The violence that broke out at the end of the 1960s reached its high point in 1972, though of course at that time nobody knew that the number of deaths would peak in that year and then decline. It seemed in 1972 as if Northern Ireland was going to be consumed in an inferno of bombs, bullets, riots and societal breakdown. Stormont was prorogued (suspended) to the consternation of unionism, and the world watched aghast as Britain sent paratroopers to slaughter peaceful protesters in Derry.
As so often in relation to Ireland, the British government played a two-faced game. On one hand, following the Darlington Conference in September 1972, it published a discussion paper a discussion paper The Future of Northern Ireland: A Paper for Discussion, in which it stated, in relation to repartition:
"It has been argued that consideration might be given to a partial or incomplete transfer of sovereignty either in geographical terms (ie by transferring to the Irish Republic those parts of Northern Ireland where a majority in favour of such a transfer exists) or in jurisdictional terms (eg, by adopting a pattern of joint sovereign responsibility for Northern Ireland as recommended by the Social Democratic and Labour Party or by a scheme of condominium for which there are such precedents as the New Hebrides and Andorra). However neither of these courses if adopted without consent, would be compatible with the express wording of Section 1(2) of the Ireland Act, 1949. Moreover the exponents of a united Ireland all demand a unity of the whole island and show no sign of settling for less: they might well regard the establishment of a predominantly Protestant state as an obstacle to unity."
But on the other hand the British government secretly planned for the repartition of Northern Ireland in the case of uncontrollable violence – though the plan was rejected as unworkable.
Papers released under the 30-year-rule revealed that the British government considered moving hundreds of thousands of Catholics if they could not stop the worsening sectarian violence.
"Prime Minister Heath was presented with a series of options including a 10-page paper called "Redrawing the border and population transfer".
It looked at whether republican violence could be stopped by:
- Transferring areas with a Catholic majority to the Republic of Ireland
- Moving individual Catholic families to the Republic of Ireland
The authors drew up maps of how it could work - only to find the areas identified for transfer included huge numbers of Protestants.
"To transfer the whole of the territory west of the River Bann would put 238,000 Catholics and 227,000 Protestants into the Republic," the report said.
In addition, the authors admitted they had no idea how population transfer could be applied to the majority of Catholics living in Belfast or other urban areas."
The plans contained maps showing both the areas that the British considered to have Catholic majorities:
On the basis of this map they went on to prepare a ‘simplified’ map showing the areas to be ceded to the south, along with an estimate of the Protestant and Catholic populations effected. The maps below are taken from the BBC and may not accurately represent the proposals:
The statistics that the plan’s drafters used are unknown, but presumably included the 1971 census – widely boycotted – and recent election results. There are some anomalies in the analysis:
- It shows areas like Cookstown as having a ‘large Catholic population’, despite the fact that in the early 1970s the district had a distinct unionist majority: 56.6% in 1973. Cookstown district only fell into nationalist hands in 1997.
- It planned to include Castlederg in the reduced Northern Ireland, but not the neighbouring – and much more strongly unionist – north Fermanagh, an area that still today has a unionist majority.
- It bizarrely shows Crossmaglen as being in ‘Protestant’ territory, though sensibly planned to hand it, and the whole of South Armagh, to the republic.
- It shows the strongly nationalist Crossmore DEA in Armagh as being ‘Protestant’ and planned to keep it in the reduced Northern Ireland – perhaps to provide a bridge to Aughnacloy and the Clogher Valley, though these areas it also planned to cede to the south, despite their then unionist majority.
Had the repartition considered by the British government in 1972 come to pass it would have created as many problems as it hoped to resolve. Localised unionist majorities in north Fermanagh and Cookstown would have found themselves ‘behind enemy lines’, while the nationalists of Crossmore would have found themselves still in Northern Ireland despite being surrounded on three sides by the Republic. There would have been a long and unnecessary strip of ‘Northern Ireland’ stretching down the east bank of the Foyle to Castlederg (and including Strabane!) for no sensible reason.
The 1972 plan was perhaps a good example of why Northern Ireland is never very well managed by the British – they appear to get simple facts wrong, despite their potentially lethal consequences.
[Next post: the UDA’s Doomsday Plan]