Declassified files: Downing Street was unnerved by the Northern Ireland Office’s willingness to alienate unionists

Immediate tensions between Mo Mowlam and Tony Blair within days of Labour’s landslide 1997 general election victory saw the prime minister block her attempts to move rapidly towards bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold before an IRA ceasefire, declassified files reveal.

Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 7:01 am
Tony Blair was wary of Mo Mowlam’s plan to reach out to Sinn Fein in ways which could have enraged unionists

Many Downing Street files from Mr Blair’s first weeks in office are today declassified at the National Archives in Kew and they contain hundreds of pages relating to Northern Ireland.

In detailed exchanges between the prime minister’s office and the Northern Ireland Office, it is clear that the NIO wanted to press ahead with overtures to Gerry Adams which they hoped would lead to a new ceasefire.

However, Mr Blair’s private secretary, John Holmes, was alarmed at the proposals and Mr Blair appears to have shared his concern.

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Just days after Labour came to power, the new Northern Ireland secretary of state sent a 10-page memo to Downing Street in which she set out the NIO’s strategy for approaching the peace process over her first month in office.

Ms Mowlam said that she wanted to restart the stuttering inter-party talks from which Sinn Fein was excluded at that point because of IRA violence.

She proposed writing to Gerry Adams and signing the letter herself, a break with past practice which saw letters signed by private secretaries.

She explained: “This never cut much ice with unionists, whereas my personal engagement potentially does send an important message to republicans. While writing an orthodox message, the tone and approach will be seen to have changed.

“If we want to move the peace process forward, we have to have some contact with Sinn Fein: The choice is between direct contact of this sort or through intermediaries. The latter carry dangers of our messages being distorted.”

She went on: “I believe this is the right approach and it will give us a good position with the Irish government and nationalists ... unionists will be suspicious and that is a reality to be faced.

“But, from my discussion with David Trimble yesterday, I believe that if – and it is a big if – a ceasefire resulted, which he and his supporters in Northern Ireland agreed was genuine, then he would also do business with Sinn Fein (and recognise that, on that scenario decommissioning is not the central issue).”

In a May 6 memo to Mr Blair, the prime minister’s private secretary, John Holmes, briefed him ahead of meeting Ms Mowlam to discuss those ideas. He said that “the essence of the NIO proposal is that Mo should write to Adams, that officials should meet with Sinn Fein, and that we should be ready to offer them a date for entry into talks in the event of a satisfactory ceasefire.

“The idea of trying to get a ceasefire and Sinn Fein into talks, including the offer of an entry date, is right. But there is nothing at all here for the unionists, especially if we make three moves towards Sinn Fein like this ... the NIO answer amounts to ‘tough’ – you are in a position to take that view, but not if you want to reassure the unionists as a priority and avoid trouble.

“The position would be slightly better if you were telling Sinn Fein the train will go without them if they do not declare a ceasefire. We need a balancing element of this kind.”

In response, Ms Mowlam acknowledged that unionists were “very likely to walk out whenever Sinn Fein comes in, but the benefits of a ceasefire and getting Sinn Fein in to the political process make this worthwhile”.

Three weeks later, Mr Holmes told Mr Blair that his views “have not gone down well with the NIO”.

By that stage NIO officials were meeting with Martin McGuinness and other senior Sinn Fein members – but insisted this did not constitute negotiating the terms of the IRA’s coming ceasefire.

Referring to Ms Mowlam’s kickback against Downing Street, Mr Holmes acknowledged: “Mo’s minute is well argued. It represents a coherent approach. She could well be right, and what she suggests may well be worth trying It would certainly call Sinn Fein’s bluff.

“But I have to say it also represents very much an Irish view of the world, including something of an obsession with a new ceasefire as an end in itself, and a belief that at the end of the day the unionists will just have to lump it.

“It does not bring out enough the real risks of the unionists giving up on you altogether because you have moved too precipitately.”

Mr Holmes also described unionists as “by nature unreasonable”.

Clinton said he’d ‘call in debts’ SF had to the US

US president Bill Clinton told Tony Blair that America had “debts” with republicans which he could “call in” in an attempt to help the government push republicans towards peace.

President Clinton visited London at the end of May 1997 – less than a month after Mr Blair had entered Downing Street – and they discussed Northern Ireland.

Among files declassified today at the National Archives is a confidential memo by Mr Blair’s private secretary, John Holmes, of a May 29 discussion between the two leaders.

Referring to Northern Ireland, it said: “President Clinton said that he had found the government’s early moves very encouraging. He wanted to be helpful. If he could say something useful, publicly or privately, on any issue, whether it was a ceasefire, decommissioning or whatever, he would be delighted to do so.

“The US had a certain position with the republican movement and some debts to call in. They were ready to do so at the right moment.”

It went on: “The prime minister said that our strategy was to reassure the unionists about where we were going, and about the importance of the consent principle, while trying to bring in Sinn Fein through talking to them at official level and urging on them a new ceasefire.”

He wanted Sinn Fein in the talks sooner rather than later in order to force them to make the choice between the democratic path and their current position. All the parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic accepted the consent principle except Sinn Fein.

“Sinn Fein had to decide to negotiate without keeping open the option of violence. He would be as reasonable as he could in facilitating Sinn Fein’s entry into talks, but he had to be careful. If the unionists walked away, the process would be no further forward. If and when he made an offer to Sinn Fein, he would want to see great pressure put on them to accept it.

“President Clinton said that he had sensed from his own visit to Belfast that the people were ahead of their leaders in looking for a settlement. The Paisleys of this world, conditioned by a lifetime of conflict, were unlikely to be part of the solution.”

However, later Mr Clinton said that “people like Paisley had to find a role in a settlement somewhere”. President Clinton also said that he “found Trimble impressive”, the note said.

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