Labour in Ireland

Its return to government in 1974 exposed the myth that British Labour is an anti-partitionist party. True, its 1981 policy document stated that the party had ‘a long and deeply held belief … that Ireland should, by peaceful means, and on the basis of consent, be united’.2 Yet nothing in the previous decade warranted such a conclusion. We shall see that the policies pursued by the two Labour Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason, between 1974 and 1979 gave no grounds for thinking that the Labour government favoured Irish unity. It was Labour that conceded extra parliamentary representation to Northern Ireland in 1977, a move which was perceived at the time as being integrationist and in line with Enoch Powell’s strategy. Even James Callaghan’s senior policy adviser, Bernard Donoghue, described it as being wrong tactically, politically and ‘in principle as far as the long-term future of Britain and Ireland is concerned, because it misled the Unionists into believing that their long-term future rested on the direct link to London’.3 In fact, Labour and the Conservative Party pursued a bipartisan policy whose roots go back to the 1920s.4 The 1981 statement belonged to Labour in opposition and to the dominance of the left wing of the party. This chapter seeks to explain how successive British governments moved from creeping integrationism to a much bolder Anglo-Irish approach, from an obsession with security – ‘the Cabinet Committee in Downing Street never after 1974 actually discussed Northern Ireland policy: it only discussed law and order’5 – to constitutional innovation. Again we will examine this from the vantage points of Belfast, Dublin and London in the period from 1974 to the early 1980s, and specifically through the eyes of those in government at the time.
The statistics on violence explain why there was such a concentration on security. Figures for deaths, injuries and explosions suggest that the period 1971-5 was…