Former SDLP leader John Hume wanted to engage in talks with the IRA Army Council as far back as 1985. The revelation comes from newly declassified Irish Government papers released under the 30 year ruling.
Irish Government figures thought Mr Hume was hatching a plan for a public and potentially damaging confrontation with the Provisional’s. However, then Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald thought the idea had “torn the mask” from Gerry Adam’s claims that Sinn Fein were a separate entity from the IRA.
In the end the notion was jettisoned and it was a further three years before John Hume and Gerry Adams met in secret to discuss ways of ending the conflict.
The documents reveal that there was a conflict of opinion with the Taoiseach’s Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin over Mr Hume’s wish to speak to the upper echelons of the IRA leadership.
Sean Donlon, Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and a central player in the Anglo-Irish negotiations of 1985, met with John Hume to talk the idea over.
Crucially, in a memo to Garret Fitzgerald, Mr Donlon asserted his belief that support for the Provo’s had peaked and that they had run into “obvious military difficulties.” He also contended that John Hume only wanted to speak to those “who really called the shots.”
Further documents on the issue reveal that the SDLP leader called Mr Adams “a puppet.”
Mr Donlon wrote: “My assessment of John Hume’s present position in relation to the Provisionals is that he is willing, even anxious, to have a confrontation, preferably public, with them.
“For the first time in a while, he seems to feel that he could significantly damage them in a confrontation. He may very well be right, in Derry and west of the Bann terms, but I am doubtful that he at this stage could discredit people like Adams and the Provisional organisation in Belfast.”
It is also stated that John Hume felt he had a duty to speak to the IRA as those nationalists he represented saw “no difference between the violence of Paisleyism and that of the Provisionals.”
John Hume told the senior Dublin diplomat that northern nationalists would not understand how he could sit down with unionists but decline talks with the Provisionals. In essence it displays that the future Nobel Peace Prize winner thought there was a chance of bringing the IRA ‘in from the cold’ in 1985, a full thirteen years before it finally happened in 1998. However this potential foresight was not appreciated by the Irish Government official.
Sean Donlon wrote: “I pointed to the obvious danger that if he showed a willingness to talk with the Provisionals at any stage, he might be providing an opening which the British would be very happy to use.
“He (John Hume) responded that there was a world of difference between a government talking to the Provisionals and a private citizen, even an elected representative, doing so.”
Other senior SDLP figures believed the offer of talks with the IRA and the unionist reaction to it gave the party the political high ground.
The papers also reveal that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appeared to be “quite at ease” with the talks suggestion when the issue had been raised in March, 1985. In February, 1985 Northern Ireland Secretary of State Douglas Hurd said that he hadn’t taken the idea seriously but that “it could be worse.”
In fact, Douglas Hurd told the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Peter Barry: “I hope we can steer it past without upsetting the main issues.”
However, Mr Hurd said he had concerns that any meeting between the IRA and an elected politician would set what he called “the old drum notes.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary of State also said he was worried that no matter where the talks took place the security forces would have to act to arrest Army Council members and charge them with terrorism offences.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald down played the strength and capability of the IRA and threatened to break up any talks. He said: “The IRA are not as strong on the ground and could be financially embarrassed at the present time as a result of pressure from Ireland, the UK and the USA.”