Detailed minutes of the exploratory dialogue between the British government and Sinn Féin in the wake of the 1994 IRA ceasefire are disclosed in previously confidential files released on Friday in Belfast.
The ceasefire was to last until February 9th 1996 when the Provisional IRA resumed its bombing campaign setting off an explosion in London docklands killing two people and injuring 50. It would be another two years before the Belfast Agreement.
The minutes of the first meeting at Stormont's parliament buildings on December 9th, 1994 between a Sinn Féin delegation, led by the late Martin McGuinness, and a team of Northern Ireland Office (NIO) officials, headed by its permanent under-secretary Quentin Thomas run to 34 pages.
McGuinness was accompanied by Gerry Kelly (now a Sinn Féin MLA), Lucilita Bhreatnach, Sean McManus and Siobhan O'Hanlon (who acted as note-taker). Quentin Thomas led the officials on the British side.
Inclusive talks could not occur until 'the issue of arms and violence' had been addressed
Thomas began by observing the lack of Sinn Féin nameplates on the table compared to the government side. For his part, McGuinness surprised Thomas by asking “how Fred was” – an allusion, the minutes record, to contacts between the British government and the Provisionals in 1992.
When the NIO chief replied that he didn’t know, McGuinness reposted: “I think you do”. Thomas explained that he knew “who was meant but he didn’t know how he was”.
The “Fred” in question was revealed in subsequent years to be a key intermediary in back-channels between the IRA and the British and Irish governments. Although his identity was never confirmed, he was identified by a number of sources as British intelligence officer Robert McLarnon.
Emphasising the importance of the NIO’s first meeting with Sinn Féin at Stormont, Thomas said: “I am conscious of a moment of history . . . but history forms a gulf between us . . . The past hangs like a chain around Ireland’s neck and around Britain’s too.
“The enterprise we begin is to find an accommodation, a reconciliation where those old links become benign . . . We must find a way to bury, with dignity, the sacrifices, mistakes and horrors of the past. We share responsibility . . . to work to end the conflict . . .”
The NIO chief hoped that they could avoid recrimination and seek to be constructive.
McGuinness responded by regretting that the British had failed to recognise Sinn Féin’s mandate.
Sinn Féin, he went on, believed the political climate for the talks could be improved if the British government responded positively to the need for demilitarisation, an end to British military operations and “a speedy release of all political prisoners”. And he added: “As Irish republicans we seek to end British jurisdiction over our country.”
After reading a long position statement into the record, McGuinness joked that “it was time to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor”.
Thomas argued that the British government was not the obstacle to a united Ireland. Inclusive talks could not occur until “the issue of arms and violence” had been addressed, he said.
McGuinness continued to press for the involvement of ministers. He accused the British government of a 'minimalist' response to the IRA ceasefire
In response, McGuinness spent much time rejecting any link between Sinn Féin and the IRA. “The IRA is nothing whatever to do with us.”
At the second meeting between the two sides at Stormont on December 19th, 1994, Thomas pressed Sinn Féin to clarify their position on an explosive device found at Enniskillen. The incident had been raised by a loyalist delegation with the NIO earlier.
Sinn Féin stood by the IRA denial of any involvement. There followed “forthright exchanges” between the two sides on IRA arms.
After a recess during which, the minutes record, “[Sinn Féin] first spurned, but then accepted, light snacks”, discussion was broadened to include parity of esteem and the funding of Meanscoil Feirste (an Irish medium secondary school on Belfast’s Falls Road). However, Thomas brought it back to disarmament, adding: “They appear to agree on the object of removing the gun from Irish politics”.
In a note after the session, Jonathan Stephens, a NIO official, noted: “Again Mr McGuinness dominated for Sinn Féin. Mr [Gerry] Kelly said nothing. Sinn Féin clearly had their instructions on arms and held to their position . . . They relaxed only towards the end, perhaps relieved that they had discharged their remit.”
At the third session on January 16th, 1995, McGuinness continued to press for the involvement of ministers. He accused the British government of a “minimalist” response to the IRA ceasefire.
The Sinn Féin deputy leader referred to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations and Lloyd George’s threat of (as he put it) “great and terrible war” if the British did not get their way.
For his part, the head of the NIO said there was no value in revisiting the treaty negotiations and “he did not see himself as an apologist for David Lloyd George”. The situation and attitude of the British government today was very different to that of 1921 “with [the British government] having stated ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in NI’ – very different to the situation seventy- five years ago.”
The NIO said the British prime minister John Major and others were looking for "substantial progress on arms". However, the IRA did not agree on a method of decommissioning until 2001.
The documents released on Friday were the latest tranche of file declassified by the public record office in Belfast, which is moving towards a 20-year release date for state papers. In the Republic, State papers are declassified only after 30 years.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian and journalist and a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries