Declassified files: SF man shut out in 1990 would become key part of the NI establishment

Former speaker of the Assembly Mitchell McLaughlin was a Londonderry councillor in 1990
Former speaker of the Assembly Mitchell McLaughlin was a Londonderry councillor in 1990

Previously classified documents bring home how some of those judged persona non grata by the Government in 1990 are now pillars of the new Northern Ireland establishment.

Correspondence from solicitor Barra McGrory to the NIO protested at a decision by the controller of prisons, JM Steele, not to meet the then-Sinn Fein councillor Mitchell McLaughlin, something Mr McGrory alleged was illegal.

Today, Mr McGrory is Northern Ireland’s most senior prosecutor – the director of public prosecutions – and Mr McLaughlin is the recently retired speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A legal letter, which bears the words “Our ref BMcG” and what appears to be Mr McGrory’s personal signature, was one of several sent to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on behalf of Mr McLaughlin which have been declassified at the Public Record Office under the 20 Year Rule.

The July 17 1990 letter said: “Please note that we have received instructions from Mr Mitchell McLaughlin who is a member of Derry City Council, concerning a proposed meeting between yourself and a deputation from their council at 2.30pm on Thursday 19 July 1990.

“We would refer to your letter of 10 July to Mr Geary, town clerk and chief executive of Derry City Council, indicating that you will not receive Sinn Fein representatives in accordance with Government policy.

“We are instructed, however, that it has never been Government policy that Government officials should not meet Sinn Fein representatives.

“Mr McLaughlin himself has met with numerous Government officials in the past from various departments ... we would also point out that to refuse to meet a deputation on the grounds that members of Sinn Fein form part of that deputation would be contrary to law.”

Two months later, Mr Steele responded to say that his decision not to meet Mr McLaughlin had been “in line with Government policy which in this regard makes a distinction between senior officials and other officials”, noting that junior officials would meet with Sinn Fein to address constituents’ practical concerns.

He added that refusals by ministers or officials were based “solely on Sinn Fein’s support of violence and not on any other grounds. Government has made this clear repeatedly and publicly”.

Mr McGrory then wrote again to the Government the following month to revisit the issue.

He told the NIO: “As I understand the position, requests that officials from Assistant Secretary level upwards meet Sinn Fein representatives should be referred for advice, and not that they should be arbitrarily refused on some perceived ground of police policy.

“Before a decision is taken on legal proceedings, perhaps you would indicate whether you sought advice, and if so from whom?”

However, at that point, the correspondence trail in the file goes dead.

An undated NIO memo in between the two letters from Mr McGrory stated that “ministers have decided not to extend to those political parties who overtly or covertly support violence the usual courtesies expected by constitutional political parties”.

The document said that the advice also related to the Ulster Democratic Party, the political wing of the UDA.