Declassified files: Government rejected Hermon plea to outlaw Sinn Fein

Sir John Hermon wanted Sinn Fein added to the list of proscribed organisations
Sir John Hermon wanted Sinn Fein added to the list of proscribed organisations

A police proposal to outlaw Sinn Fein was rejected in 1988 even though the British Government “never believed” it was a “normal” political party, according to confidential files.

Former Northern Ireland chief constable Sir John Hermon wanted the republican party added to the list of proscribed organisations.

He claimed street disturbances had been orchestrated from an advice centre at Beechmount and a social centre on Conway Street in west Belfast and that weapons were being stored and suspects debriefed at another Sinn Fein office in Strabane.

However, a briefing paper from December 1988 shows that Government advisers believed banning Sinn Fein from the political arena would be “ineffective”.

A senior civil servant wrote: “This report confirms what we already know in terms of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. The membership and command structure of the two organisations is closely related and inter-locked.

“We have never believed that Sinn Fein is a normal, constitutional party but, following recent careful examination of the arguments, concluded that proscription would be inappropriate and ineffective response.

“In the last few weeks we have of course, taken steps to ban Sinn Fein spokesmen from media interviews and will shortly be requiring their councillors, like all other councillors in Northern Ireland, to sign a declaration to the effect that they will not express support or approval for proscribed organisations or acts of terrorism.”

Another five-page briefing paper prepared by ex-direct rule minister Richard Needham outlines concerns at the rise of Sinn Fein in local councils.

In a document entitled The Shadow Of The Gun Over The Council Chamber, the Conservative MP, who spent 10 years at the Northern Ireland Office, said: “It is scarcely surprising that the arrival of such people in the council chambers caused widespread revulsion. The vast majority of councillors, like their electors, and whatever their political aspirations, totally reject violence.

“The British Government wants to see progress towards a devolved government with all constitutional parties involved. No political settlement can work without local government and local government cannot succeed if the supporters of violence are present in the council chambers.

“The operation of Northern Ireland’s 26 district councils has been put seriously at risk by Sinn Fein’s presence in 16 of them. It is understandable that many decent and moderate councillors have despaired and contemplated resignation.

“Local government depends upon attracting able people prepared to serve the community in a balanced, democratic and civilised manner. It also needs a sprinkling of able young men and women who start their political careers in the foothills of council work. It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract such people into public service while the shadow of the gun hangs over the council chamber.”

Instead of proscribing Sinn Fein, the Government introduced a declaration against terrorism for elected representatives.

Mr Needham added: “Mr John Hume recently tried to persuade Gerry Adams to abandon violence. He did not succeed. Gerry Adams can muster scarcely more thanthree per cent of the votes in all Ireland. No wonder he supports violence. It is his only political option. These are not people we can do deals with.”

Meanwhile, there were also fears that council meetings across Northern Ireland could descend into violence after punches were thrown between DUP members and Sinn Fein in Belfast in December the previous year.

A senior civil servant said: “This is clearly a very disturbing situation not only because of the anxieties for the future expressed by the town clerk, but also because this incident follows closely on the heels of a verbal clash (bordering on an exchange of blows) between William McCrea (DUP) and John Davey (Sinn Fein) in the Magherafelt Council chamber.

“Many of the unionist councils in the province take their lead from their counterparts in Belfast and it is seems likely that such confrontations may become more frequent.”