McGuinness began first meeting with officials by asking about MI5 officer

Martin McGuinness.
Martin McGuinness.

The historic first meeting of ‘exploratory dialogue’ between British officials and Sinn Féin began with Martin McGuinness attempting to unsettle his hosts.

On the morning of December 9 1994, Mr McGuinness and four others – Gerry Kelly, Siobhan O’Hanlon, Lucilita Bhreatnach and Sean McManus – arrived at Stormont to meet NIO officials Quentin Thomas, Stephen Leach, David Watkins, Chris Maccabe, Jonathan Stephens and Tony Beeton.

Mr Thomas asked Sinn Féin not to reveal the identities of the officials alongside him, something which the party respected in its public comments after the meeting.

A 34-page NIO minute of the meeting gives unusual insight into what went on.

It began: “Mr McGuinness then asked Mr Thomas how Fred was [an allusion to the contact between the government and the IRA during 1992 when an MI5 operative either acted without authorisation or with plausible deniability in passing on key messages].

Mr Thomas said he did not know. Mr McGuinness replied: ‘I think you do’. Mr Thomas said that he knew who was meant but did not know how he was.”

Mr Thomas then opened the meeting with a florid exhortation: “I am conscious of a moment in history. But history forms a gulf between us. It is both what divides us and what we have in common.

"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 these old links become benign and agreed. We must find a way to bury, with dignity, the sacrifices, mistakes and horrors of the past.”

He went on: “Because so much history does lie between us, there is also scope for recrimination. But I hope we can avoid that in this dialogue, because it serves little purpose. We shall seek to avoid the politics of recrimination (We may not manage to do so altogether).”

He said that the government would seek to be “constructive” and pledged that there would be “no tricks and no gimmicks”.

“Both sides are suspicious and cautious – no doubt with good reason – and we should proceed step by step. Finding our differences is easy; seeking agreement harder ... We have an opportunity. I hope both sides seize it. We have had communications failures before. We have been good at misunderstanding each other. Now we have an opportunity directly across the table to make sure each knows the other’s meaning. We must work to ensure that we do so.”

He concluded: “History grasps greedily at our backs – ‘the mortal hunger of the martyred past’. But let us begin together to work towards the future.”

Mr McGuinness began by saying that the government’s behaviour had been “reprehensible and incomprehensible” and he hoped that “this meeting marks the end of discrimination to which we, as a party, and our electorate, have been subjected”.

Mr Thomas said that “terrorism in support of, and terrorism in opposition to, a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland has done great damage and inflicted immeasurable human suffering – although it has been steadfastly resisted by an overwhelming number of the people of Northern Ireland.”

The detailed minute, taken by Mr Beeton, who less than five years later would be killed in the Paddington rail disaster, said: “During Mr Thomas’s reading, which was delivered, in some contrast to Mr McGuinness’s style, in a measured tone and pace with much deliberate eye contact across the table – Ms Bhreatnach and Ms O’Hanlon wrote notes almost continuously; Mr Kelly looked lean and mean, and very attentive, writing one or two short lines in his notebook; Mr McGuinness appeared to take no notes and looked slightly nervous.”

Mr McGuinness told them that “British sovereignty over the six counties, as with all of Ireland before partition, is self-evidently the inherent cause of political instability and conflict”.

He said that Sinn Féin wanted a process which “culminates in ... the end of your jurisdiction ... in the shortest possible time, consistent with obtaining the maximum consent to the process”.

Although Sinn Féin came in 1998 to accept the principle of consent – what it had derisorily called ‘the unionist veto’ – Mr McGuinness told officials: “Your commitment to uphold the unionist veto is an attempt to predetermine the outcome of negotiations. The consequence of upholding the veto is, in effect, to set as your objective the maintenance of the primary source of the conflict.”

Mr Thomas said that “there did seem an inherent weakness in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the unionist veto and their recognition of the need to achieve something with consent”.