Declassified Files: Irish had ‘pathological’ concern that Trimble could cause talks to collapse

Irish ministers and officials had an almost “pathological” concern that David Trimble could collapse talks just two years before he would lead unionism to signing the 1998 Belfast Agreement, according to British officials recorded in newly declassified files.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 7:28 am
Updated Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 9:35 am
David Trimble was not seen by Dublin as someone who was likely to cut a deal
David Trimble was not seen by Dublin as someone who was likely to cut a deal

A minute of a meeting between British and Irish ministers and officials on June 4 1996 presents a grim picture of the SDLP and UUP as two parties losing electoral support, internally divided and with no sense they were decisively moving towards striking a generational deal between unionism and nationalism.

A detailed minute of the meeting at Admiralty House in London said that the meeting was “marked by David Trimble’s re-election to the top of the Irish government’s pantheon of demonology” but that the meeting had ultimately involved “significant progress” towards agreeing how the Northern Ireland Forum and talks – which would ultimately result in the agreement of 1998 – would operate.

The meeting involved Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew, NIO minister Michael Ancram, the head of the civil service, the NIO permanent secretary, the British ambassador to Dublin, Tanaiste Dick Spring, HOCS, PUS, HMA to Dublin, the Tanaiste, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ key official on Northern Ireland, Sean O’hUiguinn, and other senior Irish officials.

The minute, which has been declassified at the Public Record office in Belfast under the 20-year rule, said that the secretary of state told the Irish delegation that “he did not think that Mr Trimble wished to wreck the process.

“If he had wished to do so, he could have done it much earlier and much more easily”.

Tanaiste Dick Spring said that it had been a bad election for the SDLP who leadership was “both worried and divided”.

That Tanaiste said that there was “urgency to the need for the two governments to make a joint approach to George Mitchell. Mitchell must be wondering what he had potentially let himself in for. We did not even know for sure that he would take the job.”

The minute went on to say that “the early part of this meting was dominated by the almost pathological concern of the Irish side about the ability of David Trimble to bring the whole negotiations edifice tumbling down.

“It was difficult to discuss any subject without his name cropping up.”

PM had plan to ‘get rid of’ Mitchell

Prime Minister John Major told David Trimble that it could be an advantage for them to formally appoint Senator George Mitchell to chair the Forum deliberations so that he “could be got rid of if necessary”.

A minute of a 1996 meeting in Downing Street said: “Trimble continued that he was now convinced that there would be a new IRA ceasefire, but only very shortly before the polling day, and probably in ambiguous terms.”

Mr Major said that “one extra element was that the chairmanship of the plenary might be formally with the Irish and British governments but they would agree to delegate it to Mitchell. This would have the advantage that Mitchell could be got rid of if necessary.”