1983: the year of the big squeeze

The past is a different country but the word coming from recently-released British government papers for 1983 sounds a familiar note: Sinn Féin must be stopped. Which when you think about it was an odd position to take, given that the same people urged republicans to adopt the democratic pathway.

The Catholic Church in the person Bishop Cathal Daly had no qualms back then about telling people how to vote, and when they’d voted, explaining their motives for so doing. For example, when Sinn Féin got 10% of the vote in the assembly elections of 1982, Bishop Daly explained to the British that this wasn’t support for Sinn Féin: it was “a vote of anger and frustration”. How did he know that? Maybe because he was so close to the ground and mixed with the people who were doing the voting. Or maybe not.

Anyway, he explained to the British Secretary of State then, Jim Prior, that this Sinn Féin vote “was an irrational reaction from a frustrated community”. Right. “Most people knew the IRA for what they were. They were oppressed by the IRA in their communities”. Mmm. In contrast, the Bishop “was full of admiration for the excellent work of the RUC, particularly with community relations in West Belfast”. Mmm. That’d be the RUC which had to be effectively disbanded post- the Good Friday Agreement? Right.

The Bishop then turned his attention to the SDLP and said what they needed was “a major political figure in Belfast…Unlike Sinn Féin, who had worked very hard for the community, the SDLP had maintained no significant presence in West Belfast”.

One thing most people agree on is that Bishop Daly had a great brain. He might come across as tetchy on TV the odd time but he was one very smart man. Which makes it hard to explain why he declared that the IRA was oppressing the people of West Belfast, while Sinn Féin (with whom of course the IRA was indissolubly linked) were working very hard for the same people. I know it’s near-heresy, but I have this feeling there’s a flaw somewhere in the Bishop’s line of reasoning, if I was smart enough to spot it.

Meanwhile, back in 1983 the British government was wracking its brains to see a way in which they might ban Sinn Féin. They thought about doing it in December 1983 after the Harrods bombing. Jim Prior, the British secretary of state at the time had a meeting with officials and made it clear to them that he had the power to proscribe Sinn Féin. But the officials went a bit white at his words and urged caution. If he were to use this power, it might be seen as getting all indignant about an IRA bombing in London and not quite as waxy over IRA bombs in Belfast and environs. Plus “There was a danger that those who had voted for Sinn Féin in recently elections without actively supporting terrorism might be further alienated from the constitutional process”. Balanced against that, however, was the fact that a ban “would also go a long way to removing the threat to the SDLP at the European Assembly elections”. On the other hand again, it might not play well in the US – they might see it as an attempt “to muzzle legitimate nationalist representatives”. No wonder poor Jim used to look red in the face.

But the newly-released papers do make clear that back then, Church and State were firing as many political guns as they dared at Sinn Féin. And in the south, Garrett Fitzgerald was thinking along the same lines. Yerrah would you lay down your arms, lads, and join us in the democratic chamber, where we’ll do all in our power to throttle the life out of you. And yet, despite Church and State squeezing as hard as they were humanly able, here we are thirty years later with Sinn Féin the largest nationalist party in the north and growing in jumps and leps with each election in the south.

Odd, isn’t it, the gulf in understanding that can sometimes show between officialdom and ordinary people.

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