Irish declassified files: McGrady branded Needham ‘sly, devious and unionist-minded’

Richard Needham served  in the NIO between 1985 and 1992
Richard Needham served in the NIO between 1985 and 1992

One of the longest serving British ministers in Northern Ireland was branded sly, devious and unionist-minded.

Irish state papers from 1985 reveal the late Eddie McGrady took the swipe against Sir Richard Needham in a confidential briefing with Irish diplomats.

Eddie McGrady was SDLP chief whip when he made his comments in 1985

Eddie McGrady was SDLP chief whip when he made his comments in 1985

It was a week out from the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement at Hillsborough and according to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ documents, the SDLP chief whip launched a savage attack after the British minister compared unionist councils with Sinn Fein councils.

“McGrady was appalled by Needham, whom he found sly, devious and unionist-minded,” diplomat Daithi O’Ceallaigh reported to ministers.

“In an aside, McGrady was also very critical of (former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Tom) King and said he was very much a unionist by comparison with his predecessor (Douglas) Hurd.”

Sir Richard served as under-secretary of state for Northern Ireland between 1985 and 1992 but his relations with nationalists got off to a bad start when he ignored a tradition of meeting Mr McGrady on his appointment.

He had however met 10 of the unionist-controlled councils and “their pleadings were having an effect on him”, according to information passed to Mr McGrady from a “Catholic in the NIO”.

Mr McGrady, who burst into Westminster politics by defeating anti-immigration MP Enoch Powell in South Down in 1987, was regarded as an honest broker during his time in politics.

In 1985 his SDLP party was attempting to reverse disruption caused by unionist controlled councils which adjourned and gave powers to a mayor and clerk.

Mr McGrady was pressing Mr Needham on whether the unilateral approach was legal and questioned how routine decisions on planning, housing, roads, water, sewerage and finances could be made without councillors.

“Needham referred to the unionist-controlled councils being a mirror image of Sinn Fein-controlled councils, at which stage McGrady claimed he was savagely attacked by himself until he withdrew the remark,” Mr O’Ceallaigh said.

Mr Needham also accused SDLP of backing Sinn Fein on councils by refusing to sign a new declaration opposing violence.

“The response from Needham was ‘so you support Sinn Fein on the councils’.”

In his letter to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and other ministers Mr O’Ceallaigh said: “This report of McGrady’s on the meeting with Needham indicates that Needham is much more aware of unionist sensitivities than he is of nationalist sensitivities.

“Judgment is borne out by other contacts with Needham and specifically by the line being taken by Needham in regard to the Newry/Dundalk road.”