A newly-declassified Government file contains an intriguing document which suggests the use of a back channel to communicate with Ian Paisley during a period when unionists were officially not dealing with the Government.
A file on the Prime Minister’s contacts with local party leaders in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement contains a two-page document entitled ‘Notes of talk with Ian Paisley’ and dated 19 February 1986 which has subsequently been stamped ‘confidential’.
Unlike Civil Service memos, it is not typed on headed paper and does not contain the customary formalities present on even highly secret official documents - such as a distribution list and the author’s name.
Throughout, Dr Paisley is referred to by his initials, IP, and the apparent author is referred to as FC (those initials appear at the end of the document).
The document — which came just three months after the famous ‘Never, Never Never’ speech suggests that even at a point when Dr Paisley was viewed as unbending and uncompromising he was privately more pragmatic, exploring possible ways out of the political impasse and accepting that to do so would require unionist concessions.
The document, released at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 30/20 Year Rule, sets out Dr Paisley and Jim Molyneaux’s detailed proposals which they were to put to the Prime Minister almost a week later on 25 February.
Dr Paisley told the unnamed intermediary that the unionists would like a round-table conference inaugurated by the Prime Minister and then chaired by the Secretary of State “without preconditions”.
He said that if a devolved Assembly was set up that could bring an end to British-Irish Government dealings under the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Assembly would deal directly with Dublin.
The typewritten note records: “They were quite content, as part of a Northern Ireland Assembly, to talk direct to the Irish Government.
“They had not come easily to this position and they recognised that they would have to make concessions on matters they had always refused to concede; but IP was clear that both unionist parties were prepared to go ahead on this basis.
“IP was most anxious that the public agreement at the next meeting with the PM should be positive. It had to be evident to the voters in NI that there was a way forward in agreement with the British Government, so that the pressure for continued non cooperation could be lifted.
“It was also very desirable there should be evident progress before the ‘marching season’...The power workers and others were ready to come out on strike but the unionists wanted enough progress to remove the pressure for direct action. IP said that he would like to get in touch with me again immediately after the meeting with the PM.”
The note then records a subsequent meeting with John Hume on the same day at which ‘FC’ - who refers to himself throughout in the third person - told Mr Hume much of what had been said by Dr Paisley. Mr Hume said that he was “quite content with a round-table conference without preconditions”.
He went on to say that he “wanted a police force which the nationalists could join” and which could therefore deal with the remains of the IRA.
It is possible that ‘FC’ was Sir Fred Catherwood, an Ulster-born Conservative MEP for Cambridgeshire.
Elsewhere in the declassified files, reference is made to Sir Fred, who had approached the Government suggesting that he could talk to unionists behind the scenes.
An October 1986 memo from NIO Permanent Secretary Sir Robert Andrew to Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong described Sir Fred as “our self-appointed intermediary”.
The memo, marked ‘Secret and personal’, says that at that point - some six eight months after FC’s note of his meeting with Dr Paisley, Sir Fred was “continuing to try to arrange talks with the political parties and [he] has been having conversations with both Ken Bloomfield in Belfast and Sean Donlon in Dublin”.
He went on to say that “Catherwood seems not to have understood the Irish position”, but said that “it seems desirable to give Catherwood some piece of paper on which he can draw when he talks to Paisley and Hume”.
A September 1986 internal NIO memo from Frances Elliott said that “Sir Frederick’s assessment of the attitudes of the political parties in the past has been over-optimistic...his present assessment therefore cannot be relied upon.”
Sir Fred, a former president of the Evangelical Alliance, died last November - two months after the death of Dr Paisley.