State papers: Reynolds told Major of commitment to end NI conflict

Irish ministers viewed British demand to remove unilaterally articles 2 and 3 as ‘unhelpful’

The government led by Albert Reynolds between 1992 and 1994 was consistently frustrated at the slow pace of the peace negotiations and its perception that the British government led by John Major did little to address the intransigence of unionist politicians.

Confidential State papers, which have now been released for public viewing, disclose that senior Irish ministers, including tánaiste Dick Spring and minster for justice Pádraig Flynn, thought it was “unhelpful” for the British government to say that the the territorial claim to the island of Ireland in articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution had to be changed in advance of negotiation for a lasting settlement.

In his first meeting with Major as taoiseach, Reynolds said he lived within 35 miles of the Border and understood both sides.

Elevated to the office of taoiseach only 15 days beforehand, he met Major in 10 Downing Street on February 26th, 1992.


Setting out his stall, Reynolds referred to a proposed text for a way forward.

“I think there may be an opportunity. There may be something in it. I am certain that the IRA are serious (about peace). We may well be able to get peace by following this up. I know that you will find things objectionable in it but the text is not written in stone. I won’t be found lacking in courage,” he said.

Reynolds added that he would be happier to fail than not to have tried at all.

During detailed negotiations later in 1992, Reynolds said the perception was he was trying to blackmail the British government into a settlement but was not.

“The IRA is (composed of) the Young Turks of 25 years ago,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to stop the next generation of Young Turks.”

At the first meeting between the two leaders, Major said the Provisional IRA could not be beaten militarily. However, he added the IRA was wrong if if thought Britain was suffering from “battle fatigue”.

Echoing the words of a pivotal speech by northern secretary Peter Brooke, he vowed that Britain had “no selfish interest in Northern Ireland”. But he said “we cannot be persuaders” for a united Ireland.

“Think of what happened in the Falklands? You cannot have a British government persuading British citizens to go out of the United Kingdom.”

Shadow of betrayal

At a meeting in June 1993, Spring criticised the intransigence of unionists and their refusal to enter direct talks. Speaking to norther secretary Patrick Mayhew he said: “People who are not prepared to recognise realities will always find another hook. Articles 2 and 3 have become a mantra for them.”

He added it was irresponsible of them not to come to the table.

Mayhew replied that the unionist leaders did not feel able to take “an imaginative step”. That applied to UUP leader James Molyneux in particular.

“In Northern Ireland politicians are considered to be a priestly class, guardians of the temple,” he noted.

Flynn argued at a meeting involving both leaders that it had been “unhelpful” for the British government to say the Irish Constitution must be changed in advance of a final settlement.

At that meeting in September 1992, Flynn also disclosed the tensions that existed at such bilateral meetings.

“I have sat there (at the talks) and been insulted,” said Flynn.

“My party (Fianna Fáil) has been insulted. Éamon de Valera has been insulted. I say to myself, ‘hold your peace Flynn’. There is a huge prize here.”

He said unionists also seemed beholden to Mayhew.

“I sit opposite Patrick and every time he speaks they linger on his words. Every time he has to give them comfort. Paisley refers to an ‘understanding’. You have influence, they are beholden to you. If you could use it to get them to understand our constitutional position?”

Mayhew replied: “They hang on my words because they think I am going to betray them.”

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times