Declassified files: Blair wanted to explore option of Queen opening Stormont Assembly

Tony Blair wanted to explore the option of the Queen officially opening Northern Ireland’s new Assembly in 1998, newly released state papers reveal.

By David Young
Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 4:30 am
The one hundred and eight elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, during their first session in Parliament Buildings, in Stormont. PA image
The one hundred and eight elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, during their first session in Parliament Buildings, in Stormont. PA image

The Labour prime minister was however concerned that it would be a “delicate issue” for nationalist opinion and asked one of his ministers to raise it privately with then SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon.

Then Northern Ireland secretary of state Mo Mowlam suggested that it might help “see off controversy” if ideas which did not necessitate the Queen’s involvement were considered.

Details are contained in documents held at the Public Record Office in Belfast. Hundreds of the files are now being opened for public viewing under the 30/20 year rule.

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The Stormont Assembly was formally established in 1998, with the first election taking place in June and the first meeting in July.

However, the Assembly was to exist in shadow form without assuming full devolved powers until December 1999, mainly due to political disputes over IRA decommissioning of weapons.

Newly released papers reveal a letter from John Holmes, principal private secretary to Mr Blair, to Nick Perry at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on September 21 1998 when he raised the possibility of the Queen officially opening the Stormont parliament.

He writes: “The Prime Minister agrees that we cannot assume that this will remain a sleeping dog.

“However, he does not believe that it would be inappropriate for The Queen to open the Assembly and does not agree we should ourselves try to avert this possibility.

“Nevertheless, he recognises that this is a delicate issue for nationalist opinion.”

The letter adds: “He therefore believes that as a first step Paul Murphy (an NIO minister) should talk to Seamus Mallon privately about arrangements for the opening, mentioning the possibility of The Queen, but in neutral terms, before raising it with (David) Trimble or making any other moves.

“We can take it from there, depending on Seamus’s reaction.”

A letter from Labour official Jonathan Stephens said he had had a meeting with Mo Mowlam on the issue.

He stated: “She was entirely content with the line being taken by No 10.

“But she also suggested that it might help see off controversy if we were ready to come forward ourselves with vibrant and exciting proposals for marking the devolution of full powers to the Assembly in a way which did not necessitate the Queen’s involvement – eg children’s choirs, etc.”

Attention then turns to the crisis which was engulfing the newly established Assembly over IRA decommissioning and the refusal of first minister David Trimble to agree to Sinn Fein joining the shadow executive until weapons had been put beyond use.

A letter from Mr Holmes in September states: “Dr Mowlam explained her concern that positions were hardening on both sides over the impasse involving decommissioning and the formation of a shadow executive.

“Neither Trimble nor (then Sinn Fein president Gerry) Adams showed any signs of moving.”

It adds: “The Prime Minister said he was willing to speak to Adams and Trimble. He thought it was just possible that a deal, along the lines of what he had discussed with (then Irish taoiseach Bertie) Ahern, could be sold.

“Sinn Fein and the IRA would make it clear that there would be actual decommissioning, even if nothing happened before the formation of the Shadow Executive.

“This would be accompanied by some kind of schedule or timetable which made it clear that there would be actual decommissioning before the formation of the real Executive.

“What was clear is that Trimble could not allow Sinn Fein into the Shadow Executive without genuine and serious movement on decommissioning.”

Several files deal with preparations for the physical establishment of the new Assembly, with concerns raised about accommodation in the Stormont estate.

A memo from a civil servant states: “Increasingly it is becoming obvious that the accommodation in Parliament Buildings is insufficient to meet the needs of the First and Deputy First Ministers, their private offices, special advisers and civil servants, who will form the nucleus of a Department of the Executive (whether it be large or small, in shadow or substantive devolution mode).

“I think that we need to work up some options which we can consider with Messrs Trimble and Mallon, but first we need to talk about what might be possible.”

Another civil service memo notes that in Mr Trimble’s Stormont office there was nowhere that his television could be plugged in.