SDLP leader resisted British government pressure to abandon all-Ireland solution

NI secretary of state told Hume to be clear on what was and was not feasible

John Hume and Séamus Mallon at the New Ireland Forum in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

John Hume and Séamus Mallon at the New Ireland Forum in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 01:00

The SDLP leader in 1984 John Hume resisted pressure from the British Government at that time to abandon his search for an all-Ireland solution in favour of an accommodation with Unionism, according to confidential files released in Belfast.

The meeting between Mr Hume and the British Secretary of State, Jim Prior and officials followed his success in the European parliamentary elections in June 1984 in which Mr Hume won 22 per cent of the vote.

In a “Note for the Record” dated June 22nd, 1984, A J Merifield, an NIO official, recounted a conversation with the SDLP leader en route from Heathrow to Central London. Mr Hume was pleased with the election results and the number of young SDLP members coming forward.

But the SDLP leader voiced concern at remarks by Lord Justice Maurice Gibson who, when acquitting three RUC men of the murder of an IRA member, stated that the police should be commended for their “courage and determination in bringing the three deceased [IRA MEMBERS]to the final court of justice”.

According to the minutes: “Mr Hume said that while many working class Nationalists ‘expected it’ [Judge Gibson‘s comments], there were many of the Nationalist middle group who had been shocked by the judge‘s statement. Mr Hume knew that a number of respected Catholic lawyers had re-examined their willingness to take judicial office if asked.”

The SDLP leader hoped to raise this matter with the Secretary of State.

In 1987, Judge Gibson was murdered with his wife by an IRA bomb on the border.

The file records another meeting between Mr Hume and Mr Prior on July 11th, 1984 in which the SDLP leader stressed the need for “a wider agreement between the governments of the UK and Republic of Ireland”. Mr Prior urged Mr Hume to disregard Dr Paisley‘s rhetoric and talk with him informally in Strasbourg. Mr Hume agreed to do so.

Mr Prior then “suggested gently to Mr Hume that the object of informal talks among the Northern Ireland party leaders should be to find a political solution within Northern Ireland”.

Mr Hume said he did not think this was possible because it would not be acceptable to his supporters. He felt that inter-party talks were likely to fail “but that they were perhaps a necessary prelude to a wider agreement to be reached between the governments of the UK and the Republic”.

The Secretary of State said that it was important that Mr Hume should be clear about what was, and was not possible. While the UK government was ready to facilitate a solution which would give legitimate expression to minority aspirations, “any progress for the foreseeable future could only be progress within Northern Ireland. There was no prospect of new institutions which involved the sharing of sovereignty with the government of the Republic”.

However, Mr Prior added this significant rider which arguably portended the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: “It was a separate question whether some kind of consultative role for the Government of the Republic might be discussed, but joint authority in the sense of the Forum Report was not possible.”

Other papers show that in the wake of his European election triumph in 1984 in which he secured a third of the vote, the DUP leader, Ian Paisley told the British Government that he realised the need to treat the Nationalist community generously.

He also revealed that he viewed Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution as an “irritant” rather than a major obstacle to progress.

In a private meeting with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Jim Prior, at the House of Commons on June 25, 1984 to discuss political progress, Dr Paisley “commented that the SDLP had got too much in the arrangements of 1973-74 and would have to reconcile themselves to less” in future talks.

Dr Paisley thought that Mr Hume was too dependent on the belief that the two governments could jointly impose a solution pointing towards a united Ireland. Also, the SDLP leader was “in danger of being outflanked by Sinn Fein”. In conclusion, however, “Dr Paisley acknowledged that, to secure any agreement, it would be necessary to treat the representatives of the minority community generously”.

He would be ready for them to have a share of committee chairmanships, the minutes noted.

Among other correspondence of Mr Prior’s released was a letter from the Irish government in 1984 in which it voiced grave concerns at the prospect of the reintroduction of capital punishment in the UK, then the subject of a free debate at Westminster.

On 8 July 1983, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry wrote to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State warning that the move would give a propaganda boost to the IRA and kindred organisations.

Mr Barry told Mr Prior: “The execution of Irish people under British law for politically-inspired offences would almost certainly create a situation worse than anything our two governments have experienced during the past thirteen years and would adversely affect the climate of our relations. The IRA, the INLA and other terrorist organisations would take full advantage of their opportunity.”

Mr Barry hoped that Mr Prior, with his personal experience of Northern Ireland, was fully aware of the seriousness of the position.

l Dr Éamon Phoenix is a principal lecturer in History at Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University, Belfast and a broadcaster and commentator.