Monday, January 03, 2005

Sunningdale Man

One of the seasonal elements to the British and Irish news cycles is driven by the release of previously secret government papers under the Thirty Year rule, which for this year covers documents and memos from 1974. We posted a little about last year's papers here.

Overall there seems to be less of note this time, since most of the thinking of the Dublin and London governments about the deteriorating events in Northern Ireland is already well known. Reinforced from the new documents is the image of an extremely weak London government, unable and/or unwilling to stand up to Protestant extremism in Northern Ireland. The main attention this year has focused on the fact that Prime Minister Harold Wilson seriously entertained the option of cutting Northern Ireland loose from the UK and recasting it as a "Dominion" -- somewhere between a possession of the UK and a sovereign country.

This is despite the fact that the conventional wisdom even then, and definitely now, is that such a move would have been a disaster. Finding themselves ruling the roost in a precarious mini-state, emboldened Unionist extremists would likely have begun a full-scale sectarian cleansing of majority Protestant areas, precipating a refugee crisis with the Irish Republic, and then British, Irish, or UN troops would have to come in to maintain the peace. This is not a far-fetched conjecture, since events very like this were unfolding in Cyprus at the same time.

Anyway, cooler heads prevailed and although the Unionist militants did succeed in bringing about the collapse of Sunningdale, the power-sharing agreement, London replaced it with direct rule and Sunningdale itself hasn't really gone away as the basis of the current peace process.

But besides the weakness of the London government, there is another aspect of the new papers that we haven't seen commented upon -- namely the mental state of Prime Minister Wilson. On the one hand he displays the almost stereotypical despair of the English at the feuding Irish. But sometimes his musings veer into a severely detached unrealism. This is best revealed in one of his incidental comments (subs. req'd) about the idea of a quasi-independent Northern Ireland:

Wilson envisaged Britain's financial subsidies gradually tapering off over a three- to five-year period. "After that they would be out on their own," he flatly stated.

It's tough to comprehend how Wilson could have seen this as feasible: an already deindustrialising economy, heavily dependent on a subsidy from the UK exchequer even in quiet periods, and then facing the chaos of its new status, yet Wilson thought that the Treasury could just stop writing the cheques.

Two years later, Wilson resigned from office, and it later emerged that he had Alzheimer's disease. Now, in the US, it's lese-majeste to question whether Ronald Reagan's decision-making was impeded by Alzheimer's, but when one sees the drift and flights of fancy that characterised Wilson's policy, there's a tempting comparison with Reagan. Of course, Wilson quit at age 60, perhaps displaying some self-knowledge of his own declining abilities that Reagan (as President*) never did.

*UPDATE, Jan 4 2005. Whatever about Wilson's mental state, the moderate nationalist SDLP had grave doubts about the mental stability of Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees. Irish government papers record notes made by their Department of Foreign Affairs of comments by senior SDLP leaders about Rees (subs. req'd):

[John] Hume's comment was that Rees "did not appear to be in control of himself". [Gerry] Fitt's verdict, as noted by Donlon [Irish official], was that Rees gave the impression "of being close to a nervous breakdown. At times he was almost incoherent." At the same meeting Gerry Fitt is recorded as complaining that "Merlyn Rees makes many peculiar statements which nobody understands;

(note: we have also added a clarifying parentheses about our Reagan comment above)