Declassified state papers: Insight into what was happening politically 30 years ago

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (seated, right) and Garret FitzGerald (seated, left) signing the Anglo-Irish Ulster agreement at Hillsborough Castle, Belfastin November, 1985.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (seated, right) and Garret FitzGerald (seated, left) signing the Anglo-Irish Ulster agreement at Hillsborough Castle, Belfastin November, 1985.
  • State papers reveal the political atmosphere was fraught in 1985
  • The Irish Government described Peter Robinson as a ‘dangerous man’
  • Dublin was ‘deeply angered’ by the Birmingham Six case

Newly declassified state papers from both the Irish and British Government’s archives have revealed a fascinating insight into what was happening both north and south of the Irish border three decades ago.

In the countdown to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 it can be seen how there was a desire on all sides to reach an agreement but also at times how deep-seated the mistrust of the British ran within the Dublin administration.

Briefing notes of a meeting between John Hume and Margaret Thatcher on January 17, 1985 reveal how Mr Hume believed that “the immediate and perhaps greatest problem was the absence of order in the Catholic community,” and the problem could not be solved within Northern Ireland.

The SDLP leader told the British Prime Minister that before the ‘Troubles’, his home city of Derry had been “an extremely law abiding place with a level of violence and crime way below average in Britain.”

He also said that people were basically law abiding but they wanted an authority to which they could give their loyalty. Mr Hume asserted this could be done without the involvement of Dublin but the path to a solution must involve the two governments.

The Prime Minister agreed but stressed that the SDLP must engage in talks with unionists.

The Birmingham Six who were wrongly convicted of killing 21 people in the West Midlands city in 1974. Derry man John Walker is pictured top right in this montage.

The Birmingham Six who were wrongly convicted of killing 21 people in the West Midlands city in 1974. Derry man John Walker is pictured top right in this montage.

“To be frank, power-sharing would be very difficult,” she told John Hume.

In response John Hume told Mrs Thatcher that the SDLP would not contemplate any other scenario.

And, in an indication that an agreement later in 1985 was possible the briefing notes record that Mrs Thatcher “repeatedly spoke warmly about the Taoiseach” during her meeting with Mr Hume.

A secret Irish Government account of a lunch between the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon and civil servant Daithi O’Ceallaigh reveals a real sense of fear within the political arena in the countdown to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in late 1985.

Peter Barry on the left, formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs in Dublin pictured with SDLP man Seamus Mallon who gave his assessment of unionist reaction in advance of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

Peter Barry on the left, formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs in Dublin pictured with SDLP man Seamus Mallon who gave his assessment of unionist reaction in advance of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

The lunch meeting took place on October 23.

Mr Mallon painted a stern assessment of possible loyalist and unionist reaction to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The document states that Mr Mallon “believes that they will probably emphasise their opposition in a legal and a political manner first.

“However he does feel that there may be loyalist assassination attempts on prominent members of the SDLP, including himself and on those people in Dublin who are believed to be involved in the implementation of the agreement.”

The senior SDLP man also said he believed the attempt to reach an agreement was “very serious” and said there had to be a “united nationalist approach to it.”

Sir John Stalker who was tasked with investgating a supposed 'shoot-to-kill' policy within the RUC.

Sir John Stalker who was tasked with investgating a supposed 'shoot-to-kill' policy within the RUC.

If it failed, he contended that “constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland will be destroyed.”

And, newly released Irish state papers from 1988 have noted that Taoiseach Charles Haughey was ‘deeply angered’ at the rejection of an appeal in the case of the Birmingham Six.

The Birmingham pub bombings took place on November 21, 1974 and were attributed to the Provisional IRA. In all, 21 people were murdered by the explosions. Six men were arrested. Five were from Belfast while John Walker was born in Derry. All six had lived in Birmingham since the 1960s.

While the men were in the custody of the West Midlands Police they were deprived of food and sleep, they were interrogated sometimes for up to 12 hours without a break; threats were made against them and the beatings started: ranging from punches, letting dogs within a foot of them and being the subjects of a mock execution. The subsequent conviction of the men has long been discredited, but a massive cover-up by the British state had to be overcome first.

Irish Government concerns over the rejection of the appeal were aired to the British in meetings back in February, 1988. Irish Justice Minister Gerry Collins and Energy Minister Ray Burke made their views clear at Stormont Castle with Mr Collins saying the rejection of an appeal was a “serious setback.”

The Irish Minister for Justice also said the decision to uphold to convictions of the Birmingham Six had serious consequences for confidence in the administration of justice and the prisoners should be released. He told his UK counterparts that the issue was the most serious and emotional of his public life.

The Irish Government reckoned future First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson was a 'dangerous man'.

The Irish Government reckoned future First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson was a 'dangerous man'.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State at the time, Tom King said he appreciated the strength of feeling and the calm manner in which Mr Collins expressed his views.

Mr Collins asked Tom King “whether there was really no hope of clemency” in the case of the Birmingham Six and that the case “smacked of a mighty cover-up.”

Mr King said that three of the UK’s most eminent judges had examined the case and “there was no question of his being able to reach a different and better conclusion.”

Gerry Collins responded by saying that he spoke in “deep sorrow, not in anger” and that the recent decision “had done colossal damage to trust and confidence.”

Also, Irish state papers from 1998 show the Irish Government were ‘furious’ about the decision by the British Attorney General not to prosecute RUC officers allegedly involved in a ‘shoot-to-kill policy’.

The concerns were raised at meetings between Irish and British representatives at Stormont in February, 1988. Irish Justice Minister Gerry Collins said Dublin’s concerns centred on the ‘shoot-to-kill policy’, the seriousness of which they said was impossible to exaggerate. They also highlighted an alleged cover-up involving senior RUC officers, a covert RUC Special Branch operation in the Republic and the removal of John Stalker from the Stalker Inquiry.

Mr Stalker, then Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester was replaced as officer in chrage of the investigation into an alleged RUC ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in Armagh in 1982 by Colin sampson, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, in June 1986. Stalker was suspended after allegations he had associated with criminals in Manchester. He was later cleared and reinstated.

In February, 1988 Mr Stalker claimed he’d been removed from the Northern Ireland inquiry because his investigation showed that trained RUC squads had shot dead six unarmed republicans and then covered it up.

Minister Gerry Collins told Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King that confidence in the RUC had received a “devastating setback” and that north-south security co-operation would suffer when it became known the RUC were protecting officers suspected of serious crime. He also contended that the Stalker-Sampson report had to be published and those against whom there was evidence of wrongdoing should be prosecuted.

In considering whether or not a prisecution was warranted in the Stalker-Sampson cases, Attorney General Sir Patrick Mayhew had been statutorily bound to consider the public interest. However, Minister Collins continued to press for prisecutions and not disciplinary proceedings.

At a further meeting in London on February 10, 1985, Tom King said “in strict confidence, Mr Stalker had done a lot of good work.”

Tom King added: “Some of the things which he was now saying in public were helpful, in particular his endorsement of the view there was no official shoot-to-kill policy and that it would be wrong to mount further prosecutions at this stage. However, the speculation that there had been some form of Cabinet plot to remove him from the inquiry was absolute rubbish.”

Finally, declassified papers from 30 years ago have revealed the Irish Government’s view on leading unionist figures Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

The report, which was marked ‘secret’ relates a full record of the first meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental conference in Belfast on December 11, 1985.

At the meeting, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King outlined the political situation just a month after the accord was signed.

He noted that there had been a “guarded welcome” from the nationalist community and “a hostile reception from the unionist community which goes beyond what was expected.” The way in which the deal was agreed has caused great offence to unionists and ministers are being “ostracised and boycotted.”

However, Irish Foreign Minister Peter Barry retorted by saying “the unionist recation wasn’t any worse than I expected. The Irish Government is the hate organisation for unionists. I think the steam has run out of Paisley but Robinson is a dangerous man. He appears to be taking over the DUP and is much harder than Paisley.”