arrives in Belfast for a visit
Protesters outside Stormont during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike 1974
Jeremy Corbyn

Who do these people think they are?" This was - and remains - one of the more momentous questions ever directed about Northern Ireland from the heart of Government. It was an expression of deep exasperation - even loathing - of Ulster loyalists by a British Prime Minister, contained in a TV broadcast to the nation towards the end of the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike, which is blamed for the first collapse of a power-sharing government at Stormont.

The Prime Minister was Harold Wilson, then heading a Labour Government. He and his ministers did not disguise their antipathy to loyalists and, by implication, to unionism in general.

You might say that all that happened half-a-lifetime ago. The relevance for today is that Harold Wilson has long been a role model for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Of him, Corbyn stated, in March 2016: "Harold Wilson's accomplishments as Prime Minister demonstrate the best values of the British Labour Party." Wilson is Corbyn's hero and no friend of unionism. In the light of his recent experience of the DUP, he could revisit what Wilson once had in mind for Northern Ireland.

The Wilson plan came to light in documents disclosed under the 30-year rule in 2005. In the turbulent wake of the UWC strike, Wilson and his associates formulated a secret so-called "Doomsday" plan to detach Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

Recently, there has been much talk of the "Norway option" for the detaching the UK from the EU. Wilson had in mind the "Newfoundland option" for Northern Ireland. The episode has been pushed into an ill-lit alcove of history.

Corbyn - or any Labour leader becoming Prime Minister after this political dust-up - might be tempted to wreak vengeance upon the DUP and friends.

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Nigel Dodds, on the floor of the House of Commons, triumphantly highlighted the importance of DUP help in ensuring that Labour didn't get the General Election it wanted and a good chance of putting Corbyn in Number 10.

Did Harold Wilson's question then echo under Corbyn's breath: "Who do these people think they are?" Might Labour, in power, revisit the "Newfoundland option" for Northern Ireland?

What was it? In 1907, the large island of Newfoundland, off the Atlantic coast of Canada, which had a Protestant/Catholic divide like ourselves, obtained dominion status under Britain, much as Canada today. However, it was a small economy and became bankrupt.

Newfoundland eventually decided by referendum to end its own dominion status and join Canada in 1949.

You see where this could go. Wilson's plan was to withdraw from Northern Ireland, where - in his words - the UK had responsibility without power, but not in favour of Irish unity, which was widely regarded as problematical for reasons we all know.

Northern Ireland was to have thrust upon it dominion status, with suitable protections for minorities. As happened with Newfoundland, the unspoken idea was that this mini-Ulster dominion would eventually fail.

Rejoining what would now be Great Britain would by then be politically impossible and the only viable option remaining would be Irish reunification under some arrangements.

For various reasons - not least opposition from the USA and probably from Dublin - the plan was shelved.

The details of what was mooted back in the 1970s are of less importance than the fact that such a plan was ever given serious thought.

And what of the Conservatives? Arguably, the Conservatives have, over the years, damaged the unionist ideal far more than Labour. Conservatives demolished, for the foreseeable future, majority unionist rule, when they prorogued the original Stormont parliament and first established direct rule in 1972.

And, in 1985, they went further. Conservatives outraged unionists with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave Dublin a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, setting up for the first time since partition an intergovernmental conference, chaired together by the Northern Ireland Secretary and the Irish Foreign Minister. As the saying goes, with friends like that, the DUP scarcely needed enemies.

Being realistic, political linkages (they are not friendships) are fickle. Far better to stare long and hard at what lies beneath, analyse accurately and formulate policy with more than immediacy in mind.

Does Harold Wilson's "Who do these people think they are?" still resonate within Labour? Conservative asides are no more comforting.

Reginald Maudling, Conservative Home Secretary, said in 1970, when leaving Belfast, "For God's sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country."

More devastating was Conservative Margaret Thatcher's advice to Labour's Peter Mandelson on his appointment as Northern Secretary in 1999: "I've got one thing to say to you, my boy. You can't trust the Irish, they're all liars. That's what you have to remember, so just don't forget it."

Do those indiscreet statements fleetingly reveal for the DUP - and for wider unionism - unpalatable embedded truths within the two main Westminster parties? We are a people apart.

Michael Portillo, former Conservative minister, summed it up nicely in a broadcast interview about Brexit: "Our policy has often been determined, thwarted and just messed up by our relations with Ireland."

Maybe the Conservatives could eventually see merit in Labour's dominion idea?

Don Anderson is the author of 14 May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994)

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