National Archives - Clergy talks fail to bridge political gap for ceasefire

Efforts to secure an end to the IRA’s campaign ultimately proved fruitless, writes Ryle Dwyer.

Jack Weir, Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, informed Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave on December 8, 1974 that leaders of the four largest churches planned to launch a peace campaign.

Two days later Rev Weir and four other Protestant clergymen met representatives of the Provisional IRA in Feakle, Co Clare.

The clergymen urged the IRA to consider a permanent ceasefire if the British Government declared that it had no political or territorial interest in Ireland and would guarantee all people full participation in the life of the community.

The clergymen based their discussion on five points drafted informally on the back of a menu by Frank Cooper, Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office.

The republicans responded to the Feakle initiative by announcing a Christmas ceasefire, suspending operation from December 22, 1974, to January 2, 1975. On the day the ceasefire was to expire, the IRA extended it for a further two weeks to give the British a chance to respond.

The British insisted there would be no negotiations with the IRA, but added a that continued cessation of violence would be met with a positive response.

A whole series of meetings followed.

John Bourn, security liaison officer in the Northern Ireland Office, privately assured Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Foreign Affairs Minister Garret FitzGerald that the British believed the Provisionals had agreed to the ceasefire as a result of a combination of factors.

The security forces had been making life difficult for subversives, and the

Ulster Workers' Council strike showed that the Provos had no hope of attaining their aims by their existing methods, especially as the Birmingham pub bombings had provoked widespread public revulsion.

Bourn was hopeful about the ceasefire. He saw Ian Paisley as a man of diminishing support.

The British had already announced plans for the election of a convention to try to resolve the Northern question. This would be the seventh election in two years.

SDLP leaders, who had talks with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste Brendan Corish on January 13, were anxious to postpone the convention elections.

The Government's main fears, on the other hand, were that the British would undermine the SDLP by negotiating directly with the Provisionals, or that they would abandon the idea of power-sharing.

Garret FitzGerald urged the Taoiseach to impress on Prime Minister Harold Wilson that there should be no backing away from the power-sharing in a white paper due to be published shortly.

Cosgrave wrote to Wilson on January 8, 1975: "I should be grateful to have your personal assurance that no form of administration for Northern Ireland that does not include power-sharing in government will be acceptable to your government."

Wilson replied on January 19: "There is no change in our policy that any proposals from the convention to be acceptable must include some form of power-sharing in government.

"As I have said before, what we will accept from the convention is a solution which is agreed and not simply determined by a majority decision."

The IRA ceasefire, which terminated on January 17, was followed by bombing outrages in London and Manchester. But the IRA announced an indefinite ceasefire three weeks later.

After visiting the North in the second week of April 1975, John Donlon of the Department of

Foreign Affairs reported a dramatic increase in "petty crime and general lawlessness" since the ceasefire. There had also been a distinct rise in sectarian violence. Sectarian murders up to April 18 were 216 Catholics, 119 Protestant and four others killed, but there had been only 12 convictions in 339 cases.

IRA leaders Ruairí O Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill had recently toured the North and found little interest in going political. Activists in places like Belfast, South Armagh and Tyrone wanted a immediate resumption of hostilities. The IRA gradually returned to violence in those areas.

Mr Donlon thought it most unlikely that anything useful would come of the convention, because the unionists and SDLP had irreconcilable positions. The unionists were insisting on no power-sharing, while the SDLP demanded there could be no cooperation without power-sharing.

Northern Secretary Merlyn Rees said his biggest fear was of the reaction that the failure of the convention could provoke in Britain. Although what he called "the pull-out syndrome" was dormant at the time, he told Mr Donlon that it could become a serious factor following another political failure.

After visiting the North again in mid-August Mr Donlon reported the situation was "as bad as anything I have seen there since 1972".

The Provisional IRA was gaining popularity.

The SDLP was losing ground over involvement with the convention.

Mr Donlon noted the mood among unionists had, if anything, "become harder".

Hopes that Ian Paisley might compromise were dashed.

"Mr Paisley was not following any definite policy except the politics of obstruction," Mr Donlon explained. "His actions had come as a complete surprise to the SDLP, who had regarded him as being reasonably well disposed." The convention was a shambles.

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