Declassified files: After 41 years, notes of failed 1976 power-sharing talks released

Talks in 1976 to restore power-sharing at Stormont ultimately failed
Talks in 1976 to restore power-sharing at Stormont ultimately failed

Detailed notes charting the death of talks aimed at getting unionists and nationalists to share power more than 40 years ago have been released for the first time.

The papers show how the nationalist SDLP said that it only wanted to see power-sharing as an interim measure followed by a later return to majority rule, but unionists – who now must compulsorily share power with Sinn Fein – rejected that offer.

John Hume was deputy leader of the SDLP at the time of the talks

John Hume was deputy leader of the SDLP at the time of the talks

The yellowing papers are contained within a file which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast along with much younger files from 1991 made public under the 20-Year Rule.

It is understood that the papers, which should have been declassified years ago, were transferred late from Stormont Castle, perhaps because they had been misplaced.

The bulky file contains the notes of the distinguished civil servant Maurice Hayes, who was one of the key officials assisting the Constitutional Convention which was the elected body set up by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Merlyn Rees in an attempt to resurrect the first fleeting experiment of unionist-nationalist power-sharing in Northern Ireland after the Sunningdale Agreement which had fallen after five months in 1974.

The convention was chaired by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Lord Lowry, but ultimately collapsed and direct rule of Northern Ireland from Westminster continued for more than two decades.

Notes taken by Maurice Hayes have been released after 41 years

Notes taken by Maurice Hayes have been released after 41 years

A February 13, 1976 note by Dr Hayes recorded details of the final convention meeting in which the SDLP participated.

“Mr [John] Hume outlined SDLP position – they believed that only a government representative of both traditions and drawing the support of all sections of the community could meet the needs of NI at the present time.

“Normally they disliked contrived solutions, but it was a contrived solution they had to deal with. Until a normal political situation was reached, they believed only partnership in government would work.

“When that stage had been reached, they would be quite happy, in the ordinary play of politics, to see a majority type government.”

The then SDLP deputy leader went on to say that his party “would not agree to any change which had not the support of the majority of the people” – a reference to the principle of consent which the IRA then derided as a “unionist veto” but which Sinn Fein came to accept in 1998 and was enshrined in the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

SDLP leader Gerry Fitt then asked the dominant United Ulster Unionist Council – which included anti-power-sharing unionists from the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP and the Vanguard party – if they were saying that they would never serve in a cabinet with the SDLP.

“Mr [UUP leader Harry] West said that they could not bind the politicians of the future, but for today and as far as he could see ahead, the answer was no.”

SDLP member Paddy Devlin Devlin asked for an adjournment and during the break the SDLP spoke to the chairman, Lord Lowry, and Mr Hayes.

“Mr Fitt said they had been very anxious to talk but [it was] useless to do so in face of Mr West’s refusal to negotiate... MNH [Dr Hayes] urged SDLP to continue in view of the trouble likely to arise from the Stagg death,” a reference the IRA hunger-striker Frank Stagg who had died the previous day at a prison in Yorkshire.

After the meeting resumed, Mr Hume said that Mr West had ruled out discussion. “At this stage, Mr Devlin left the meeting, followed quickly by the other three SDLP representatives.”

Two days earlier, Mr Devlin had warned the chairman that they might walk out if the UUUC made clear that there was no hope of power-sharing.

A note of that meeting with Lord Lowry recorded him as saying that the SDLP team “were under great pressure from even moderates in their own party to stop talking to people who were abusing them nightly ... all they needed was one Protestant leader who was big enough to make the gesture – he would find SDLP more than generous”.

Mr Devlin also said that to restore law and order he advocated “a draconian policy which would require the backing of every party in the convention”.

A fortnight earlier, a note of a January 26 meeting between Lord Lowry and the UUUC recorded that Lord Lowry had “referred to SDLP disquiet at some UUUC speeches. He said it made it very hard for them to be seen negotiating with people who abused them. UUUC leaders dismissed the criticism.”