Taoiseach Charles Haughey made repeated efforts to set up a meeting with the unionist leader James Molyneaux during 1988 without success.
The two main unionist parties, Molyneaux's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), had boycotted the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By early 1988, the UUP was signalling a willingness to explore options outside the framework of the agreement, including devolution.
Haughey issued several invitations to Ulster Unionists to talk early in 1988. Following the advice of SDLP deputy leader, Séamus Mallon, he did not table his government proposals on devolution at the Anglo-Irish conference on the basis that unionists would spurn any proposals made under the agreement, which had been in place since 1985.
In May, Molyneaux told a current affairs programme on ITV that he would be willing to meet Haughey if an agenda were prepared. The taoiseach’s office issued a positive response to that very quickly but the meeting never materialised.
Official records of behind-the-scenes meetings and briefings at senior government level suggest that Molyneaux, a diffident and taciturn figure, was ultimately not able or not willing to hold a direct meeting with Haughey.
When the taoiseach met British ambassador Nicholas Fenn in April on another matter, they spoke briefly about Haughey's efforts to make direct contacts with the unionists.
“I don’t know,” Haughey replied. “I am playing it by ear. I am using some key words because Molyneaux used them. In a way I am trying to send messages subliminally. There is no more to it than that.”
Ulster Unionist politician Harold McCusker met senior Irish diplomat Dermot Gallagher in Belfast about the matter a little later in 1988 who said Mr Molyneaux might not have the courage to make the big leap and seemed also to have been frightened off by leaks.
McCusker referred to Haughey’s initial opposition to the agreement.
At the same time, Gallagher reported, “He [McCusker] knew the taoiseach was not willing to turn his back on the Anglo-Irish Agreement unless he was in a position to put something better in its place.
“The potential in all this was worth exploring but he wondered if Molyneaux had the courage to grasp the nettle.
“Molyneaux had seemed somewhat more prepared to have meetings with Dublin earlier in the year but seemed to have been frightened off by the leaks of meetings emanating from Dublin.
“Interestingly those leaks centred more on meetings with opposition leaders. It was widely rumoured in Belfast that Molyneaux had been seen leaving [Labour Party leader] Dick Spring’s office.”
Gallagher assured McCusker there had been no leaks from official sources and the taoiseach in the Dáil had refused, despite intense pressure, to give any information on his contacts with unionist leaders.
That suggested Haughey had spoken to senior unionist figures, if not Molyneaux.
The former British Labour northern secretary Merlyn Rees, who was close to Molyneaux, told an Irish diplomat the unionists were pleased with the openness of Haughey. "But the problem is they don't know what the next step should be," he reported.
The northern secretary Tom King was holding talks with unionists with a view to getting devolution on the table. However, that issue led to a serious stand-off with the SDLP. At one meeting, SDLP leaders told Irish officials, they felt "King was threatening and trying to bounce them into support for devolution". He told them the SDLP would be responsible for the breakdown of the agreement if they did not agree to devolution.