Don’t expect ‘sophistication’ from unionists, Haughey told Major

State papers: Ex-taoiseach floated idea of Sinn Féin peace talks 30 years ago

Former taoiseach Charles Haughey advised John Major shortly after he became British prime minister not to attribute “too much sophistication” to unionists, newly-declassified State papers show.

Files released after 30 years also reveal that Haughey suggested to Margaret Thatcher’s successor that Sinn Féin might be included in the peace process even though the IRA campaign of violence was still at its height.

At a meeting between the two men in June 1991, Haughey told Major that the prime minister was in a position of strength - just seven months after his election - and the unionists would do what he directed if he essentially browbeat them. “Don’t attribute too much sophistication and understanding to the unionists. If the British government says ‘This is the way we must go’, they have no alternative,” he declared.

However, Major replied that whatever might be proposed on Northern Ireland would have to be “broadly acceptable to unionists and also to parliament”.

Raising the prospect of a new talks process, Haughey suggested a high-level group of civil servants from both sides could be asked to explore it.

“Maybe they could look at the way that Sinn Féin would be brought into the process,” said Haughey.

“There is a mood and feeling even among the military people that if the political people could attempt to achieve goals through political means they would cease the violence.

“There must be some way out. We could look at any feasible way that Sinn Féin could be worked in with a view to ending their violence.”

Major’s caution

It was the first time that Haughey had suggested to the British government including Sinn Féin in talks. While significant, it did not represent a breakthrough, as Major responded with the caution that was to characterise his approach to Northern Ireland during his premiership.

The initiative on Haughey's part was likely to have been prompted by a number of factors: a change of prime minister (he did not broach it with Thatcher); a speech by former Northern secretary Peter Brooke the previous November in which he said Britain had no selfish or strategic interest in the North; and the taoiseach's sanctioning of secret talks in 1998 between a Fianna Fáil delegation and Sinn Féin.

As with the late-1980s dialogue between Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume, the Fianna Fáil talks did not become public knowledge until years later. Sinn Féin formally entered talks following the first IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

Haughey’s suggestion to Major may also have reflected an urgency on his part, given that his time as taoiseach was coming to an end.

Major’s first response was that violence was accelerating at the time and there were a lot of active service units about.

While acknowledging that the IRA was a “force in the land”, Haughey argued that “we must end the violence and its causes”. He said he would like the three suggested options of the New Ireland Forum of 1984 to be examined: a unitary state; joint sovereignty; and a federal/confederal arrangement. Thatcher famously dismissed those options in her “out, out, out” speech of the same year. Haughey added they would be looked at “far down the road”.

The prime minister said he had given a lot of thought to Northern Ireland and made six suggestions he would not have problems with. They were: some new types of institutions; measures for greater reconciliation; an end to discrimination; a council of Ireland (“not impossible”, he said); improving North-South relations; and an enhanced Anglo-Irish agreement.

He said there was greater scope for cross-Border co-operation, particularly on intelligence. “You are beginning to speak like Ms Thatcher,” replied Haughey. “Maybe you have one of her briefs.”

At their bilateral meetings, Thatcher frequently harangued Haughey on the issue of cross-Border intelligence sharing as well as her low opinion of the Garda Síochána’s intelligence operations. (File: 2021-93-30)