Britain considered banning Sinn Féin after Harrods bombing
Official warned the party was more likely to ‘confront the government rather than disband itself’, 1983 papers show
The aftermath of the IRA car bombing of Harrods in December 1983. Photograph: Getty Images
Following the IRA bombing of Harrod
s department store in London in December 1983, in which six people were killed, the British government considered banning Sinn Féin, according to files released in Belfast.
A memo from JM Lyon, private secretary to James Prior, the Northern secretary, said Prior and minister of state Nicholas Scott held a meeting with officials on December 19th, 1983, to discuss the position of Sinn Féin in light of the London bombing and a statement by taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald that he was considering proscribing Sinn Féin.
There were, the memo acknowledged, considerable drawbacks to this course of action. “It would be seen as a reaction to the London bombing when terrorist outrages in Northern Ireland had brought no such response. Sinn Féin might well change its nom de guerre . . .”
On the other hand, the advantages included that such a step would be seen as a proper response to terrorism.
Concluding the discussion, Mr Prior said ministers were not yet in a position to form a final view. It was agreed that much would depend on the attitude the Irish government eventually took. If Dublin decided against proscription, it was unlikely that Westminster could proceed.
In a note to officials on the same day, AJE Brennan of the Northern Ireland Office noted the Ulster Unionists had demanded membership of Sinn Féin be made illegal, while Peter Robinson of the DUP complained “it took an incident in London to raise the question there and in Dublin”.
The official argued that proscription should be introduced only if it would work effectively without a counter-productive bind on the security forces or an adverse reaction on the political scene.
“It is not clear that either of these criteria will necessarily be met,” he wrote. “We do not know how Sinn Féin would react to proscription but [it is likely] that it would confront the government rather than disband itself.
“Confrontation could force the authorities into the need to take action against large numbers of people. It would make inevitable the arrest of Adams et al and those engaged in activities associated with Sinn Féin such as advice centres.”
In a minute containing a contrary view, H Doyne-Ditmas of the liaison staff at Stormont House felt the Provisionals must not be allowed “to have their cake and eat it”. At present they were able “to exploit our democratic and open society” by ‘putting terrorist pressure on [the British government]” while also applying political pressure.
Mr Doyne-Ditmas rejected the argument that it would be necessary to ban the Ulster Defence Association at the same time, adding: “Unlike Sinn Féin-PIRA, the UDA are currently little involved in organising or even inciting violence.”
However, a note of caution was sounded in a letter to officials from Sir Ewart Bell, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, dated December 19th, 1983. He warned that if Sinn Féin were proscribed in both the UK and the Republic, the reaction would be minimal except in the North, where the government would have “to carry the burden of the martyrdom campaign and the ongoing battle for the minds of young Catholic voters in west Belfast and elsewhere”.