Documents declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast today demonstrate the scale of the chasm which existed between the DUP and Sinn Fein at the time – and how far both parties have moved from past positions.
Files from 1988 released under the 30/20-year-rule quoted the now Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, as saying that anyone believing Sinn Fein would withdraw support for the IRA was “in cloud cuckoo land”.
Meanwhile, the late Ian Paisley, who would go on to amicably share power with Mr McGuinness 19 years later, said there was “no question” of his party ever even talking to Sinn Fein.
A May 18, 1988 internal NIO roundup of political events quoted a speech by Mr McGuinness. During a graveside ceremony to commemorate the eight IRA men shot dead in Loughgall, Mr McGuinness said that the talks then ongoing between Sinn Fein and the SDLP “have absolutely nothing whatsoever” to do with ceasefires.
He added: “Those people who say that there will be no place at the conference table for Sinn Fein until the IRA ends its campaign are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think Sinn Fein will withdraw support for the Irish Republican Army.”
Another NIO roundup of political events from April 1988 quoted republican sources (seemingly quoted in the media at the time) saying that “the armed struggle would continue until a British declaration of intent to withdraw was secured”.
A confidential internal NIO report on Sinn Fein, which was written in April 1988, said that support for the party could roughly be equated with support for IRA violence. It went on: “A fall in Sinn Fein’s electoral support would be one indication that support for violence in the community had been reduced. For Sinn Fein to renounce violence and behave as a normal political party would be a still greater prize - if it could be achieved.
“This is not completely beyond imagination. It was the intention behind the 1974 Government’s decision to prescribe, and may be behind Mr Hume’s current contacts with Sinn Fein.
“The evolution of pre-1970 ‘official’ Sinn Fein into the non-violent Workers’ Party provides a precedent. In present circumstances, however, Sinn Fein’s renunciation of violence seems unlikely.”
At the time, Dr Paisley was quoted as saying, “There is no question of my party ever talking to Sinn Fein”, while Peter Robinson was quoted as saying that he wanted to see the IRA “eliminated - not elevated”.
Four years earlier, during a November 1984 meeting between Secretary of State Douglas Hurd and the DUP leadership, Mr Hurd told them that he was “rather dismayed by the triumphalism of unionist reactions so far [to the Government’s rejection of the New Ireland Forum report].
He regretted the tone of Dr Paisley’s attack on Bishop Cahal Daly as the ‘black Pope of the republican movement’.
“He did not agree with all that Bishop Daly himself had said, but felt that the intemperate tone of Dr Paisley’s attack sat oddly with his professed readiness to have constructive discussion with other party leaders.”
Dr Paisley retorted that Bishop Daly’s recent statements had been “deeply offensive”, by suggesting that Catholics had no right to justice in Northern Ireland.
However, Dr Paisley went on to show hints of his later pragmatism, telling Mr Hurd that he had been in contact with SDLP leader John Hume and had deliberately not made any “triumphalist statements” immediately after the forum report’s rejection. According to the NIO note of Dr Paisley’s account of his conversation with Mr Hume, “Dr Paisley accepted that a settlement in Northern Ireland was bound to have to take into account the position of the Irish government, but to ascribe to that government a pivotal role was too much.”