The highest levels of the Irish government privately believed that there was a “policy decision” on the part of the British government not to arrest Martin McGuinness.
Papers released at the Public Record Office in Belfast today under the 30-year-rule show that both the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, and senior Dublin civil servants raised the issue with the then Secretary of State, Jim Prior, and his team of NIO officials.
A confidential note of a May 1983 Dublin meeting between Mr Prior and Dr FitzGerald records that the Taoiseach had made “strong representations” about several issues, including Mr McGuinness, though his name is repeatedly misspelt throughout the documents by officials. The first was a belief that there had been “an instruction from a Northern Ireland Minister that their decisions should seek to favour Sinn Fein”, something Mr Prior denied but said he would investigate.
The second point is headlined ‘Reluctance to arrest Mr Maginnis [sic]’.
“Dr FitzGerald said that the evidence from the convicted terrorist Mr Gilmore had succeeded in putting the IRA in Derry in disarray. It was inconceivable, however, that nothing in his evidence had failed to implicate Maginnis [sic]. It seemed, therefore, that it was a policy decision that he should not be arrested. Again, the Secretary of State reacted firmly.
“He was sure that if sustainable evidence against Maginnis [sic] existed, he would be arrested. But he did not think there was such evidence.”
The meeting – held just over two years before the Anglo-Irish Agreement - also records a subtle warning from the Secretary of State that if political progress was not made after the coming UK General Election it could lead to an abandonment of devolution. “If they failed, the alternative was likely to be integration of Northern Ireland within the UK.”
However, other files appear to suggest that suggestion was likely an empty threat as officials had drawn up detailed arguments against integration, a policy at that time popular with the UUP leader Jim Molyneaux and UUP MP Enoch Powell, though not universally popular even within that party.
While Mr Prior was meetings that Taoiseach and other Irish ministers, officials from either side held a separate meeting. A five-page note of the contact, written by GL Angel, records the Irish officials’ unhappiness at stories of the NIO “hob-nobbing with Sinn Fein”, with the secret note adding that it appeared to be fuelled by the belief that British ministers “thought Sinn Fein could be tamed”.
NIO officials insisted this was untrue: “There was no illusion in the NIO that chatting about drains and housing with Sinn Fein would lead the IRA away from violence. As for not arresting Mr MacGuinness [sic], both he and Mr Adams [seemingly the Irish officials had asked why they had not been arrested] were the two we would most like to see convicted but evidence was required.” Other files released by both governments reveal their previously hidden strategies for dealing with Ulster’s politicians.