Martin McGuinness was keen to set up a secondary process for two republicans to discuss issues with civil servants, NIO minutes reveal – but that was hidden from the US and Irish governments.
The future deputy first minister, who was the key figure negotiating for Sinn Fein in 1994 and 1995, raised the issue with civil servants at the first meeting of ‘exploratory dialogue’ on December 9 1994.
Towards the close, Mr McGuinness “made an interesting suggestion”, asking: “Could Gerry Kelly and Siobhan O’Hanlon meet us privately between meetings?”
Lead NIO official Quentin Thomas said “we would be very ready to respond to that, but there could be no secret dialogue”.
At the second meeting, Mr McGuinness “asked if he and Ms O’Hanlon could meet Messrs Thomas and [Tony] Beeton on an ad hoc basis should the need arise before the next scheduled XD [the government’s code for exploratory dialogue] meeting. Mr Thomas agreed but stressed that this could not take the form of secret meetings.”
In the following meeting, on January 16, Mr Thomas referred to the suggestion of “private meetings, perhaps involving two on each side” and if Sinn Fein wanted such “private and unpublicised meetings” he would recommend to ministers that they should happen.
He said that such meetings “could well have a valuable part to play in ensuring that the peace process was carried forward and that the exploratory dialogue reached an early and successful conclusion”.
The minutes added an unusual comment here, saying: “This idea has not [underlined] been mentioned in any briefings of the US government, Irish government or the press and it should not be”.
Jonathan Stephens said: “The suggestion again of a small sub-group offers a small chink of light.”