Top civil servant proposed all-Ireland anti-terror police force

A civil servant's idea that the RUC, seen here clashing with anti-Anglo Irish Agreement loyalists, be merged with the Garda was dismissed by colleagues
A civil servant's idea that the RUC, seen here clashing with anti-Anglo Irish Agreement loyalists, be merged with the Garda was dismissed by colleagues

One of the NIO’s most senior officials suggested an Ireland-wide police force in 1983, declassified government documents reveal.

John Bourn, a Whitehall civil servant who at the time was deputy under secretary at the department, made the radical suggestion in a confidential memo within the NIO.

But other officials pointed out the pitfalls and implications for sovereignty of such a move.

Although the document is from 1983, it is held in a file which was not closed until 1986 and has been released with that year’s documents.

Mr Bourn would go on to become Britain’s Comptroller and Auditor General for more than two decades and was knighted.

On his retirement in 2008, Sir John said of his time in Northern Ireland: “It was a role for which life in Whitehall had in no way been a preparation.”

The joint police authority proposal – which came a month after the Darkley church massacre and two days after UUP politician Edgar Graham’s murder – demonstrates the depth of frustration at existing security cooperation with the Republic, as well as the lack of intuition for Northern Ireland among some senior English civil servants seconded to the Province.

Writing in a confidential December 1983 memo as the Government attempted to improve security cooperation with the Republic, Mr Bourn said: “Every idea has snags. But one possible approach would be to build on the idea of a joint police authority.”

He set out a four-part plan which began with “a police authority would be set up for Northern Ireland and the Republic; the members, drawn from North and South, possibly in equal numbers, would be nominated by the Secretary of State and the Minister for Justice”.

He proposed that the Chief Constable and Garda Chief Commissioner would report to the police authority. Although he said it would have no control of operations, the two chief officers would have to “give accounts of their operational policies and plans to support their requirements for personnel, buildings and equipment”. In the margin, someone has written sceptically: “RoI members exercising control over RUC resources and vice versa?!”

Mr Bourn suggested that although the RUC and the Garda would “remain formally independent forces”, he envisaged that “there would be scope for closer cooperation eg our Mobile Support Units and the Garda Task Force might be merged into a jointly manned organisation for dealing with terrorist crime, and able, in the prosecution of this task, to operate in both jurisdictions”.

He went on to suggest the possibility of “a criminal code applying in both jurisdictions”, with “its own set of jointly manned courts”.

Mr Bourn said that it would allow for an anti-terrorist police service operating across the whole island “without any derogation of sovereignty”. But in the margin, someone has written a question mark about this point.

It was clear that Mr Bourn’s suggestion was not well received by colleagues. At the top of the memo someone has written by hand “a pipe dream in current crisis”.

Paul Buxton, another senior Whitehall civil servant who at that time was stationed at the NIO, immediately grasped the scale and implications of what was being proposed.

He said: “Might I suggest that – especially in view of the wide circulation given to them – your minute ... ought to be classified SECRET and treated accordingly. Any rumours of their contents would be damaging.”

And a response from the then head of the Civil Service, Sir Ewart Bell, said that unionists would only possibly accept the implications of the arrangement for sovereignty if it led to “clear advantages” in security.

And he warned that “cosmetic involvement of RoI politicians or Gardai” would not, on its own, secure nationalist support for the security forces.