Declassified Files: NIO believed Robinson was pondering independent NI

Peter Robinson addressing the Commons in 1991
Peter Robinson addressing the Commons in 1991

Peter Robinson apocalyptically warned the Government about the possibility of Northern Ireland declaring independence – and senior officials believed that Mr Robinson would be open to such an idea, declassified files have revealed.

The man who would go on to lead unionism in Northern Ireland and become First Minister privately met an official in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in October 1991 to deliver what was a gloomy assessment of the future of the Union.

It is not the first time in declassified Government files that Mr Robinson was linked to the idea of declaring Northern Ireland a state, severing the link with Britain while refusing to join with the Republic of Ireland.

Papers released last year showed that in 1986 the most senior British Civil Servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, told the Irish Government that Mr Robinson was “saying things about independence”.

Sir Robert warned that although such a notion may seem “unthinkable”, that “the issue may become more real”.

In papers released yesterday at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 Year Rule, one memo records a meeting between the then DUP deputy leader and DG McNeill in the NIO’s Political Affairs Branch.

In a 15 October confidential memo of the meeting, Mr McNeill said: “We then went on to talk about his thoughts on the longer term future for NI. He said that increasingly people in the Protestant community were focussing on independence.

“He said that he did not advocate that, though I was not entirely convinced, but that if any serious and credible politician were to so advocate then the independence movement would develop very quickly.

“He did not see it as a solution to the violence, he said; he thought that there would be a major explosion of violence.

“However, he went on to say that he thought that all British Governments (and any potential Governments) had made it clear that the Union was finished and that most Protestants to whom he spoke knew that, though they were not clear on what they should do about that. The only clear alternative which they could see was independence.”

Three years before the first IRA ceasefire and seven years before the Belfast Agreement of 1998 largely brought the Troubles to an end, the memo also records how Mr Robinson referred to a recent upsurge in loyalist paramilitary violence, something he said was due to “Protestants’ frustration at the fact that politically they can achieve little”.

Mr Robinson said that “he was now hearing justification for these killings from normally moralistic people”.

The official commented that Mr Robinson was “obviously frustrated” and “his views on independence were clearly well thought out and, though presented as just reporting what he sees, the impression he meant to convey was that he saw that or something like it as the way forward in the absence of progress on any other acceptable front.”

The official mused that this “may be pressure tactics” but said it could also “signal at least a greater emphasis on an approach which is often not far from the surface of some DUP politicians”.

In a confidential 21 October 1991 memo, another NIO official, PN Bell, said: “I was particularly interested also in what you had to say about ‘independence’ and what Mr Robinson saw as HMG’s attitude to the Union...One reading of your minute suggests that Mr Robinson may see himself as the statesman who would crystallise Protestant sentiment around this notion.”