Declassified files: Alasdair McDonnell tried to cross political divide – but John Hume blocked him

Alasdair McDonnell (right) pictured with Reg Empey in 2007
Alasdair McDonnell (right) pictured with Reg Empey in 2007

Future SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell quietly began a brave attempt to initiate low level unionist-nationalist contact at a point when there was extreme tension – but his effort was quashed by John Hume, a declassified government file has revealed.

In late 1991, in the wake of the unionist backlash against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and amid a toxic atmosphere in Belfast City Hall where at points councillors came close to blows, Dr McDonnell approached the Ulster Unionist Reg Empey.

The two men, who were both on the moderate wings of their parties, were at that point Belfast councillors.

A confidential December 13 1991 memo from Danny McNeill in the NIO’s political affairs division set out to senior NIO colleagues how the “low level inter party contacts” had started. He said that although “at least one media commentator has learnt something about the initiative”, his own information came directly in confidence from Mr Empey and Dr McDonnell and had not been publicly reported.

He said: “Both of these individuals have been developing their relationship in recent weeks on Belfast City Council. As a result of this and out of a sense of frustration at what they saw as a lack of drive on the part of their party leaders, a proposition emerged.

“It was originated by Alasdair McDonnell (who felt the frustration greater). He approached Empey and suggested that a number of SDLP and UUP people get together socially and informally with two aims – firstly to get to know each other and secondly to see if they could identify ways in which their parties could become involved in more substantive dialogue.”

He said that Dr McDonnell had “briefed John Hume at the SDLP conference and thought he got the go-ahead”, while Mr Empey wrote to his leader, Jim Molyneaux, and received permission in writing.

Dr McDonnell had involved Alban Maginness, Joe Hendron and Denis Haughey, while Mr Empey had involved Jack Allen, Chris McGimpsey and Jeffrey Donaldson.

The note said that David Trimble – at that point still seen as a hardliner, but the unionist leader who would go on to prove one of the most flexible in the history of Northern Ireland – “had been another possibility but was ruled out by the SDLP”.

The intention was “to meet, initially, in Alasdair McDonnell’s house for pre-Christmas drinks and take it from there”, with neither the DUP nor Alliance being invited, something “accepted by both UUP and SDLP leaders”.

However, “at the end of last week and before any further action could be taken McDonnell got a message from John Hume to the effect that it would not be helpful to proceed any further at this stage and that he should put the initiative ‘on ice’. No reason, other than that it would tend to confuse matters, was given.”

Mr McNeill commented that the initiative “may have been helpful in promoting good relations between the individuals involved and therefore it is discouraging that it was stifled”. He said that both Mr Empey and Dr McDonnell felt that rather than being “on ice”, the idea was “dead”.

He noted that Mr Molyneaux’s reaction showed him to be more open to delegating initiatives to party colleagues than was the case with Mr Hume, who he speculated “would have been motivated partly by a desire that he should not be undermined but also by a determination, at least for the foreseeable future, that any developments can only take place if they are consistent with the three-stranded March 26 approach”, a reference to Mr Hume’s proposals for inter-party talks to involve not just the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, but also north-south and east-west cooperation.

In a meeting with the head of the civil service David Fell on December 17 1991, Mr Empey told him that “he had had approval in writing for the initiative from Jim Molyneaux, and that Alasdair McDonnell (the initiator) thought he had had John Hume’s agreement.

“He regretted that John Hume had scuppered the arrangement, and felt particularly sorry for Alasdair McDonnell, who had had the courage to launch the idea in the first place. He is not, however, without hope that something can be salvaged from it, even if only commencing at the social level.”