6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 3

Ulster the perilous lack of resolution

What exactly is the policy of the British Government in Ulster, and what is the resolution Mr Wilson and his ministers foresee for that unfortunate province? The question is pertinent, not only because of the latest rash of London bombings, nor because the IRA have broken their truce in Ulster in every way but formally, but also because the assertions of Mr Merlyn Rees, to the effect that he had done no secret deal with the Provisional IRA, are extremely unconvincing. What was lamentably evident from the Secretary of State's prevarications on The World this Weekend was not only that Loyalist — including moderate Loyalist — suspicions of the British Government's honesty may be well-founded, but that Mr Wilson and his Cabinet are prepared to take risks in matters of security — which mean not only damage to the morale of the Army, but the imperilling of innocent lives as well — in the desperate hope that the IRA will keep their side of a clandestine bargain, a hope which has already been dashed.

Or perhaps there is a more sinister explanation for the inactivity of Mr Rees. Even Mr . Brian Faulkner, so long and so unfalteringly loyal to the British connection, under successive Westminster governments, has now broken with Mr Rees, clearly suspecting that what is in the mind of Mr Wilson is withdrawal from Northern Ireland as soon as the expected failure of the constitutional Convention makes withdrawal a policy with some colour of reasonableness about it. Hitherto the exponents of withdrawal among British politicians have been on the left of the Labour Party: but it is now widely believed that Mr Roy Jenkins, and even Mr James Callaghan, may have made it clear to the Prime Minister that there would be no opposition from them to a scuttle. Of course, withdrawal can be defended logically — however irresponsible most thinking people would judge it to be — provided one is prepared to accept and ignore the slaughter that would certainly follow; but the Conservative Opposition at least would certainly oppose it, and it would be the most shattering of all Britain's post-war abdications.

What cannot be disputed is that, as long as Britain remains in Ulster, her Government should make the effort, and bear the cost, of pursuing a policy which is clear, consistent and firmly administered. In the present chaos of suspicion and muddled intentions, few moderate constitutionalists actually living in Northern Ireland can feel any prospect of reasonable security, however far ahead they may look. To make just one point about security, the disgraceful situation has now arisen in which IRA leaders are safer North of the border than in the South. It is perfectly true that successive British governments, and especially that of Mr Heath, were perpetually frustrated in their campaign against the IRA terrorists because of the ambiguity and cowardice of the government of the Irish Republic headed by Mr Lynch. But Mr Cosgrave and his ministers have not only preached opposition to the Provisionals; they have acted on their words. At such a time unity of purpose shared between Dublin and London could bring to an end the effectiveness of the IRA, and leave the security forces free to tackle the thugs of Protestantism. Instead, Mr Rees entered on a truce which gave a badly damaged IRA the opportunity to recuperate and regroup; he has continued the policy of releasing internees, despite the certainty that those now going free are, for the most part, hard-core terrorists; and he has declined to use his powers for fresh internment. Again, the comparison with the South is instructive, for the Dublin government's use of the Offences against the State Act, and subsequent legislation giving them wide powers to protect the security of life and property, has been firm, and would be more sharply effective if the senior gunmen could not take refuge in the North. Without arguing for an excessively hard-line policy one can at least suggest that security measures in Ulster ought not to be less stringent than those in the Republic.

But the strongest point to be made against the Government's present policy (if such it can be called) is that it has not worked, and shows no sign of working. An impossible burden is being placed on an increasingly embittered Army, forced to watch the steady release of their enemies from internment, and to stand idly by while the next stage of the terrorist war is being prepared. Nor has Mr Rees's truce eliminated danger in this island, as the recent rash of bombings clearly demonstrates: it is even possible that this bombing is designed further to soften up British political and public opinion in order to encourage an eventual withdrawal. Throughout, and especially when the Army was pulled back from the IRA's throat, the terrorists have been allowed to hold the initiative and have, with considerable skill, played on the lack of resolution of Her Majesty's ministers.

Mr Rees and his defenders insist, of course, that the eventual solution in Ulster must be political rather than military; and ministers have more than once hinted that if the parties in conflict at the Convention cannot come to some arrangement among themselves that is satisfactory to Westminster then they, and not the London Government, will be guilty of whatever disasters follow. But this is entirely to miss the point: in an increasingly desperate situation, where no confidence can be reposed in either the truthfulness or the steadfastness of the British Government, Irish political factions will be polarised rather than fused, for even those of the most moderate and peaceful views and dispositions will be forced, in their own interests and for their own protection, to ally themselves with whichever of the dark forces abroad they believe will come out on top in the end. Only in a situation in which terror is rigorously opposed, and in which there is no doubt about the calibre of the commitment both of Britain and of the Army, can one hope for a political solution. A policy of drift encourages all sides in Ulster to engage in increasingly desperate and questionable manoeuvres for the future. It is late in Ulster, but it is not too late, and resolution combined with political flexibility can still win the day.