N. Ireland Politics

State papers: Flags, bombs and the noose

Flags Stormont
Image caption Flag-flying at Stormont is now restricted to 'designated days'

The latest batch of state papers released by the Public Records Office shows that events in Northern Ireland can be very slow to change.

The flying of the Union Flag over Parliament Buildings, Stormont, was a hot topic in 1974.

Vanguard representative Cecil Harvey demanded the flag be flown for meetings of the Constitutional Convention.

An official contacted the Northern Ireland Office in London who instructed that "the flags need to be flown".

As officials made arrangements, the DUP leader, Rev Ian Paisley telephoned Stormont demanding to speak to the secretary of state (Merlyn Rees) about "the insults paid to loyalists of Ulster by (Rees) not allowing the flying of the Union Jack".

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Army bomb disposal unit on the railway line at Lurgan in 2015

Dublin rail link 'impossible to protect'

Newly-released documents show the British government regarded the Belfast-Dublin railway line as impossible to protect from paramilitary attack in 1990.

An official noted: "It represents an ideal extended target for terrorist operations and cannot be secured except at exorbitant cost in terms of both money and manpower, and without increasing its value as a terrorist target."

The cost of disruption to Northern Ireland Railways was estimated at £1m a year in lost revenue.

Death penalty and Anglo-Irish relations

Capital punishment was abolished in Northern Ireland as late as 1973, but the archive papers for 1990 show there was a debate in government circles about its possible restoration for crimes of treason or piracy.

Chief Constable Sir John Hermon had already expressed his opposition to the proposal in 1983, and this was reiterated by his successor, Hugh Annesley in 1990.

Image caption The RUC opposed the restoration of the death penalty

A memo by NIO official Paul Johnston, also in 1990, raised two issues.

The first was the implication of capital cases being heard in non-jury "Diplock" courts:

"The idea that the judge - already burdened by having to sit alone and already a target for terrorist attack - should, in addition, decide between life and death is surely unacceptable."

The second consideration was the political impact on relations with the Republic of Ireland of any unilateral move to reinstate the death penalty.

Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Irish government expected "a receptiveness to Irish views on matters of this kind".

Johnston felt that while on the Protestant side, the restoration of capital punishment would be welcome, "the vast majority of the Catholic community would be strongly opposed" and it was likely that vigorous protest action would be mobilised.

"There would be significant and extensive disaffection within the Catholic community. This might prompt public disorder which would have serious resource implications for the security forces."

The official concluded that: "Terrorist organisations would be likely to be able to rely on greater support "from the community while it was doubtful whether the restoration of the death penalty would have any deterrent effect.