Declassified files: NI secretary ‘not bright’ and ‘a major problem’

Tom King was said to be outraged at the Anglo-Irish Agreement which he thought was unfair to unionists
Tom King was said to be outraged at the Anglo-Irish Agreement which he thought was unfair to unionists

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Tom King was “a major problem” during a critical episode in Anglo-Irish relations, a high-ranking official reported.

In a secret briefing to then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in January 1986, Lord King was described as “not bright”, outraged by the Anglo-Irish Agreement and distrustful of Dublin.

The official Irish assessment, just released into the National Archives in Dublin, was written up by Michael Lillis, who co-headed the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast at the time.

The fledgling peace-building institution was set up in the wake of the landmark Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Mr FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher just months beforehand.

In a 13-page analysis of “some serious problems” amid an unexpectedly vociferous unionist backlash to the accord, Mr King was highlighted as one.

Mr Lillis reported to Dublin that he had been told by people very close to Mr King that he is “not bright” and “in his ‘gut’ opposed to, even outraged by, the Agreement” which he thought unfair to unionists.

Furthermore, the secretary of state was convinced that British negotiators were mistaken and misled in their “estimate of the effects of the Agreement” on unionists and Mr King was also “distrustful of Dublin”.

But because of a changing of senior British government figures in the Province, he had become the “untrammelled supremo on the British side” and as such would set the pace of the agreement’s implementation.

This was causing problems for Dublin, who wanted reforms made quickly and clearly.

Mr King, at the time, believed progress should be more subtle in the face of a growing revolt.

In a clearly pessimistic view of him, Mr Lillis suggested the only positive factor about the secretary of state was that his appointment was a “demotion” and so his “last chance to restore his career” which effectively meant making a success out of the agreement.