Martin McGuinness told civil servants that the IRA was “nothing to do with Sinn Féin”, according to the NIO minute of the first talks with the party in December 1994.
The claim came just over a decade after the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands had been elected as an MP, setting republicanism on a road towards politics, and at a time when Mr McGuinness was believed by the government, the security forces and many republicans to have been a top IRA figure.
Minutes of the meeting recorded: “Mr McGuinness averred rather vigorously that Sinn Féin is not involved in violence. It was a party exclusively committed to peaceful means. The IRA is nothing to do with us, he said, and it was about time the government saw sense and changed the way it was treating Sinn Féin.”
In the second meeting, 10 days later, the lead NIO official Quentin Thomas asked Mr McGuinness: “If you don’t get what you want, what then?” Mr McGuinness replied that Sinn Féin did not know HMG’s real position on the question of sovereignty. Mr Thomas replied that HMG’s real position was their published position.
“Mr McGuinness asked what did HMG’s representative [alluding to MI5 officer ‘Fred’] meant last year when he told Sinn Féin British rule in Northern Ireland was coming to an end. Mr Thomas said this was an unauthorised statement and repeated that HMG’s policy was on the public record; there was no hidden agenda.”
Mr McGuinness said: “We all have problems, Quentin, but if it breaks down people aren’t going to blame Sinn Féin. We have convinced most people, including the American government, the Irish government, the Europeans, John Hume and John Alderdice, that we are serious.”
Mr McGuinness claimed that “as a democratic party they could not speak for anyone else, be it the IRA, the UVF, the UDA or INLA, any more than, say, Peter Robinson or Ian Paisley could speak for these groups”. He told the civil servants that they had a “brass neck” to adopt a “moralistic tone”, given that “HMG’s actions over the centuries had created the current situation”.
NIO official Stephen Leach reminded Mr McGuinness that the public perception of Sinn Féin’s close link to the IRA was “reinforced by certain facts, such as the IRA having sent a statement to Sinn Féin’s Letterkenny conference during the summer. The statement had been published in the Irish Times and ... had been signed by ‘P O’Neill’.”
The minute said that “rather feebly (appearing to have been taken off guard) Mr McGuinness replied that one should not believe everything one read in the Irish Times: he personally was unaware of any such statement and would be very surprised if it had been made. But he would check and report back at the next meeting.”
Later, Mr Thomas again appeared to catch Mr McGuinness off-guard over his insistence that the IRA and Sinn Féin were not linked. Referring to the comment by Mr McGuinness, Mr Thomas asked “if for the sake of argument it were accurate, how did Sinn Féin think the IRA’s views could be presented at inclusive talks? Mr McGuinness replied that he had not thought about this, but he was sure HMG had, and would find a way.”
In his note of the meeting, NIO official Jonathan Stephens said: “Mr Thomas took the opportunity, Mr McGuinness having referred to last year’s unauthorised meeting, to state that if anyone in the course of any unauthorised exchanges had given Sinn Féin the impression that the British government had a position other than its publicly stated one, then Sinn Féin had been misled.”
In the first meeting of the exploratory dialogue, Sinn Féin’s Lucilita Bhreatnach spoke in Irish “for one or two minutes”, according to the NIO account of the talks.
At the fourth meeting, Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brún told the government that fostering the Irish language was “central to the aim of full parity of esteem”.
She said that there must be funding for Irish medium primary and secondary schools, the right to take public exams in Irish, the right to conduct all business in Irish and that this must extend to the business of local councils.
Responding for the NIO, David Watkins said that it had been a “helpful presentation” but asked her: “Do you want to move to a fully bilingual society, and if so how could it be achieved, especially when Irish was not (yet) perceived as the common inheritance of all in Northern Ireland?”