Two months into the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, Downing Street considered offering the IRA a weapons amnesty, declassified documents reveal.
The plan would have allowed the IRA to hand over guns and explosives without any questions being asked.
In what was a period of significant movement in the emerging peace process, it was proposed by the Prime Minister’s office that John Major would make the announcement during a visit to Belfast.
During an important speech, Mr Major announced that if the IRA kept its ceasefire then the Government was ready to enter the first exploratory talks with Sinn Fein by the end of that year and also announced that the Home Secretary was lifting the orders which excluded Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness from Great Britain.
But a draft of the October 21 speech to the Institute of Directors in Belfast shows that Downing Street initially intended to include an even bigger announcement.
Files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 Year Rule show that four days before the speech Mr Major’s private secretary, Roderic Lyne, sent a secret memo to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State’s private secretary.
The communication accompanied a draft of the Prime Minister’s speech and drew attention to several proposals, asking for senior NIO figures’ views on them.
The proposed text of the speech at that point included this section: “So I have a second announcement which, like the lifting of exclusion orders, will help to prepare the ground for the exploratory talks.
“In those talks, as I said, we must agree on how to take weapons and explosives out of politics.
“It is [a] question we shall be ready to discuss with both republicans and loyalists, for the law applies equally to both.
“But the process can get under way even before those discussions begin. From [?1 November] we shall be declaring an amnesty for those who have been holding illegal weapons and explosives.
“Arrangements will be made [so that the holders of these weapons can hand them in at designated points, and thereby demonstrate at once their commitment to Northern Ireland’s peaceful future.]
“The amnesty relates to the holding of weapons and we will ensure they can be anonymously handed in.
“The amnesty does not extend to crimes committed which must still be dealt with by the full rigour of the law.”
On the issue of a weapons amnesty, Mr Lyne asked the NIO: “Will it be possible to make this announcement? What needs to be done in preparation?”
Mr Lyne also asked about the NIO’s view on an announcement that exclusion orders on “Gerry Adams and some others” were to be lifted.
However, an October 18, 1994 memo from John Steele, a senior security official in the NIO, to the Secretary of State’s private secretary advised against any sudden move to announce such an idea.
The document – which, unusually for NIO files released in Belfast, had the security classification of ‘secret’ – described the proposed announcement of an arms amnesty as “premature”.
“COG will be considering a paper on the subject tomorrow: however, even if we had already reached the view that an amnesty would in fact help resolve the arms issue – and that is by no means certain – the timing of any announcement, and how this could best be fitted into our overall gameplan for future talks, would need very careful consideration.
“It is too early now to make that judgement. Furthermore, there are a range of practical issues to be decided, including the scope of any amnesty, how the co-operation of the Irish can best be secured, and the detailed arrangements for the surrender of weapons.
“For all these reasons, No 10 should, I believe, be strongly advised to omit all reference to an amnesty in the speech.”
Another document held within the same file appears to allude to the issue.
In a confidential and personal memo of an October 1994 meeting between the Prime Minister and Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux, Mr Major’s private secretary said that they had discussed the “surrender of weapons”.
On that issue, the note said that “Molyneaux wondered whether we could put the onus on the Taoiseach and the Republic of Ireland for dealing with the IRA’s weapons”.
Mr Molyneaux also said he had “heard from sensitive sources” that the IRA was “still targeting people”.
And the UUP leader “suggested that we should conduct ‘exploratory talks’ with the representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries... he did not, of course, argue that they could become full participants in the talks process”.
In the end, Mr Major’s speech did not include any reference to a weapons amnesty.
Instead, the Prime Minsiter said that any exploratory talks with Sinn Féin would “discuss the practical consequences of ending violence, most obviously how illegal weapons and explosives are going to be removed from everyday life in Northern Ireland”.
He added: “Peace cannot be assured finally until the paramilitaries on both sides hand in their weapons.
“This is a difficult issue but it cannot be ducked.
“We must consider therefore how guns and explosives can best be deposited and de-commissioned.
“These weapons are both north and south of the border so we shall be consulting the Irish government on a coordinated approach.”
Ultimately, the IRA was left to decommission its own weapons a decade later, with Government-appointed observers present.
When decommissioned, the weapons were not foresnsically tested, ruling out the possibility of them helping to bring to justice those responsible for many Troubles attrocities. Unionists have always been sceptical that the IRA destroyed all its weapons.