Every year, British cabinet classified files from 30 years previous are made public. While it would be wrong to assume that such documents tell the whole story, they do provide an important insight into the thinking of the ruling circles on key issues of the time. The files released this year showed the lengths the British government were prepared to go to in terms of repression, how the heroic miners in Britain nearly defeated the Tory government and how Thatcher had considered plans drawn up by the Northern Ireland Office to repartition Ireland.
The plans drawn up by an academic on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office would have seen Northern Ireland divided in half and its population cut by 500,000 with nationalist areas including Derry City becoming part of the South. It was also proposed that Belfast would be divided much like Berlin at the time with West Belfast being walled off into a “walled ghetto”. It had previously been revealed by David Goodall, then a senior diplomat, that the following year Thatcher had considered forcefully sending the Catholic population to the South stating there had been mass displacement before, under Cromwell!
This was not the first time a British government had considered the issue of reparation. Previous State files released show that it was considered in 1972, at the heights of the Troubles and after the introduction of direct rule. Under such a plan 300,000 Catholics would have been moved west of the Bann and 200,000 Protestants in the opposite direction. If necessary, force would be used against those who refused to move.
Such plans reflect the fact that the key driving force behind British government policy at the time was one of cold calculated ‘pragmatism’ in order to safeguard their interests and to avoid escalation of the Troubles which would have not been in the interest of British capitalism. However rather than being some neat solution to the Troubles such plans would have led to a Bosnian-like situation, including ruthless sectarian pogroms to cleanse areas and dictatorial methods adopted in an attempt to control the situation. Indeed, one reason the 1984 plan wasn’t pursued was that officials believed that it would lead to mass displacement of about 500,000 people and that “human rights arguments would be an obstacle”! Repressive measures such as loyalty tests for benefits and large-scale internment where considered “to drive out large numbers”.
At the start of the Troubles, successive British governments relied on a policy of repression and attempts to create political solutions based on “constitutional” parties. All attempts at a political solution failed, and at the same time it proved impossible to defeat the IRA. At the same time, the IRA clearly could not win and by the late 1980s the British government realised that the Republican leadership were seeking a way out and the “peace process” began in an attempt to incorporate former paramilitaries into some “solution”.
However the peace process does not offer a lasting solution to sectarian division in Northern Ireland. It relies in institutionalising sectarianism in a society where the majority of people live in areas dominated by one community. The fact it relies in bringing together sectarian politicians who have a vested interest in keeping ordinary people divided means it is prone to crisis. A lasting solution only lies in the building of a movement of Protestant and Catholic workers which unites on the basis of class, which takes on poverty and sectarianism, and which builds a socialist alternative.