Declassified files: Bishop passed on IRA wish for ‘no strategic interest’ statement

Peter Brooke's 1990 speech was seen as a key step in persuading the IRA to give up violence
Peter Brooke's 1990 speech was seen as a key step in persuading the IRA to give up violence

Three years before a government minister uttered the words which have been credited with helping persuade the IRA to embark on a journey to abandon violence, a variant of the words were suggested by a senior Roman Catholic bishop.

In 1990 the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Brooke made a key speech in which he said that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland and would accept a united Ireland if a majority in Northern Ireland supported that change.

Files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast contain a confidential note a meeting between Bishop Cahal Daly, who would go on to become the most senior Catholic figure in Ireland, and the then Secretary of State, Tom King on May 18. 1987.

It said: “Discussion then turned to Sinn Fein’s political stance. The bishop had heard rumours, emanating from Adams, that, were HMG to declare that it had no strategic or other overwhelming interest in remaining in Northern Ireland and if such a declaration were to be agreed in broad terms with Sinn Fein, then its leaders would approach the PIRA leadership with the recommendation for a cessation of violence while political accommodations were made.”

However, the bishop – a vocal critic of the IRA – went on to question whether that suggestion was genuine.

“He was deeply sceptical about the sincerity of such an approach: the ballot box was merely the handmaiden of political violence for PIRA and violence would always retain primacy.

“The only way to throttle that violence was by means of withdrawal of community support for it...rioting in West Belfast had been counter-productive for Sinn Fein and the bishop expressed the hope that post-Loughgall attitudes might become more constructive once again.”

The bishop added that “certainly the church-going public” would support the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein in West Belfast, but the seat still “remained wide open”.

Three years later, another confidential document recorded some of what was said at an October 1990 dinner (which went “well into the night”) between the NIO permanent secretary, Sir John Blelloch, and senior Irish diplomat Declan O’Donovan,

Sir John, who died a month ago, “also commented that in his view the entry of Sinn Fein into the political process following the hunger strikes would prove to be a turning point.

“He did not believe that Sinn Fein/PIRA would be able to maintain their dual strategy of the armalite and the ballot box indefinitely, and that Sinn Fein entry into the political process at a time when they believed they could secure the vast majority of nationalist support would prove their undoing”.

A Guardian report in 1999 claimed that the NIO had been “trying ... for years” to use the “no selfish strategic or economic interest” phrase but that Margaret Thatcher only approved its use after the end of the Cold War due to the passage of British nuclear submarines close to Ireland.