State papers

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A round-up of the state papers which have been selected for release for the New Year from archives in Belfast, Dublin and London.

 

Former British Prime Minister John Major admitted privately in 1992 that he did not believe the Provisional IRA could be beaten “militarily”.

According to an Irish Government memo, the British Prime Minister made the comments at meeting in Downing Street in February 1992, where he hosted newly elected Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and senior Irish ministers.

The meeting, which came weeks before the Westminster general election, was held amid the backdrop of ongoing talks between the main political parties in the north of Ireland.

At the meeting, the Taoiseach asks Mr Major directly: “Do you think we can defeat the IRA?”

He responds: “Militarily that would be very difficult: I would not say this in public, of course, but, in private, I would say, possibly no.”

The Irish leader told the British Prime Minister that he believes the IRA are “serious” about peace. Several days earlier, Sinn Féin had published a document called Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland.

Mr Major, according to the Irish memo, said: “If we pursue that, we could run into very serious opposition here: you know that more bombs are threatened in Whitehall. If they are serious, they are certainly going the wrong way about it.”

The IRA had attacked 10 Downing Street during a Cabinet meeting the previous year.

Mr Major continues: “They will not get peace by putting bombs in Whitehall – rather the opposite. Why do they behave as they are now behaving if they want peace?”

Mr Reynolds tells the British Prime Minister that “they always do that”.

“Before a cessation of violence, they always become more active. They always like it to appear that if a ceasefire comes about, then they have not acted from weakness.”

“Is there any way in which we could look at the language, with a view to moving things along?” Mr Reynolds asks, referring to the Sinn Féin text. He insists that “peace may well be in sight”.

“I think there may be an opportunity. There may be something in it. I am certain that the IRA are serious (about peace). We may well be able to get peace by following this up. I know that you will find things objectionable in it but the text is not written in stone. I won’t be found lacking in courage,” he said.

Reynolds added that he would be happier to fail than not to have tried at all.

 

The then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told British prime minister Tony Blair only two weeks before the Omagh bombing in August 1998 that the security forces in the 26 Counties were “keeping a handle” on the Real IRA.

He said the breakaway armed group had “somewhere close to a hundred people” but “did not seem to be “overly active”.

Hours after the conversation took place, the group attacked a commercial target in the centre of Banbridge, County Down, without fatalities after an area around the bomb was cleared. However, two weeks later, 29 people would die in a similar bomb attack in Omagh, County Tyrone, when civilians were directed by RUC police towards the device.

The Dublin and London governments have rejected persistent calls for a public inquiry into the Omagh bomb and evidence it was tracked to its destination by state forces.

On the morning after the tragedy, Ahern and Blair met in Stormont House in Belfast and moved swiftly against the political leaders of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which had links to the Real IRA.

Ahern told Blair “we are looking one hundred per cent at [Michael] McKevitt and [Bernadette] Sands and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the Real IRA”.

There was also an immediate focus on using public outrage to get Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to issue a statement “which would have the effect of people understanding the the war was over” and move the Provisional IRA closer to decommissioning its weapons.

The government, senior officials and Irish diplomats spent months in 1998 trying to come up with a formula of words that would move the IRA closer to surrendering its arms.

In a meeting with senior Irish officials, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said demands for a statement on arms were only exacerbating problems for him in managing the process. “The only possible answer was a no-no, going nowhere except into a brick wall,” he said.

The issue dominated most conversations between taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair.

In a meeting with an Irish diplomat in December that year, SDLP politician Séamus Mallon noted that Blair was also “almost obsessed with the subject of decommissioning”.

 

Tony Blair told the Orange Order to call for an immediate end to its Drumcree protest hours after the deaths of three young brothers in a unionist paramilitary firebomb attack.

The call came during talks between the then Labour prime minister and the ‘Grand Master’ of the anti-Catholic organisation, Robert Saulters.

It followed the UVF arson attack that killed Richard, Mark, and Jason Quinn, aged between eight and ten, in their home in Ballymoney, County Antrim on July 12 1998. There was widespread shock following the loyalist attack in which the three children died.

It happened amid tensions linked to provocative Orange parades which were being rerouted by the newly established Parades Commission away from the nationalist Garvaghy Road.

Thousands of Orangemen and loyalists were occupying the area around Drumcree church from July 5, insisting they would not leave until the parade, which resulted in violence in previous years, was permitted.

Jonathan Powell’s letter to the NIO official revealed that Mr Blair said it was “essential” for the Orange Order to call on the Portadown District to leave the hill and allow dialogue to take place.

 

Files reveal that the late 26 County Taoiseach Charles Haughey suggested to then British Prime Minister John Major in 1991 that Sinn Féin might be included in the peace process even though the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle was still at its height.

At a meeting between the two men in June 1991, Haughey told Major that the prime minister was in a position of strength to deal with unionists.

“There is a mood and feeling even among the military people [IRA] that if the political people [Sinn Fein] could attempt to achieve goals through political means they would cease,” he said.

It was the first time that Haughey had suggested to the British government including Sinn Féin in talks.

The initiative on Haughey’s part was likely to have been prompted by a speech by former British Direct Ruler Peter Brooke the previous November in which he said Britain had no selfish or strategic interest in the North; and the taoiseach’s sanctioning of secret talks between a Fianna Fáil delegation and Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin formally entered talks following the first IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

While acknowledging that the IRA was a “force in the land”, Haughey argued that “we must end the violence and its causes”.

He said he would like the three suggested options of the New Ireland Forum of 1984 to be examined: a unitary state; joint sovereignty; and a federal/confederal arrangement. The previous British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously dismissed those options in her “out, out, out” speech of the same year.

 

A member of the North’s Probation Board believed Provisional IRA commanders in the prison intended to sabotage their own escape tunnel from Long Kesh in 1997 order to prevent damage to the peace process, but that it was a useful distraction.

“The project would have had value as a form of occupational therapy to keep prisoners occupied and away from drugs,” according to a member of the Northern Ireland Probation Board, who spoke to Irish officials.

The tunnel was discovered by prison authorities before it was ready, but Breidge Gadd claimed that had the tunnel been completed the IRA would have taken steps to ensure that no prisoner escaped.

She said the IRA command structure in the prison was supportive of the peace process and did not want the tunnel to succeed amid fears it would allow “hard-line republican prisoners” who opposed the peace process to escape.

In an internal memo, Seán Ó hUiginn, the head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast, wrote that Ms Gadd had also criticised the “complacency” of the British government’s reaction to the escape bid, arguing that this affair would have precipitated a major political furore and ministerial resignations in any other jurisdiction.

At the same time, Ms Gadd claimed that the republican leadership in the prison would have been aware that escaping prisoners who were subsequently caught would be facing stiff additional jail sentences at a time when their colleagues might be released following a new ceasefire.

“The Republican command, who support [Sinn Féin leader Gerry] Adams and the political wing of the movement, was worried about the involvement in the escape bid of a number of hard-line Republican prisoners who wish to see a full-scale return to IRA violence and who could have been expected to stir up trouble had they succeeded in escaping,” wrote Mr Ó hUiginn.

He added that Ms Gadd told him the republican leadership in the prison always intended to intervene “to halt the escape attempt shortly before the tunnel was finished”.

“They would also have been conscious, of course, of the propaganda value of even a failed escape bid.

“Whether they tipped off the prison authorities or merely allowed some detail to attract the latter’s attention is unimportant. One way or another, they were going to abort the operation.”

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