Communications from 1996 marked “confidential” argued that Sinn Féin would have to bring the Provisional movement with them by remaining “faithful to the Republican myth” and claimed the party appealed to “Her Majesty’s Government” for “help” in moving towards a peace agreement.
Now retired, Quentin Thomas (pictured) was political director of the NIO and the British government’s chief contact with the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin during the 1990s.
Mr Thomas frequently met Sinn Féin figures such as Martin McGuinness. In April 25, 1996, he titled a file ‘The next ceasefire: Toasted feet, the lobster pot and parity of esteem’.
It was an assessment of the ‘Sinn Féin/IRA’ perspective, with a stated objective to “co-opt the republicans to constitutional methods and procedures”.
Referring to the Canary Wharf bombing from February 1996, Mr Thomas said there was “an attempt to blame it on British mishandling of the 1994 ceasefire and unionist intransigence”.
Mr Thomas admitted that “substantial bodies of opinion” held the Government “at least partially responsible for the end of the ceasefire”.
He believed that a forthcoming ceasefire created an opportunity for a “permanent end to the violence”.
Mr Thomas said that, at the time, “significant elements” of the IRA’s leadership “have concluded they cannot win” and wanted to bring the armed struggle to an end.
“I believe the Provisionals have been engaged in that most difficult of operations: managing a process of transition which necessitates acknowledging to its own followers, at the right moment, that their principle objective cannot be achieved,” he continued.
“In military terms, they have been trying to cover an orderly retreat.
“One of the most remarkable features of the IRA message through the link of February 1993, the authenticity of which they inevitably denied, was that it included an explicit appeal to HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] for help, implicitly in managing their own supporters through this transition.
“(Even if this is right, it has to be said that the intransigence Sinn Féin has so far shown in dialogue makes it difficult for HMG, or anyone else, to help them!)”
The NIO viewed Sinn Féin as “authoritarian, absolutist, conspiratorial and intransigent”, and though political in nature, it was “militaristic in mode”.
It accepted Sinn Féin must “maintain fidelity to its past” and to the “republican myth, of which it claims guardianship in this and future generations”.
The documents said the Sinn Féin leadership had to show its followers that the “settlement is honourable”, that the armed struggle “played a significant part in achieving it”, the movement “remained faithful to the republican myth” and that it “was not defeated”.
Shedding light on the document title, Thomas stated: “Nobody volunteers to have his feet held to the fire, and no political leader can allow that to happen without trouble from his supporters, but lobsters can be lured into the pot.”
The NIO claimed that the Provisionals had been “weakened” by a “reform programme” tackling issues such as “employment discrimination” and “economic regeneration” which had “denied them ground”.
Providing feedback on the file at the time, Conservative MP Michael Ancram said he believed the IRA agreed the ceasefire because of an assertion by the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds that the “pan-nationalist consensus and front (including the US) would achieve a united Ireland by peaceful means”.
He added: “When they heard that negotiation would not guarantee that and that they would have to accept the consent principle in terms of the ‘statelet of Northern Ireland’, they found that a bridge too far.”