Ulster Unionist general secretary Frank Millar was embarrassed by the “naked sectarianism” of colleagues after the names of Roman Catholic BBC journalists were read out at the 1984 UUP conference.
Yet at the same conference the UUP leader, Jim Molyneaux, declared that his party could appeal to Catholic voters over the heads of the SDLP.
A November 26 1984 report by SG Hewitt in the NIO’s Political Affairs Division of his attendance at the UUP conference detailed how strained relations were at that point between some of the media and the UUP.
In his report, which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 30/20 year rule, Mr Hewitt wrote: “The conference was not without its controversial moments.
“The Times correspondent’s questionable decision to remain seated during the singing of the national anthem drew a sharp and public rebuke from Mr McCartney.
“A more significant clash between delegates and the press occurred earlier in the day following a debate in which the BBC was accused of employing an unrepresentative proportion of Catholics.
“The press corps took exception to the reading out of a list of names – including Sean Rafferty, Seamus McKee and even Terry Wogan – designed to prove the point.
“The UUP’s general secretary was clearly embarrassed by the naked sectarianism of his colleagues and sought to defuse the heated exchanges which, at one point, looked likely to get out of control.
“Eventually, the press representatives retired to the bar, deeply offended and convinced that ‘nothing had changed’.”
Mr Hewitt indicated that the party was in “self-congratulatory and triumphalist” mood after the Prime Minister’s rejection of the New Ireland Forum report.
He said that both Jim Molyneaux and Enoch Powell had concentrated on the “significant victory” achieved by unionists at the Anglo-Irish summit.
“Despite attempts by Mr [Ken] Maginnis and Mr [Bob] McCartney to persuade the party to be ‘magnanimous in victory’ and generous in their attitude towards the minority, Mr Molyneaux and his senior colleagues showed little sign of seeking to accommodate the SDLP.
“No framework, according to Mr Molyneaux, could contain those who want to remain in the United Kingdom and ‘those whose short, medium and long term determination is to end United Kingdom status’ ... If Mr Hume’s party remained ‘in its Irish unity rut’ the Ulster Unionist Party would appeal to Catholics over the heads of the SDLP.
“Confident as most delegates felt, one or two could be heard in the bar warning of the dangers of complacency.”