In the late 1960s, people in the Republic looked on nervously as tensions between the Nationalist and Loyalist communities in the North moved ever closer to breaking point.
By the summer of 1969, there had already been numerous skirmishes and confrontations leading to horrific injuries and even deaths.Nationalist politicians in the North looked to the Irish government for help. This could mean political support in raising the issues across the world and putting pressure on the British government… it could also be in the form of providing arms for the Nationalists or even direct military action.
At first, the Irish Taoiseach Jack Lynch was reluctant to get involved, aware that anything he did, no matter how well intentioned, would run the risk of angering the Loyalist community and so inflame an already tense situation. Consequently, he tried to remain quiet.
That stance changed, however, on 12 August 1969 when riots erupted in Derry in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bogside. It happened when Catholic youths confronted Loyalists during a march to mark the anniversary of the Siege of Derry in 1689. Stones were thrown and soon the full-scale rioting erupted along residential streets. The violence spread to Belfast.
Within a few days, eight people had been killed, hundreds more injured and nearly 2,000 homes had been burnt out.
Lynch was on holiday at the time but immediately returned to Dublin and called an emergency cabinet meeting to formulate a response. It’s thought some ministers were prepared to contemplate sending arms and even soldiers to deal with the situation. Lynch was not prepared to go nearly that far. He believed that although people in the Republic sympathised with their Catholic cousins in the North, that sympathy did not stretch so far as to supply them guns or embroil Irish troops in an open-ended conflict where it was hard to predict a positive outcome.
Lynch was a cautious man, measured in his approach.
He decided to make a broadcast to the country on the national TV station, RTÉ on 13 August. He began by lamenting the tragic events unfolding before them in the North, and deplored sectarianism in all its forms.
Then he became more controversial, stating that the Stormont government had lost control of the situation and then went even further saying: “Indeed the present situation is the inevitable outcome of the policies pursued for decades by successive Stormont governments.”
He was also critical of the RUC saying it was “no longer accepted as an impartial police force”. He added that the use of British troops would not be acceptable and urged the British government to arrange for a United Nations peacekeeping force to be sent instead.
Lynch also issued the words that have been widely quoted ever since and been the subject of endless speculation: “It is clear, also, that the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.”
He went on to say that: “It is our intention to request the British Government to enter into early negotiations with the Irish Government to review the present constitutional position of the six Counties of Northern Ireland.”
Lynch’s reference to not standing by led people on all sides of the political divide to wonder if he meant that Ireland was preparing to invade. The British Home Secretary at the time, James Callaghan, said he didn’t really think Lynch would do anything like that, but nevertheless, he and his officials considered stationing British troops along the border just in case.
Lynch did not take military action and it’s unlikely he ever intended to do so. It would have been a futile gesture as the Irish army was too small to match that of Britain. He did, however, establish field hospitals near the Donegal border to treat the wounded of Derry who did not want to be treated in Northern Ireland hospitals.
Lynch also allowed Irish troops to provide arms training to selected Derry citizens, and provided a £100,000 fund “for the relief of stress” of those affected by the conflict.
Unionists in the North were outraged by Lynch’s intervention. Brian Faulkner, soon to become Northern Ireland Prime Minister, accused him of “pouring fuel on the northern flame in the hope that out of the chaos he would reap some benefits in terms of progress towards a united Ireland”.
The Unionist outrage was predictable but the reference to wanting a united Ireland was probably way off the mark. As a Fianna Fáil member, Lynch would have wanted unity but as a practical politician he would have been concerned that such an outcome, however unlikely, could have been catastrophic for the Republic.
It would have meant that all the sectarian tension in the North would have become the Republic’s problem, as opposed to Britain’s. As the Republic had far fewer resources, it’s hard to imagine how it would have been able to contain the anger of Loyalists who had been dragged into a united Ireland against their will.
Lynch was aware of this and his RTÉ broadcast was carefully measured to reflect his genuine concerns for the North, with his concerns that the Troubles did not spill into the Republic itself.
The book Making Sense of the Troubles (McKittrick & McVea, published by Viking) describes a meeting between Lynch and the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson that gives a good indication as to how seriously Irish politicians took the idea of a united Ireland at that time. Wilson put forward the idea of united Ireland as one possible long term solution. An aide of Wilson who was there later recalled the reaction of the Irish: “The fascinating moment at the Taoiseach’s lunch came when Harold Wilson put forward the plan for turning the dream of unity into reality. I had thought they would jump for joy, but their reaction was more akin to falling through the floor.”
The reason for their lack of enthusiasm is not that surprising. The British with all their resources struggled to contain the situation in the North and were unable to defeat the IRA or Loyalist paramilitaries. A united Ireland would have inherited all those problems and had to deal with them with only a fraction of the resources available to the British.
That is why Lynch was firm but measured in his RTÉ broadcast, careful to say and do enough to help those in the North and satisfy public opinion in the South, while acknowledging that the Republic was in no position to come riding to the rescue with a military solution.