State Papers 2020



A round-up of the state papers released so far in Dublin, London and Belfast in the annual release of declassified documents.


A top Irish diplomat warned of “deep British anxiety” about the IRA’s capacity to escalate its campaign of violence at the time in 1990.

“The British clearly take the view that the Provisionals can continue their campaign of violence indefinitely at the present, or even at an increased levels,” Brendan McMahon wrote in a memo to the taoiseach.

Mr McMahon said the Tories had “privately” emphasised during a meeting in London how “shaken” they had been by the IRA assassination of Tory MP (and notorious warmonger) Ian Gow in July of that year.

The RUC police chief at the time, Hugh Annesley, had also warned that “5,000 troops could be swallowed up in any one area of the Border”.

McMahon said that from his contacts he suspected the British realised the IRA could “bring down any new political structures in the North which exclude them”.


The Dublin government refused to assist the wrongly convicted Birmingham Six when they appealed against their convictions in 1990 for fear of “embarrassment,” according to newly declassified state files.

The documents prove that the concern of the Fianna Fáil government throughout the Birmingham Six appeal was for its own potential embarrassment, rather than the welfare of its wrongly convicted citizens.

Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, John Walker, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny and Billy Power served 17 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of involvement in IRA attacks in Birmingham, England in 1974.

Their lawyer, Gareth Peirce, found evidence proving their innocence. An appeal against conviction was launched and she asked the Dublin government to fund their bail to which they were entitled, but they refused.

Ms Peirce made the request in late 1990, just months before the men walked free from prison after their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal in London.

The papers reveal that the “embarrassment” which Dublin feared included the possibility of a refusal of the British government to accept Dublin’s bail guarantee; as well as the possible failure of the men’s appeal against conviction, despite the new evidence.


US president-elect Joe Biden argued in the US Senate 30 years ago for the release of the Birmingham Six.

Newly released files include a Department of Foreign Affairs briefing about political manoeuvring on Capitol Hill in support of the jailed Irishmen.

A year before they were eventually freed, after 16 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, Massachusetts representative Brian Donnelly tabled a motion in Congress demanding their release.

The January 1990 motion called for quashing of convictions of the six, and for then US president George Bush Snr to raise the case with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The motion, tabled days after Donnelly visited Hill in prison, had 109 co-sponsors, the Department of Foreign Affairs memo notes.

“It is understood the British embassy has actively lobbied against the motion,” it noted.

The newly declassified file states that then senator Joseph Biden, as second ranking Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, “introduced a broadly similar motion in the Senate on March 9”.


The UVF insisted that the UDA be excluded from a proposal to forge peace talks between loyalists and the IRA, state papers have revealed.

The papers recount an attempt by two chaplains inside Long Kesh to persuade both sides of the sectarian conflict to engage in talks began in July 1988 with separate engagements with the leaderships of the UVF and IRA.

The loyalist grouping claimed its rival, the UDA would derail the process due to the fact it was “corrupt and riddled with informers”, the 1990 Irish government communique reported.


US Congressmen raised concerns in 1997 about the case of three Belfast men sentenced to life imprisonment for the IRA killing of two British soldiers.

A British memo noted that Congressman Ben Gilman and two other Congressmen, Peter King and James Walsh, had raised concerns about the men’s case with the head of the British government in Ireland.

In March 1988, mourners responded angrily to the incursion into a republican funeral in west Belfast by two plain clothes British soldiers. The men were taken from their car and subsequently executed by the Provisional IRA.

Some mourners faced prosecution on very serious charges despite having no involvement in the IRA action.

The prosecutions amounted to one of the most intensive police and legal operations ever mounted in Britain or Ireland, with a large team of detectives and huge resources devoted to the inquiry.

Three men were handed life sentences despite taking no part in the killings and were not even present when it happened. The convictions were widely seen internationally as an attempt to inflict community punishment on republican west Belfast.

In a note to Congressman Gilman, dated January 10, 1997, the congressmen were told that their representations would be taken into account by the Life Sentence Review Board. However, the men were subsequently released under the Good Friday Agreement.


Then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher launched a bitter attack on Ireland’s Supreme Court during a private meeting with Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, weeks after it refused to extradite two IRA Volunteers who had escaped from Long Kesh prison in the North.

“Your Supreme Court is really something,” she complained to Haughey, during a tetchy encounter in a drawing room in 10 Downing Street in April 1990, newly declassified files disclose.

“Really, your Supreme Court is something!” she repeated. “These are not political offences. They are criminal acts.”

Some weeks before, Dermot Finucane and James Pius Clarke, who were among 38 prisoners who escaped from Long Kesh in 1983, were released by a court in Dublin after Ireland’s highest court upheld their appeals against extradition.

Both had been serving 18-year sentences. The Supreme Court cited “the probable risk” that the pair would be attacked in prison in the North.


One 1997 file of more than a thousand pages released at the Public Record Office in Belfast deals solely with a strategic plan to “re-image” the old Stormont parliament to appeal to Catholics and young people.

The documents reveal not only that new Prime Minister Tony Blair was heavily involved in the plan, but that it was given an exceptionally high priority in order to alter its “perception as a symbol of unionist domination”.

The effort came as Sinn Féin continued to insist on “no return to Stormont” in talks and alternatives to devolution, such as Joint Authority by London and Dublin, were being discussed.

But British plans were well advanced to rebrand the notorious site in the eyes of nationalists. Plans involved “controlled access to public areas by tourists and schoolchildren”, functions for visiting VIPs, charities, and public bodies, and a “carefully-designed permanent historical exhibition”.

In the grounds, classical and popular musical events were planned to include an Elton John concert and the hosting of international cricket matches, both of which subsequently went ahead.


Proposals to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine with an ecumenical service in Liverpool to coincide with President Mary Robinson’s first visit to Britain were vetoed in 1996 by British Prime Minister John Major.

Newly-released files show the service had been considered for several years. The possibility of a British event to mark the Famine was first raised by British officials in 1994.

One felt warned that such a service could “stir up more emotion than it spent”, while a colleague wrote that “it would be necessary to strike a balance”.

In a heavily-censored memo in 1996, senior official Peter Bell informed colleagues that he regarded the proposal with “dismay”. He wrote that by hosting such a service, the British government risked “perpetuating the Republican view of Irish history that the great problem is Britain’s relationship with Ireland whereas, in fact, it is the relations between the two communities within Northern Ireland”.

Bell’s concerns were shared by the then British foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who feared “provoking recriminations against Britain from Irish Nationalists”.

The final decision to veto the event by Mr Major followed the breakdown of the peace process in February 1996.


Files on dozens of republicans who were interned shortly before, or during, the Second World War have been declassified after more than 80 years.

The first file, dated December 22, 1938, includes details of 34 men interned by Stormont home affairs minister Dawson Bates, a founder of the original UVF.

The files reveal the internees’ names, addresses, occupations and ‘suspected rank’ in the IRA, including Frank McGrogan of North Queen Street in north Belfast, a window-cleaner and listed as ‘Officer, G Company, Belfast Battalion’.

The internees’ occupations range from labourers to clerks and electricians. Among those interned were several veterans of the War of Independence.

Joseph Cullen of Rockmore Road in west Belfast, was listed as President of the Old IRA Association.

John (Sean) McNally of Ardilea Street in the city – later a Nationalist Party Senator at Stormont and secretary of the Anti-Partition League in the 1950s – is described as a principal leader in the IRA.

The internment orders were issued under the notorious 1922 Special Powers Act.

The files also show that 45 people were later arrested following the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

Among those arrested was Jimmy Drumm, the future husband of leading Belfast republican, Maire Drumm, who was killed by the UDA in Belfast’s Mater Hospital in 1976; veteran Derry republican, Neil Gillespie, and Portaferry journalist Liam MacReachtain.

A total of 827 internment orders were made during World War Two. Most internees were released in July 1945 following the end of the war in Europe in May.


Britain complained that the 26 County authorities were being “too pernickety” about British Army and RAF incursions into Dublin;s jurisdiction.

A September 1990 exchange, which has been released after 30 years, revealed British petulance that the Irish authorities complained about “every” incursion.

The official said there had “always been a feeling on the part of the northern authorities that we should not be too pernickety about incursions”.

The Irish official noted that they felt a need to explain to their British counterpart why they raised concerns about each incident. A number of reasons were outlined, including the potential risk of attack on British Crown forces while they were in the South.

“Furthermore, if we did not protest all incursions we ran the risk that the Northern security forces would take it that we are willing to tolerate at least some incursions,” the official said.


The Orange Order suggested in 1996 that a new commission intended to rule on contentious marches in the north Ireland should be used to reroute traffic outside Gaelic sports events in order “to redress the balance”.

The apparently serious proposal was intended to address complaints that the new Parades Commission would concentrate on the Protestant marching season and other unionist events, and fail to limit activities by nationalists.


* A further review of state papers will be published in our next regular edition on Friday, 8 January.

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