Bloomfield: ‘locusts of confusion and ambiguity’ ate away at the vacuum before direct rule in 1972 #20YearRule

Sir Ken Bloomfield retired from the Northern Ireland Civil Service on Friday 12 April 1991. As well as organising “some liquid refreshment at Parliament Buildings” from 4pm onwards on his last day, the outgoing head of the civil service wrote and circulated a valedictory memo [PDF] as he left the building, handwriting the number ‘12’ into the date field of the typed memo.

In the memo he reflected on mistakes made and criticised the “flawed” Anglo-Irish Agreement. Now released under the ‘20 year rule’, government file CENT-3-227A can be viewed by the public from this morning in the Public Records Office in Titanic Quarter.

Reflecting on 38 years working in civil service, Bloomfield remarked upon his “satisfaction [that] the NICS has become progressively more professional in its approach and methods.”

“Nevertheless I leave with a real sense of sadness. I have lost too many friends and seen the wreckage of too many familiar places to be content with the state of affairs in which violence has persisted for over twenty years and is continuing.”

The wreckage included his own house which was bombed in September 1988. In a letter to Richard Neilson, the British Ambassador to Chile and a personal friend, he explains how in the aftermath, he and his wife Elizabeth

“… were lodged in the very attractive surroundings of Hillsborough Castle – feeling a bit like Nelson Mandela on Robbin Island!”

Returning to his farewell memo:

“Alongside this I, as a native Ulsterman, take little satisfaction from a situation in which locally elected politicians play so small a part in the government and administration of our own community.”

Bloomfield identified a number of critical errors “some at least of which I helped to perpetrate myself”:

a. During the premiership of Terence O’Neill … reformist rhetoric outran the will and particularly the capacity to deliver. The rising expectations of a disadvantaged community floated off on the flood tide of dissent which swept many countries in 1968.

b. Thereafter, while the unionist establishment increasingly perceived a need to reform, the reluctance of its political machine to deliver without prolonged and agonising debate meant that, in an inflating market, they found themselves always trying to buy stability at the previous year’s prices.

c. Direct rule should certainly not have been held back until 1972, but should have accompanied the commitment of troops on a substantial scale in 1969. The intervening years were eaten by the locusts of confusion and ambiguity.

d. In the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 the concept of executive functions (however exiguous) for a Council of Ireland represented “a bridge too far” for the unionists.

e. The distinction between a “legal” Provisional Sinn Fein and a proscribed PIRA which has existed since Merlyn Rees de-proscribed the former has been seen to be farcical in principle and effect.

Later in his six-page memo the outgoing head of the civil service described the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was “from the outset seriously flawed in a number of fundamental respects”.

“Anything which does not serve to reduce that division [between communities in Northern Ireland] is not likely in the long-term to contribute to peace, stability or reconciliation.”

Bloomfield asked “why better use has not on occasions been made of local knowledge, experience and political ‘feel’”, remarking:

“I was held at a considerable distance from the negotiations and discussions leading up to the conclusion of the 1985 [Anglo-Irish] Agreement … on not one occasion since then has any attempt been made to engage me in the periodic exchanges which take place between very senior British and Irish officials – and this in spite of the fact that I have known the leading figure on the Irish side, Dermot Nally, longer than anyone else involved …”

He also wrote:

“I would wish to express the view that the curse of Northern Ireland has been the concentration on symbolism and ultimate constitutional destination alongside the comparative neglect of substantive issues.

“It must surely be obvious my now that early consent from the majority in Northern Ireland to the unity of Ireland is not foreseeable, and I believe government of any complexion would be making a fearful and very costly mistake if it were to assume that the dying of the post-Agreement hubbub represented any kind of tacit consent to the inevitability of such unity.”

Fast forward from April 1991 to August 2018:

Is the consequence of the NIO’s reluctance to reimpose direct rule once again leaving “years … eaten by the locusts of confusion and ambiguity”?

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