Sinn Féin’s ability to convince a “new tranche” of voters it was independent of the IRA caused consternation in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the weeks leading up to the Belfast Agreement.
In February 1998 after Sinn Féin was temporarily suspended from talks over the IRA involvement in two killings, senior official Chris Maccabe reported that “Sinn Féin are having considerable success in sustaining the ‘polite fiction’ that they are an entirely separate organisation from the IRA, particularly amongst their new tranche of younger voters, many of whom cannot recall Gerry Adams wearing anything but Armani”.
Another sobering assessment of public opinion was recorded the following month. Mr Maccabe reported “attitudes within the unionist community continue to harden. Community leaders report growing sectarianism in working class areas, while clergy with middle class congregations report increasing unease about the outcome of the talks”.
Later in March 1998, armed with the results of focus groups on either side, the NIO director of communications Tom Kelly reported that “the two communities are highly polarised and show a lack of knowledge of and confidence in the political process”.
Mr Kelly reported back that “Protestants fear that they will lose their identity as a Catholic/Gaelic culture is imposed on them” while among Catholics there was “deep, intense resentment about past discrimination and what is seen as continuing repression of their culture, although some acknowledgment that things have got better”.
Mr Kelly, who went on to become Tony Blair’s official spokesperson, concluded that the NIO’s “It’s Your Choice” publicity campaign about the expected deal needed to address the “pessimism about the possibility of political agreement, combined with a fatalism about continuing violence.”