Hume urged effort to destroy IRA


John Hume and the IRA: The SDLP deputy leader was certain of his party in Derry, while the British army feared restructuring of the IRA, write John Bew and Eamon Phoenix John Hume and the IRA

John Hume argued that "every effort should be made to destroy" the Provisional IRA, according to a reported discussion he had with a senior official from the Northern Ireland Office.

The SDLP deputy leader made the comments in Derry in April 1975, as revealed by documents just released at the National Archives in London.

At the two-hour meeting Mr Hume expressed concerns that the IRA was "very clever at the moment". "By letting off a few bombs", Mr Hume believed they would "greatly increase the electoral support for Dr Paisley", thereby legitimising their own position.

He also reiterated his "oft-repeated remarks" that the ending of internment would have the effect of "completely destroying the Provisionals".

Within British politics, he believed that prime minister Harold Wilson could not keep the Labour Party together and in power for much longer.

Also, despite the recent accession of Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative party leadership, "he did not hide his hope" that Edward Heath would "return to the senior councils of the Conservative party" because of his good relationship with the SDLP and lack of "high Tory pretence".

Referring to the SDLP's pro-European stance in the forthcoming UK referendum on the EEC, Mr Hume "could not understand why the Scottish and Welsh nationalists were against Europe".

While Mr Hume remained confident about the strength of the SDLP in Derry, British army intelligence reports in the same period reveal a more complex power struggle within the nationalist community.

One fear was that the IRA was using its "truce" with the British army "to carry out some degree of restructuring".

Reports from Derry referred to "the re-emergence of Martin McGuinness as the local strong man" who, "with a few close associates", "seems to be exercising a close and personal control of all units".

Nearer the Border between North and South, where tensions were high in 1975, the army had "sparser intelligence". Intelligence reports described roaming gangs, displaced by Sinn Féin pressure "in their home area", and acting "in a maverick capacity". Sinn Féin was "still desperate to appear as community controllers" but the leadership was "now finding it a hard struggle to maintain their credibility".

Later in the year Mr Hume discussed his worries about the British government's intentions with the chairman of the Constitutional Convention.

Files from the Belfast archive reveal a visit by the SDLP deputy leader to Sir Robert Lowry on August 28th, 1975, to discuss his concerns about the matter.

Mr Hume referred to a phone conversation with Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times.

Mr Hume claimed that Whitehall leaks and lobby briefings "were uniformly sceptical about the success of the Convention and were preparing the public mind for negotiations with paramilitary leaders".

He felt this was undermining not only the convention but constitutional politics. He asked the chairman to make representations to the secretary of state, Mr Rees.

According to a note by an official, Dr Maurice Hayes, Sir Robert thanked Mr Hume.

"It was then arranged that the chairman should call on the Secretary of State to report a somewhat hopeful day of progress in the private (interparty) negotiations, and to take the opportunity to deplore the note that was being struck in the media both about the prospects for the Convention and the building up of subversives at the expense of elected politicians."

Mr Hume expressed his satisfaction with the earlier talks and "left in a more optimistic frame of mind".

That evening Sir Robert visited Merlyn Rees at Stormont. In a "note for the record", he stated: "I informed the Secretary of State that we had been busy on negotiations which might possibly bear fruit with a solution which would not require either side to abandon principles".

In an obvious reference to the UUP-SDLP talks on a possible "voluntary coalition government", Sir Robert "explained in brief outline the kind of solution which was being at present looked at by the UUUC and SDLP".

According to the record, Mr Rees expressed his gratification that the prospects were possibly a good deal better than they had seemed from the outside.

However, he hazarded the view that it might be advisable to continue to reserve security to the UK government while the British army (which was a Westminster responsibility) continued to be present in strength in Northern Ireland.

Sir Robert replied that "security policy would be one of the main unifying influences and that, with respect, it would be very foolish indeed to reserve security powers."

Sir Robert then turned to the main reason for meeting the secretary of state "which was the gloomy outlook being put about concerning the Convention's chances".

Even if the resulting convention report had to reflect a majority view, this was harmful, in his opinion, especially while the chance of agreement still existed.

He asked Mr Rees to take whatever steps he could at cabinet and parliamentary level "to remove the impression of despair".

In conclusion, Sir Robert commented on what he termed "the transfer of political credibility from the politicians to the terrorists, a most unfortunate trend which many people, including Convention members, attributed largely to government negotiation, and even went so far as to suggest was in accordance with government policy".