Declassified files: John Hume’s focus was Ireland as whole, not NI, SDLP man told NIO

John Hume was said to have ignored SDLP executive meetings
John Hume was said to have ignored SDLP executive meetings

SDLP leader John Hume was simply not interested in making political progress within Northern Ireland and was more concerned about Ireland as a whole, the party’s vice chairman privately told the Northern Ireland Office in 1990.

Files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 Year Rule contain a confidential memo which conveyed the candid thoughts of Tom Kelly, a businessman and one of the SDLP’s two vice-chairmen, about what he saw as the party’s undemocratic centralisation around Mr Hume.

Over lunch with SA Marsh of the NIO’s Political Affairs Division in November 1990, Mr Kelly discussed the political situation ahead of the party’s annual conference.

A confidential memo from Mr Marsh relayed the discussion to senior NIO figures who were at that point attempting to gauge how serious both the SDLP and the unionists were about talks to restore Stormont.

The memo said: “Kelly complained about the centralisation of power within the party.

“Effective control rested with John Hume, supported by a group of unelected party spokesmen.

“The situation would be worse after next week when Mark Durkan, John Hume’s assistant, became party chairman.

“Although the SDLP’s structure appeared democratic on paper, the reverse was the case. Open discussion on important issues was not encouraged, and for a long period the leader had not bothered to attend meetings of the party executive.

“Kelly said he had hoped the election to Parliament of Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady would have provided a broader-based leadership. But this had proved not to be the case.

“McGrady and Mallon operated within their own territorial areas but had little influence on Hume.”

Recounting in considerable detail the views of his dining companion, Mr Marsh went on: “Kelly commented that Hume was simply not interested in making progress within Northern Ireland; he was more concerned about relationships within Ireland as a whole.

“Perhaps rather cynically, he went on to say that an additional reason for this lack of enthusiasm might be that Hume felt Northern Ireland was rather too small a stage for him.

“He also said that he thought Hume would oppose anything which involved a new NI Assembly lest elections strengthened the position of others in the SDLP who might prove a challenge to his authority.

“This negative attitude was not universally held in the party; McGrady in particular had tried hard, but failed, to get the leadership to accept the case for devolution.”

According to the memo, Mr Kelly advised the government to take steps to stimulate debate within the SDLP and went on to say that the government should be “more ruthless about calling in favours; Seamus Mallon, for example, could be told that government support for the regeneration of Newry (for which Mallon was gaining immense kudos in the area) would be conditional on his coming out in favour of the current political process”.

Mr Kelly also advised the government to undermine Sinn Fein “by including them in consultation on projects which they would find it impossible realistically to criticise, for example those involving the creation of jobs or the bettering of facilities”.

Mr Kelly went on to describe Joe Hendron as the wrong candidate to run in West Belfast. He said that “the money from the Rowntree Trust had been received, but it had proved to be something of a mixed blessing since there were strings attached.

“A condition of the grant was the imposition on the party of a political consultant (one Andy Ellis) who by nature of his style would almost certainly get people’s backs up”.

In the end, Mr Hendron narrowly defeated Gerry Adams in West Belfast in the 1992 general election, benefiting from tactical voting by unionists and others who wanted to unseat the Sinn Fein president.

Mr Marsh described Mr Kelly as someone “in a good position to know the workings of the party structure” but added that “he remains something of an outsider, being unpopular and rather self-opinionated” and that what he said should therefore “be taken as broadly indicative, but with a pinch of salt”.