Hume advised nationalists not to ‘claim victory’ during Belfast pact referendum

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble asked NIO to delay appointment of ministers for six months

SDLP leader John Hume told the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) privately that it was important nationalists should not “claim victory” during the referendum campaign on the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

At the same time, Ulster Unionist leader and future first minister David Trimble asked the NIO to delay the appointment of ministers for at least six months until Sinn Féin had shown a genuine commitment to peace.

These private conversations are revealed in previously-confidential files released in Belfast.

In a memo for then secretary of state Mo Mowlam and officials, dated April 29th, 1998, D J R Hill of the constitutional and political division describes separate meetings with Hume and Trimble the previous day.


Trimble was keen to defer the appointment of Executive ministers “until well into the autumn”. The UUP did not want to be “embarrassed” by operating in proximity with Sinn Féin until it was clear that they were “genuinely committed to peace”.

Apart from that, both Trimble and Hume had made some constructive points on the referendum campaign. Trimble seemed to want government ministers, especially then British prime minister Tony Blair, to promote a Yes vote.

At his meeting with NIO minister Paul Murphy, Hume seemed “relaxed, confident and more animated than usual”. He had helped launch the SDLP campaign earlier, saying his party’s manifesto was geared to “unionist sensitivities”.

There was overwhelming support for the agreement in the nationalist community, he said. “The battle was in the unionist community and it was important that the nationalists should not ‘claim victory’.”

He said he had also spoken to then taoiseach Bertie Ahern about his “stupid remarks” predicting Irish unity within 20 years, told Gerry Adams to play things quietly and “sent a message” to David Trimble asking him to let the SDLP know how they could help him.

For his part, Trimble also seemed relaxed, the official noted. In the UUP leader’s view, “the key to a good result [in the referendum] was the unionist middle class in the east of the province. Anecdotally they seemed strongly inclined to turn out this time”.

The official noted that Trimble did not “seem too bothered about the UUP dissidents” although somewhat regretful about Jeffrey Donaldson’s “late-developing tender conscience”.

Unionist vote

Trimble held a further meeting with Murphy on May 12th by which stage the UUP leader had become more concerned about the chances of winning a majority of the unionist vote.

Trimble said the UUP’s Lord [Jim] Molyneaux would be making a public statement opposing the agreement and he suggested Blair should “have a further word with Lord Molyneaux”.

Murphy touched on the position of Donaldson which led Trimble to say that Molyneaux “was pulling the strings in this relationship and more generally across a broader coalition of dissident MPs”.

The prospect of losing the referendum among unionists was real and, if it happened, the result would be “disaster”, said Trimble.

In the UUP leader's view, recent events at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Dublin – where the IRA's Balcombe Street gang"received a rapturous reception – along with "Molyneaux pulling the strings" meant that only 48 hours remained to save the process. The impact of the ardfheis on Sunday with its orchestrated display of triumphalism as a result of prisoner releases had had a "very bad" effect in his community.

In conclusion, the UUP leader said the Yes campaign was in a deficit situation. There was, however, still a large percentage of voters undecided. In his view, an overall figure of below 60 per cent in favour of the agreement would be “bad” but more than 70 per cent would be positive and workable.

In the poll on May 22nd, 71.1 per cent voted in favour in the North. In a simultaneous referendum in the Republic, 94.4 per cent voted in favour of the agreement.