John Hume wanted to have talks with the IRA Army Council in what senior government officials in Dublin thought was a plan for a public and damaging confrontation with the terrorists.
Irish state papers released under the 30-year rule in Dublin showed Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald thought the idea had “torn the mask” from Gerry Adams’s claims that Sinn Fein was independent of the Provisionals.
Ultimately the idea was abandoned, with the SDLP leader not sitting down secretly with Mr Adams until 1988.
But documents in several Anglo-Irish files from the Taoiseach’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1985 reveal mixed emotions about Mr Hume’s desire to talk to the terrorists.
One of the deepest insights into his thinking came after Sean Donlon, who was central to the Anglo-Irish negotiations, sat down with Mr Hume on January 25.
In his memo to the Taoiseach he suggested support for the Provos may have peaked and that they had run into “obvious military difficulties”.
He said Mr Hume only wanted talks with “those who really called the shots”.
Other documents on the issue recall how the SDLP leader branded Mr Adams a “puppet”.
“My assessment of Hume’s present position in relation to the Provisionals is that he is willing, even anxious, to have a confrontation, preferably public, with them,” Mr Donlon wrote.
“For the first time in a while, he seems to feel that he could significantly damage them in a confrontation.
“He may very well be right, in Derry and west of the Bann terms, but I am doubtful that he could at this stage discredit people like Adams and the Provisional organisation in Belfast.”
Mr Donlon reported that the SDLP leader felt a duty to talk to the IRA as nationalists saw “no difference between the violence of Paisleyism and that of the Provisionals”.
Mr Hume told the senior diplomat that nationalists would not understand how he could sit down with unionists but decline talks with the Provisionals. “I pointed to the obvious danger that if he showed a willingness to talk to the Provisionals at any stage, he might be providing an opening which the British would be very happy to use,” Mr Donlon said.
“He responded that there was the world of difference between a government talking to the Provisionals and a private citizen, even an elected representative, doing so.”
Elsewhere, senior SDLP figures thought the talks offer and unionist reaction had given the party the high ground.
Margaret Thatcher was said to be “quite at ease” when the issue was raised in talks in March that year and a month earlier Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Douglas Hurd said he had not taken the idea seriously but that “it could be worse”.
“I hope we can steer past it without upsetting the main issues,” he told the Republic’s Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Barry as negotiations on the Anglo-Irish Agreement were beginning in earnest.
Mr Hurd said he was concerned any meeting with an elected politician and the IRA would set what he called “all the old drum notes”.
He was worried that no matter where the talks were held security forces and police would have to act to arrest Army Council members and charge them with terrorism offences.
Mr FitzGerald played down the strength and capability of the IRA at the time. He also threatened to break up any talks. “The IRA are not as strong on the ground and could be financially embarrassed at the present time, as a result of pressure from Ireland, the UK and the USA,” he told Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong.