NI official bemoaned ‘emotional’ stance in Republic on unity

British papers: NIO keen to foster unionist-SDLP contacts after leak on secret talks

November 1985: Then taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with then  British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The agreement  gave the Irish government an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and was strongly opposed by unionists. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

November 1985: Then taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The agreement gave the Irish government an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and was strongly opposed by unionists. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

 

The Dublin government’s “emotional and historical attachment to unity is so strong that they find it nearly impossible to accept the principle of consent” in the North, a senior British civil servant concluded in a memo written in 1988.

The document is among British files relating to Northern Ireland released in Belfast today.

In November 1988, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) was keen to foster contacts between unionists and the SDLP after news leaked out of secret talks in Duisburg, West Germany, under the chairmanship of a Lutheran pastor. The talks had included DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, Austin Currie, of the SDLP and Jack Allen, of the UUP. They centred on unionist demands for the workings of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to be suspended to facilitate inter-party negotiations.

Confusion

The agreement signed in 1985 gave the Irish government an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and was strongly opposed by unionists. In a memo to Tom King, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, dated November 22nd, 1988, Ian Burns, deputy under-secretary at the NIO, reported confusion among the parties in relation to the so-called “Duisburg Proposals”.

In particular, he noted “John Hume seems to reckon that anything the Unionists would agree to in relation to the [ANGLO IRISH]Secretariat would be something he could not live with and vice versa.

“Given the central importance of the Secretariat [based at Maryfield, near Belfast] to both political groups I suspect that Hume is right but it is disappointing that he does not seem to be trying to find a way round it in the way some Unionists have done,” Mr Burns wrote.

“If Duisburg collapses the immediate prospect for further political progress is slim.”

Unification

Turning to the role of the Irish government, led by Charles Haughey, Mr Burns felt this was one of the keys to political development in the North. However, he went on: “They see the Agreement as a stage in the process towards eventual unification. Their emotional and historical attachment to unity is so strong that they find it nearly impossible to accept the principle of consent (which they endorse), meaning that NI will, by the wish of its population, remain separate from the Republic for the foreseeable future...”

He said Dublin and the SDLP spoke of the need for unionists to “speak to Dublin without thinking what they could say in reply to [UNIONIST]fears that the Republic wants to swallow them up.” He added: “The signals which the Irish give to both the SDLP and the Unionists make political development in NI more difficult and in their hearts the Irish may not mind since successful devolution might be incompatible with the concept of NI as a ‘failed entity’”.

In his view, the British government could not allow this Irish approach to go unchallenged and he suggested prime minister Margaret Thatcher should take it up with Mr Haughey at the forthcoming European summit in Rhodes.