Disconnect, or Continuity? The Gardiner Committee in Perspective

By Michael Livesey

In January 1975, the Gardiner Committee on Terrorism and Subversion published its final Report on ‘Measures to Deal with Terrorism in Northern Ireland’. The Report made several recommendations to the Government of Harold Wilson, relating to security and prison administration. Chief amongst these were recommendations to abolish Special Category Status in Northern Irish prisons, and in future to house those convicted of scheduled offences in a new, state-of-the-art facility at The Maze/Long Kesh.

Introduced by Secretary of State William Whitelaw shortly after the imposition of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland, Special Category Status was afforded to those inmates convicted of crimes related to the conflict (of whom there were 1,119 when the Gardiner Committee submitted its Report).[1] Paramilitary convicts were accommodated in prisoner-of-war style camps – where they were permitted to wear their own clothes and associate freely, and where they could avoid conventional prison work.

The Gardiner Committee took major issue with the Special Category designation, in particular because of the legitimacy this kind of ‘political’ imprisonment conferred upon paramilitary groups. In recognising paramilitary violence as ‘political’, the Committee feared that Special Category Status put that violence on a level equivalent to the violence of state law enforcementand thus endowed paramilitary aims with the same legitimacy as state aims. The Gardiner Report refuted this legitimacy in absolute terms, stating that those involved in violence were ‘not heroes but criminals; not the pioneers of political change but its direst enemies’.[2]

The Wilson Government adopted this recommendation to abolish Special Category Status (alongside other Gardiner Committee recommendations) through Secretary of State Merlyn Rees’ ‘Ulsterisation, normalisation, criminalisation’ programme.[3] After 1 March 1976, those involved in paramilitary offences were convicted as ‘criminals’, rather than ‘politicals’. In David Beresford’s words, ‘great emphasis was [subsequently] placed by the authorities on the “criminality” of terrorism, with a stream of rhetoric from politicians and police commanders referring to the “godfathers” of the IRA, to “gangs”, “thugs” and “racketeering”’.[4]

This ‘normalisation’ programme is best approached as a discursive programme. That is, a programme relating to the ways that the Northern Ireland conflict was thought of and spoken about. As Philip Schlesinger puts it, the Government’s strategy after Gardiner amounted to a form of ‘linguistic surgery’: qualifying ideas about which forms of violence/political activity were or were not legitimate.[5]

Many historians of the Northern Ireland conflict have seen this discursive programme as marking a tipping point in British understandings of Northern Ireland and the ‘Troubles’. ‘Normalisation’ is conceived as a moment of discursive discontinuity: a rupture in ways of thinking about Northern Ireland and its conflict, in which a new discourse conceiving the ‘Troubles’ as criminality/terrorism displaced any prior discourse on their political origins.

Kieran McEvoy, for example, describes the Gardiner Report as providing ‘a clear template for a change of strategy’, leading to ‘a dramatic change in conflict management’.[6] Similarly, McKittrick and McVea characterise the discursive pathway from Gardiner to the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 (and, thence, to Sinn Féin’s renaissance as an electoral force) as ‘one of the most important watersheds of the troubles’.[7]

I would like to re-evaluate this thesis of discursive discontinuity around the Gardiner Report and ‘normalisation’. In contrast to prior authors, I argue that the Gardiner Committee absorbed long-term discourses about Northern Ireland into its operations and conclusions. Specifically, I contend that the Committee based its recommendations on an idea of Northern Ireland’s ‘abnormality’: an idea which was structured around the existence of a troubling ‘communities problem’ in Northern Ireland. The absorption of this idea into the Government’s post-1975 ‘normalisation’ programme thus represented a realisation of historic conceptual rules about Northern Ireland, rather than their abandonment – a moment of discursive transcendence, rather than discontinuity.

‘The normal conventions of majority rule’

The Committee began with a fundamental assumption about the nature of Northern Irish society: that it is ‘abnormal’ because of its ‘communities problem’. Lord Gardiner epitomised this assumption at the Committee’s 13th session, stating that ‘community relations is at the heart of the Northern Ireland problem’.[8] This conception of Northern Ireland as defined by community fragmentation, so central to the recently-failed Sunningdale proposals, bled into the Gardiner Report’s conclusions. In its opening statements, the Report framed Northern Ireland as ‘not a homogeneous society. It consists of two communities which… are divided in culture, religion and political sympathies. In a plural society such as this, the normal conventions of majority rule will not work’.[9]

Such an approach, which conceived Northern Irish society through the lens of community division above all else, was embedded in the Gardiner Report’s grammatical logic. The Report consistently operationalised ‘the minority or the majority community’ as proper nouns, making them concrete entities in their own right – without regard to the potential instability of monolithic community identities.[10] Immediately, the reader is forced to absorb a sense of Northern Ireland’s abnormality: this is a society that has to be spoken of in the plural, rather than the singular.

The Gardiner Committee’s assumptions about a Northern Irish communities problem carried into a concern about the absence of ‘normal’ policing conditions. According to the Report, the lack of community cohesion in Northern Ireland inhibited ‘the full range of normal police functions’ and complicated the delivery of ‘normal policing duties’.[11] The Report set Northern Irish policing in opposition to that in ‘a normal English county police force’, where social cohesion facilitated ordinary law enforcement measures.[12] Such deviation from the British norm required ‘modifications of the normal procedures’, and a ‘departure from the normal criminal trial’ – departures advanced by the Committee through recommendations like the creation of a specific ‘terrorism’ offence.[13]

Such recommendations’ acceptability, and even comprehensibility, rested upon a mutual understanding of Northern Irish society as an anomaly: with community fragmentation engendering extraordinary security challenges.

Here lies the paradox at the heart of Government strategy in Northern Ireland after Gardiner. The abolition of Special Category was part of an effort to ‘normalise’ the situation. By transferring paramilitary convicts to ‘Ordinary Decent Criminal’ status, it was hoped that understandings of the conflict could be reoriented along the lines of localised law-and-order disturbance – as opposed to a ‘political’ civil war. That is, along the lines of a ‘normal’ security situation.

But this very reorientation, this project to ‘normalise’ Northern Ireland, presupposed its existing abnormality. A policy to normalise, say, Guildford or Swansea would be absurd. At the conceptual level, one has to assume Northern Ireland’s deviance in order to appreciate the ‘normalisation’ policy. This problem of ‘Northern Irish abnormality’ is the discursive rule which Gardiner and Rees absorbed: it is the language through which their recommendations and policies speak. And it represents, as Nick Vaughan-Williams has argued, part of a ‘frozen regime of thought’ on Northern Ireland.[14]

An ecology of discourse

Any discursive shift after Gardiner was merely superficial, therefore – and carried with it a continuity of thinking about Northern Ireland. Rather than departing from this ‘frozen regime of thought’, the Gardiner Committee and Rees Secretariat worked through it. ‘Normalisation’ was predicated on a mutual conceptual currency, relating to Northern Ireland’s original sin of abnormality.

In the Committee’s own words, Northern Ireland was a place where ‘normal conditions give way to grave disorder and lawlessness, with extensive terrorism causing widespread loss of life and limb and the wholesale destruction of property’.[15] This vision of a Wild West, at the threshold of order/disorder, is at least as old as Northern Ireland’s existence as a political entity; and it is central to the discourse informing ‘normalisation’.

Such discursive continuity discloses a theoretical insight.

Discourses are not invented overnight; and a statement of discourse is only ever intelligible insofar as it resonates with existing conceptual assumptions. Indeed, if a discourse is too abstract (if it departs too radically from conceptual conventions) it is unlikely to make sense to the listener. As Nietzsche put it, the ideas we have about the world, ‘belong just as much to a system as do the members of the fauna of a continent’.[16] The role of the critical reader is to explore how discursive statements connect to each other, within their conceptual ecosystem.

As a moment in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict, the Gardiner Report and ‘normalisation’ policy only make sense when we appreciate their absorption and rearticulation of historic rules structuring the way we think about Northern Ireland, and its deviance: constituting new recommendations in terms of old patterns of thought.[17] If the Gardiner Report reads as a discursive discontinuity, it is only because we have not distanced ourselves sufficiently from the conceptual assumptions which made the project to ‘normalise’ Northern Ireland possible.

Instigating this distance affords a double benefit. Firstly, it enables us to set events of the Northern Ireland conflict (like the Gardiner Report) within their historical context: a realisation of long-standing conceptual conventions, rather than their radicalisation. Secondly, per Vaughan-Williams’ argument, it requires us to critically reflect on our own writings about the ‘Troubles’ – and to challenge ourselves not to recycle those same ‘frozen’ assumptions.


[1] Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 151.

[2] TNA/CJ 4/1038, Gardiner Report, 1975, para. 8.

[3] Henceforth referred to as ‘normalisation’ – since the idea of normalising the situation in Northern Ireland was a catch-all for the various policies in ‘Ulsterisation’ and ‘criminalisation’.

[4] David Beresford, Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), 15.

[5] Philip Schlesinger, “‘Terrorism’, the Media, and the Liberal-Democratic State: A Critique of the Orthodoxy,” in Terrorism in Ireland, ed. Yonah Alexander and Alan O’Day, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 215.

[6] Kieran McEvoy, Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland: Resistance, Management, and Release (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 227–32.

[7] David McKittrick and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict, 2nd ed. (New York: Viking Press, 2012), 159.

[8] TNA/CJ 4/2201, Minutes of the Gardiner Commitee 13th Session, 1974, 49. (Emphasis added.)

[9] TNA/CJ 4/1038, Gardiner Report, para. 4c. (Emphasis added.)

[10] TNA/CJ 4/1038, para. 8. (Emphasis added.)

[11] TNA/CJ 4/1038, paras. 95–99. (Emphasis added.)

[12] TNA/CJ 4/1038, para. 64. (Emphasis added.)

[13] TNA/CJ 4/1038, para. 25. (Emphasis added.)

[14] Nick Vaughan‐Williams, “Towards a Problematisation of the Problematisations That Reduce Northern Ireland to a ‘Problem,’” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 9, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 521, https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230600941978.

[15] TNA/CJ 4/1038, para. 140.

[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, ed. Reginald J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 49.

[17] Rainer Hülsse and Alexander Spencer, “The Metaphor of Terror: Terrorism Studies and the Constructivist Turn,” Security Dialogue 39, no. 6 (December 1, 2008): 588, https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010608098210.

(Image: Maze Prison, Skin – ubx Flickr Account)

Michael Livesey is a PhD student in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics. His research focuses on the ‘genealogy’ of the discourse on ‘terrorism’: exploring how the idea of ‘terrorism’ emerged from historical conceptual frameworks, in contexts like the Northern Ireland conflict. Alongside his PhD, he works in the UK Parliament and tweets (very infrequently) @MALivesey.

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