Unionists kept in dark on Anglo-Irish talks in 1985

The Anglo-Irish Agreement signing at Hillsborough Castle. Margaret Thatcher and Irish Premier Garret Fitzgerald present.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement signing at Hillsborough Castle. Margaret Thatcher and Irish Premier Garret Fitzgerald present.

Declassified Government files from 1985 have revealed details of how unionists were deliberately not informed of the Anglo-Irish Agreement while the SDLP received regular briefings on the progress of negotiations.

Papers released at the Public Record Office in Belfast today under the 20-year-rule, confirm that there was a conscious decision within the British Government to exclude unionists from the protracted inter-government talks.

However, the SDLP was regularly briefed by the Irish government in the months leading up to the Agreement being signed on November 15, 1985.

And, the files reveal, even the American government was given some details of the developing Agreement, while unionists were kept in the dark.

Unionist fury at the Agreement, which gave the Republic a consultative role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, was exacerbated by the secrecy with which it had been crafted and their exclusion from the process.

A secret and personal October 25 Downing Street briefing note for the Prime Minister ahead of a meeting with the UUP leader, Jim Molyneaux, and the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, stated that “Mr Molyneaux and Dr Paisley have not been made aware of the details of our negotiations with the Irish, and it rankles that the latter have had no such scruples in relation to the SDLP, although Mr Molyneaux was offered the briefing on a Privy Council basis and declined.

“(If he were to seek further briefing on that basis it would be hard to refuse, but it seems unlikely that he would wish a briefing which would effectively tie his hands.)”

Such a briefing would have allowed the Government to say that it had told the UUP leader of what was going on, but would have been on a strictly off the record basis, precluding him from making it public.

The paper given to Mrs Thatcher, which was drawn up by the Secretary of State Tom King, added: “Nevertheless there can be no question of now briefing Mr Molyneaux and Dr Paisley on the details of the talks at this meeting, because they would leak.”

The file also shows that the US Government was briefed on aspects of the agreement — at a time when unionists were being kept in the dark.

A meeting between the Secretary of State and the US Ambassador on October 25 discussed some of the points under discussion between the UK and the Republic.

The Secretary of State said that he was hopeful that the reaction in Northern Ireland would be “manageable”.

“In 1974 the UWC had a weak power-sharing executive as the target; this time any opponents of an agreement would have to take on the UK Government and in particular the Prime Minister.”

It added: “The Ambassador saw that the US Government was sympathetic to the negotiations but appreciated the need to show any support with discretion; it might not be helpful for an agreement to appear to have ‘too large a US thumb print on it’.”

But the files show that officials did consider briefing unionists , before abandoning the idea. A secret June 11 1985 note from senior NIO official John Lyon referred to telling the Irish Government about plans to brief unionists.

It said: “We should also brief [the British Ambassador to Dublin] to point out that if the Irish express any unease about the degree of information that we propose to give, he should remind them that Mr Barry told the Secretary of State on May 30 that they had been sounding out Mr Hume on detailed ideas which formed part of the talks: we too needed to sound out the unionists in particular, although we did not at this stage propose to go into very much detail.”

A draft four-page briefing paper to be used to brief unionist leaders was attached.

However, a secret memo from RS Reeve in the NIO’s political affairs division showed the level of internal debate about such a move.

He said: “At the risk of sounding over-cautious, could I say that I still have strong reservations about the response of the unionist parties to the kind of message set out in the attachment to your minute of May 21 to the PUS. We appear to have got ourselves into a dilemma of our own making...could we not extract ourselves from this position by stating to OD (I) that the time is not ripe for the sort of consultations they envisage?

“We can point to the problems regarding confidentiality and the risks that premature leaking by unionist parties might pose to the bilateral discussions themselves.

“Certainly, at some point we will need to be more frank with both the unionist parties and the population at large within the Province...I just feel that the time is not now.”

A note from a Miss DFE Elliott shared her concerns, warning that if unionists leaked the briefing it could “torpedo future discussions with the Irish Government”.

Earlier move to declassify files

Government records have traditionally been released under the 30-year-rule at the start of January.

However, as a 20-year-rule is phased in, files are now being released in both August and December until all files older than 20 years are made public.

Each of the files which the News Letter reports on today have been released at the Public Record Office where members of the public can browse more than 800 files from 1985.