Unable to overturn the Anglo-Irish Agreement which they hated, unionist leaders were privately prepared to make massive concessions in behind-closed-doors talks in 1990, declassified government files reveal.
In discussions which came almost five years after the accord was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald, Ian Paisley and Jim Molyneaux showed themselves to be far less unbending than their fiery rhetoric of the time had publicly suggested.
Files made public today at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 Year Rule show that the DUP and UUP leaders had made such significant concessions in private that the government – and some DUP members – feared that Dr Paisley in particular would struggle to bring his supporters with him.
At the start of 1990, unionist intransigence had been such that they were still officially refusing to meet NIO ministers (although some senior unionist figures were privately speaking to officials).
But it is clear from the files that behind the scenes the unionist leaders were desperate to secure some progress after years in which they had unsuccessfully railed against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
A draft letter from the NIO permanent secretary to 10 Downing Street in July 1990 noted how much the two unionist veterans had been prepared to privately concede.
Expressing concern that a draft speech by the secretary of state could be leaked, the letter said: “Perhaps more worryingly, the revelations would have risks for the unionist leaders, who may not have kept their followers fully informed about the concession they were prepared to make.
“On their ‘preconditions’ [for entering talks], these concessions were substantial.
“On one view, in the secretary of state’s opinion the correct view, this shows the constructive approach of the unionist leaders.
“But in the context of Northern Ireland, it will be easy to represent these as betrayal.
“Accordingly, they have every incentive in this extract not being published.”
A July 4 1990 memo from OJ Thomas in the NIO referred to the unionists as having “made major, and possibly dangerous, concessions”.
The previous day, a confidential memo from DJR Hill in the NIO’s Constitutional Policy and Liaison Division said that Dr Paisley and Mr Molyneaux had moved a great distance and had “accepted the SDLP analysis and the SDLP agenda and the need to talk to Dublin before internal political arrangements are settled. (This represents a major shift by Dr Paisley from last November’s party conference speech).
“They have agreed to accept minor concessions by the two governments as meeting their ‘preconditions’.”
A note marked ‘confidential and personal’ of an July 11 1990 meeting between Mr Robinson and JE McConnell in the NIO recorded: “Mr Robinson was able to confirm that Dr Paisley remains very keen for progress to be made on the political front.”
Mr Robinson expressed concern that Mr Molyneaux might “move away” from the agreed DUP-UUP position.
The note goes on: “Mr Robinson said that both he and Dr Paisley have been criticised (Dr Paisley less than him) but that they had been able to hold a line despite some ‘warnings of doom’ from Rev McCrea.”
The same document refers to a conversation with DUP colleague Sammy Wilson, who also confirmed Dr Paisley’s eagerness for political progress: “He has been warned by his advisers that he has gone as far as he possibly [can] and that he should not make any further concessions. Mr Wilson made it clear that this advice was tendered not in an effort to hinder the possible talks but because the general judgment is that Dr Paisley would be unable to persuade his party to support them – “ he is going to have enough difficulty selling what he [has] already agreed without attempting the impossible.”
In October 1991, Peter Robinson privately met DG McNeill in the NIO’s Political Affairs Branch. In a October 15 confidential memo of the meeting, Mr McNeill said that the DUP deputy leader did not think that any party leaders – including Ian Paisley – wanted substantive talks before the looming general election.
“He had not spoken to Dr Paisley for some weeks but he could read the signs and Sammy Wilson, who had had a conversation with Dr Paisley about 10 days ago, reported to Robinson that Paisley had said that he was glad they had ‘escaped’ from the last round of talks and that he did not want to re-engage ... before the election.”
Mr Robinson said that Dr Paisley had felt that he was “taking too great a political risk” and that “Robinson’s view is that Paisley is now convinced that he could not sell that idea to his supporters”.
The document added: “He was, he said, very depressed about the political scene and he intended to make a major speech at his party conference at the end of November indicating his thoughts on the future.”