Declassified files: Hume set out architecture of 1998 GFA eight years earlier

John  Hume (right) viewed Ian Paisley as a good deal more flexible and more positive-minded than Jim Molyneaux
John Hume (right) viewed Ian Paisley as a good deal more flexible and more positive-minded than Jim Molyneaux

Much of the eventual architecture of the 1998 Belfast Agreement was put forward to the government by John Hume in a private meeting eight years before that seminal accord, declassified government files reveal.

The proposals were put forward by Mr Hume at a private meeting between the SDLP leader and secretary of state Peter Brooke on March 29 1990 at which, unusually, there were no government officials present.

John Hume (left) with Ian Paisley, Martin Smyth and John Alderdice to announce preliminary talks in 1991

John Hume (left) with Ian Paisley, Martin Smyth and John Alderdice to announce preliminary talks in 1991

The meeting, held in a House of Commons room, had apparently aroused the suspicion of Mr Hume’s senior SDLP colleague Seamus Mallon, something to which the secretary of state alluded by saying that if he was asked about the meeting he would “say that he was interested in hearing from Mr Hume about his US trip”.

Although no civil servants were present, Mr Brooke briefed officials on the conversation and they drew up a four-page memo of what had transpired.

That memo has today been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-Year Rule.

It noted that “Mr Mallon was aware that this meeting was in the offing and was rather suspicious of Mr Hume’s (and the Secretary of State’s) motives.”

Mr Hume told the secretary of state that in any future devolved institutions he would be looking for “full power-sharing, together with a council of ministers drawn from the north and the Republic to consider issues with cross-border connotations (much on the lines of the Sunningdale arrangements in 1973/4).

“He accepted that the border would remain and Northern Ireland would still be part of the UK.”

Mr Hume went on to say that the handling of security issues could have “serious implications” for a Stormont administration and said that he had a “tentative idea” of proposing a “dual police force along Belgian lines” which would involve an “ordinary” police force and a “security” police force to deal with terrorism.

Mr Hume also said that DUP leader Ian Paisley was “a good deal more flexible and more positive-minded than Mr Molyneaux [the UUP leader]”.

Mr Brooke told Mr Hume that he had never personally had the chance to hear him explain his political strategy and would appreciate such an opportunity.

The note recorded: “Mr Hume said that he really had two strategies. The first was posited on reaching agreement with the unionists on the way ahead.

“This would clearly have to involve at an early stage conversations between the unionists and Dublin, and he had agreed with the Taoiseach that if a satisfactory understanding on new institutions of government for the North could be reached with the unionists, then Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution would definitely be on the table in the Unionist/Dublin discussions.”

The memo went on: “Mr Hume said that if this strategy came to nothing, he would then fall back on the alternative, which would be to promote an all-Ireland forum, chaired by the Taoiseach, to which all substantive parties in Ireland (including Sinn Fein) would be invited.

“Of course the unionists would not come, but he was confident that Sinn Fein would (and that the IRA would as a preliminary declare a ceasefire).”

The SDLP leader went on to lament how firmly the issue of territory was fixed in both unionist minds and in the Irish constitution. That, he said, was a “debilitating obstacle to progress: He wanted to focus attention on a potential union of people, not of land.

“But for this to happen, the unionists needed to define themselves in a positive way rather than relying on the old negative stereotypes (‘no surrender’, ‘not an inch’, etc).

“The negative philosophy which unionists had become wedded to was a travesty of an essentially creative people – from whose stock, for example, eleven US Presidents had emerged.”

Two years later, during a meeting between Northern Ireland’s political leaders and prime minister John Major, Mr Hume set out what would become another key feature of the 1998 settlement – concurrent referenda on either side of the border.

Mr Major’s private secretary sent a detailed note of the February 11, 1992 meeting to the NIO.

It recorded that Mr Hume had said: “Whatever was worked out should be endorsed North and South on the same day.

“Once the people as a whole had spoken, then the terrorists would be taking on the Irish people as a whole and would in turn be tackled on that basis.”

Mr Hume also claimed that “the IRA were not motivated by a coherent political philosophy” and said that “there was no Anglo-Irish quarrel over sovereignty”, despite the Republic’s then constitutional claim to Northern Ireland, something removed in 1998.