O’Brien warned state could be embroiled in war with loyalists

ON September 26, 1974 there was embarrassment in Government circles when the contents of a memorandum prepared by Conor Cruise O’Brien for the Administrative Council of the Labour Party was leaked. It was an assessment predicting the distinct possibility of civil war.

This would become a virtual refrain for O’Brien over the next quarter of a century. If the loyalists obtained an overall majority in the forthcoming Convention elections and declared themselves a Provisional Government and incorporated the loyalist paramilitary groups as their security forces, he warned the British might either acquiesce in what was happening, or they might be drawn into military conflict with the loyalists.

This could result in the British forces being fired on by both the Protestant and Catholic communities, and the British might then consider their overall position untenable and withdraw from the North.

“In the event of a British withdrawal under such circumstances it is virtually certain that civil war would break out in Northern Ireland,” O’Brien argued.

“The precise outcome of such a conflict in unpredictable but it is certain that they would include heavy civilian casualties in Northern Ireland, especially among exposed minorities, and most especially among the Catholics of the Belfast region; serious casualties also in the Republic as a result of ‘retaliatory’ raids and bombings by Loyalist forces into our territory; massive disruption of the economy and of social life both North and South, total elimination of the Tourist Industry, suspension of foreign investment, widespread and lasting unemployment and a vast refugee problem in the Republic.”

He added that the SDLP estimated that some sixty to seventy thousand Catholic families would flee south for refuge.

They could not be sustained without a significant drop in living standards in the Republic.

“Northern observers have also warned us that such an incursion would necessarily include large numbers of teenagers who by reason of the conditions in which they have grown up are tough, violent and virtually ungovernable,” O’Brien continued.

“It is sometimes carelessly assumed that if a situation of the general type came about it could be controlled either by the Irish Army or by the United Nations forces. Unfortunately neither assumption is tenable.”

The Irish Army might be able to hold a border town like Newry, but “our forces could not hope to exert significantly wider control,” he contended. “Intervention of this limited kind, while perhaps saving lives in a small area, could precipitate a massacre on a grand scale in other more vulnerable areas.”

On the other hand the United Nations could only be expected to “provide a kind of peace line after a cease-fire.”

Hence, he concluded that it was important that the Dublin government should “try at all costs to avert such a drift of events.”

This would necessitate doing everything possible to avert a loyalist majority, which could be the first step in a disastrous process.

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