Chichester-Clark responds to Direct Rule (March 1972)

In March 1972 the Northern Ireland prime minister, James Chichester-Clarke, travelled to London for crisis meetings with the British prime minister, Edward Heath. Here he responds to the Heath government’s decision to impose Direct Rule in Northern Ireland:

“We were determined to do anything we could reasonably do to restore peace and stability to Ulster and confident that we would hear from Mr Heath realistic proposals to help end the violence and find a new way forward for this community. Even as we sat down at the Cabinet table at 10 Downing Street, news reached me of yet another massive explosion in the centre of Belfast, with further casualties to innocent civilians who were once again the victims of foul and callous terrorism. We were deeply conscious, too, of the appalling situation in such places as Londonderry, a city of the United Kingdom which includes enclaves of total lawlessness from which come those who day and daily wreck more and more of the commercial and business centre. Our objective and I had hoped the objective of the whole United Kingdom was to end this violence. to end it completely and to end it once and for all.

We went to Downing Street fully prepared to acknowledge that in defeating the violence, military means would have to be buttressed by realistic political proposals designed to unite communities and detach them from any sympathy or support for violent men… But I was faced at the Cabinet table, not with a wide-ranging review of all these aspects… but with the idea of a constitutional referendum and some movement on internment, both of which we found perfectly acceptable, and firm proposals to appoint a Secretary of State and to transfer to Westminster vital and fundamental powers which we had exercised for over half a century. The proposition put to us was that all statutory and executive responsibility for law and order should be vested in the United Kingdom parliament and government.

These included criminal law and procedure (including the organisation of and appointment to the courts), public order, prison and penal establishments, the creation of new penal offences. special powers, the public prose, cutting power and the police. Even these radical changes were simply to pave the way for further entirely open-ended discussion with continuing speculation and uncertainty as we have seen in recent weeks. I asked naturally whether the drastic proposal to transfer security powers was rooted in any conviction on their part that we had abused these powers. It was made clear to me that no such suggestion was made… It was made clear to us, however, that the United Kingdom cabinet at its meeting the next day was likely to reaffirm the decision to transfer all law and order responsibilities. I then informed Mr Heath and his colleagues that, as I had stated publicly on many previous occasions, the Government of Northern Ireland would not accept such a situation…

Last night at 10 Downing Street I handed to Mr Heath a letter signed by all those who were present at our Cabinet meeting and endorsed by those members of the Government who were not present. It is quite brief and I will read it to you:

‘Dear Prime Minister. You have just conveyed to us by telephone the decision of the United Kingdom Cabinet that all responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Government and Parliament in relation to law and order should be transferred to Westminster… We now convey to you formally the unanimous view of the Cabinet of Northern Ireland that such a transfer is not justifiable and cannot be supported or accepted by us. It would fully undermine the powers, authority and standing of this Government without justification and for no clear advantage to those who are suffering in Northern Ireland today. We wish to point out with a sense of the heavy responsibility involved that the imposition of this proposal involving as it will the resignation of the Government of Northern Ireland as a whole, may have the gravest consequences, yet the full extent of which cannot now be foreseen…’

This is a serious and sad situation reached after three years of the most strenuous efforts to reform our society on a basis at once fair and realistic. I thought that by our actions and our attitude we had earned the right to the confidence and the support of the United Kingdom Government. I fear too that many people will draw a sinister and depressing message from these events: that violence can pay, that violence does pay, that those who shout, lie, denigrate and even destroy, earn for themselves an attention that responsible conduct and honourable behaviour do not…”