Saturday 20 December 2014

'White nigger' denial poses a real dilemma

Ronan Fanning

Published 02/02/2003 | 00:11

The notion that an ambassador would lie to his own people simply beggars belief, says Ronan Fanning

THE denial by Major Thomas B McDowell, then the chief executive of the Irish Times, that he described Mr Douglas Gageby, the then editor, as "a renegade or white nigger", in a conversation with the then British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, in Dublin in October 1969 poses a dilemma for historians.

The description occurs in a "Secret & Personal" letter from Andrew Gilchrist to Kelvin White, then the head of the Irish desk at the Foreign Office: "McDowall [sic] is one of the five (Protestant) owners of the Irish Times, and he and his associates are increasingly concerned about the line the paper is taking under its present (Protestant, Belfast-born) Editor, Gageby, whom he described as a very fine journalist, an excellent man, but on Northern questions a renegade or white nigger."

Major McDowell responded to the revelation of the letter in last week's Sunday Independent in Monday's Irish Times: "I have never used the words 'white nigger' in my life about anybody. I have always had the highest respect for Douglas Gageby, both as a person and as a journalist."

There is no difficulty about Major McDowell's second assertion, which faithfully reflects Andrew Gilchrist's reporting Major McDowell's description of Douglas Gageby "as a very fine journalist" and "an excellent man". The difficulty subsists entirely in the phrase "renegade or white nigger". The first and, in my judgment, insuperable problem for the historian is this: why should the British Ambassador put such contemptuously offensive words into the mouth of so important a source as the chief executive of one of Ireland's national newspapers if he did not, in fact, use them? Indeed, such was Andrew Gilchrist's nervousness about the sensitivity of his report that he advised the Foreign Office he was destroying the correspondence.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Major McDowell is the only survivor of that luncheon conversation on October 2, 1969; Sir Andrew Gilchrist cannot give his side of the story because he died in 1993. Yet, even if one subscribes to the cynical definition of an ambassador as someone who is sent abroad to lie for their country, the notion that an ambassador above all an ambassador in so supremely professional and hard-nosed a diplomatic service as the British would lie to their own government simply beggars belief.

I asked Sir Ivor Roberts, the present British Ambassador in Dublin, for his personal opinion about the probability that any ambassador reporting to the Foreign Office would attribute such words to an informant if the informant had not in fact spoken the words in question. His reply was as terse as it was informative: "Nil."

Nor can Major McDowell's insistence last week that "there was no interference" from him or from other members of the board with the Irish Times's editorial policy on Northern Ireland be reconciled with other correspondence since unearthed by Bernard Purcell, the London editor of this newspaper. It reveals that Peter Gregson, one of the Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Private Secretaries, wrote to Kelvin White on September 16, 1969 "about Major McDowell, the Managing Director of the Irish Times in Dublin, who had tried to contact the Prime Minister when on a visit to London recently. This initiative by Major McDowell, seeking guidance from 10 Downing Street, was what triggered his lunch with Andrew Gilchrist whose own letter of October 2 to Kelvin White was written "merely in case [White] wish[ed] to brief No 10 and to assure them that we will do what we can to exploit this opening". White duly advised Gregson that Major McDowell "was seeking a degree of guidance in the hope he will be able to inculcate greater moderation in his own paper. Apparently he has troubles with his editor and this, not intelligence activity, was the root of the matter" this initial British assumption of "intelligence activity" may be related to what White subsequently described, in a letter of November 7, as Major McDowell's "acceptability in Whitehall terms through his service in the Judge Advocate General's Department". White concluded by repeating Gilchrist's assurance to Gregson: "We shall do what we can to exploit this opportunity."

But it seems to have been low-key exploitation. Gilchrist suggested, in another letter to White on October 15, that "it might be useful if this gentleman [McDowell] could be given a comfortable lunch by someone or other on one of his fairly frequent visits to London". He suggested that such a lunch should be hosted by John Peck (who succeeded Gilchrist as Ambassador in Dublin in April 1970 and who was then an Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office) with White "at third man or longstop". Peck was happy to oblige, although he pleaded that he had "very little idea what this is all about and would need a lot of briefing. May I see some copies of the Irish Times?"

"Mr Peck has now seen copies of the Irish Times," annotated White on October 30. There the trail comes to an end. I have found no record, alas, of Major McDowell's "comfortable lunch" or lunches with the mandarins of the Foreign Office. Nor have I so far uncovered any comparable references to Major McDowell in the Foreign Office records for 1970-'72.

The aftermath of Jack Lynch's "we can no longer stand by" speech and the British commitment of troops in Northern Ireland in August 1969 was a particularly confrontational moment in relations between the British and Irish governments and Major McDowell's seeking guidance from Whitehall rather than from Merrion Street must be placed in that context. Relations between the two governments began to improve, however, after Jack Lynch's conciliatory Tralee speech on September 20 and the British would have been well aware of the inflammatory impact upon the Irish government of the discovery that they were marking the card of the chief executive of the Irish Times. Major McDowell could not have known, moreover, that the secret blueprint for the introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland had been drawn up in February 1969: that, in effect, the British Government had already lost confidence in Northern Ireland's exclusively Protestant regime to a degree unsuspected by "the five (Protestant) owners of the Irish Times".

Ronan Fanning is Professor of Modern History at University College Dublin

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