State papers: Martin McGuinness’s softer tone under scrutiny

1990: ‘It was clear that the debate between the bullet and the ballot was not dying away’

Turning to the position of Sinn Féin and the IRA, Dermot Gallagher expressed ‘great interest’  in the recent statement from Sinn Féin and, particularly, from Martin McGuinness (its vice-president).Photograph: Matt Kavanagh.

Turning to the position of Sinn Féin and the IRA, Dermot Gallagher expressed ‘great interest’ in the recent statement from Sinn Féin and, particularly, from Martin McGuinness (its vice-president).Photograph: Matt Kavanagh.

 

Martin McGuinness’ role within republicanism is highlighted in previously confidential files declassified today in Belfast from 1990.

The softer tone of recent statements from the leading Derry republican and future Northern Ireland deputy first minister were raised by Irish officials at an Anglo-Irish meeting in Dublin on February 27th, 1990.

The meeting, minuted by RO Miles of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), was attended by the British ambassador to Ireland, Nichola Fenn, NIO officials and an Irish team led by Dermot Gallagher, head of the Anglo-Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Turning to the position of Sinn Féin and the IRA, Dermot Gallagher expressed “great interest” (according to the NIO account) in the recent statement from Sinn Féin and, particularly, from Martin McGuinness (its vice-president). “Were they worried about being left out of something? Did their disillusionment reflect the recent [Sinn Féin] Ard Fheis or developments in Eastern Europe?

“Were they a late fruit of the SDLP/Sinn Féin talks? Was Adams disillusioned because of the political failure of Sinn Féin in the South? Why was McGuinness,of all people, taking the lead?”

Responding for the NIO, Burns “said it was clear that the debate between the bullet and the ballot was not dying away. Perhaps the Derry Brigade of the IRA was taking a softer position now though this could also be a tactic to spoil political development.”

At this point Gallagher asked the British officials if they were thinking of responding to McGuinness’s remarks, “for example by repeating Mr Brooke’s remarks about British ‘neutrality’ in NI”.

Burns replied cryptically that the Secretary of State’s remarks on neutrality “had been in response to a particular need of Mr Hume”.

In relation to McGuinness’s comments, Gallagher “thought the Derry IRA might be influenced by the death of two old people in a booby-trap bomb” (a reference to an IRA “mistake” in Derry in August 1988 when a bomb in a flat intended for the security forces went off, killing two pensioners) and the killing of a teenager, Charles Love, on January 28th, 1990 when a bomb intended for soldiers exploded on Derry’s Walls during a Bloody Sunday march.

A third factor, he felt, was the economic rehabilitation of the north west.

The Irish official asked his NIO colleagues if the British could not do the same in West Belfast.

Burns replied that “Derry was self-contained in a way that Belfast could not be and that local politicians in Nationalist Derry were more effective than those in Belfast”. Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian, journalist and commentator. He is a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries.