The first time that a UK minister, Michael Ancram, led talks with Sinn Fein was on May 10 1995.
In a note from Jonathan Stephens the talks were described as “frank, hard-hitting exchanges”. He said that after handshakes the meeting began with Martin McGuinness quoting Shakespeare, “once more into the breach ...” before objecting to Mr Ancram’s request that they start by discussing decommissioning.
Mr McGuinness had made clear that “Sinn Fein were wholly committed to the removal of all guns, including IRA guns” but “his judgment was that there was no possibility of the IRA handing over weapons now, or handing them over unilaterally at any stage. Indeed, if it had been clear that this was a precondition to progress, there most likely would have been no IRA ceasefire”.
He tried to distinguish the IRA from Sinn Fein, saying: “Sinn Fein had no arms. It would be unrealistic to expect Sinn Fein to bring about the IRA’s surrender. They simply could not deliver that. It was in the context of a negotiated settlement that the issue of arms would be solved.”
He asked: “Why were the same questions not being asked of Dr Paisley and his relationship with the armed Ulster Resistance?”
Mr Ancram responded that decommissioning “was not a hurdle which the government was seeking to erect. It was accepted as an important issue by all the other parties and by the Irish government”. He went on to say: “We were not seeking the IRA’s surrender but the issue could not be ducked.”
After the minister proposed a discussion about the process of decommissioning – even if there was no agreement on when it took place – Mr McGuinness said that Sinn Fein had “given no detailed consideration to these sorts of issues. Their position was that if the right political conditions were created in which the relevant organisations had the confidence to decommission arms, then the logistics of the process would be a very simple matter to agree”.
Mr Stephens noted that the exchanges had been “dominated, on the Sinn Fein side, almost exclusively by Mr McGuinness”.