Declassified files: Secret Duisburg talks plan was for compromise

Austin Currie represented the SDLP at the talks sin Germany
Austin Currie represented the SDLP at the talks sin Germany
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Secret 1988 talks in Germany between senior Northern Ireland politicians led to a proposal which would have seen both unionists and nationalists compromise on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, according to a declassified document.

A small group of politicians went to Duisburg in the autumn of 1988 – three years after the Anglo-Irish accord. After news of the talks leaked out there was intense speculation as to what had gone on.

The DUP's then deputy leader Peter Robinson attended the talks in Duisberg

The DUP's then deputy leader Peter Robinson attended the talks in Duisberg

A file declassified at the Public Record Office gives new insight into both what happened and the government’s limited knowledge of the talks, which appear to have taken place without its advance knowledge.

A memo from NIO official I M Burns, which had the unusually high classification of ‘secret’, was circulated to a small group of officials on October 31 1988.

He said: “The formula proposed at Duisburg would mean a concession by the SDLP (the formula would be presented by unionists as virtual suspension of the conference) and by unionists (the secretariat would continue in existence, and the fact that a date had been set for the next conference meeting would emphasise that the conference too was still in business). But the Duisburg formula has yet to be endorsed by the party leaders, and if it is not endorsed by them, it will certainly fail.”

He said that the government needed to consider “what, if anything” it should do to “encourage this initiative to blossom into substantive negotiations”.

Referring to Duisberg, he said that an annex to his minute contained “all we know about these talks”. That annex, written more than a fortnight after the talks, said that there had been one round of discussions on October 14 and 15 between Lutheran cleric Dr Eberhard Spiecker, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, Jack Allen who went “in place of Martin Smyth, the original invitee from the OUP”, Austin Currie who went “in place of Seamus Mallon, the original invitee from the SDLP”, Alliance’s Gordon Mawhinney and Fr Alec Reid. It said that Seamus Lynch of the Workers’ Party was “disinvited after OUP protests”.

The memo said that the government was “trying to find out more about Dr Spiecker” but believed that he had “a well meaning interest in Northern Ireland”. It said that “Reid is the man who arranged Hume’s meetings with Adams, at the behest of the senior members of his order (the Redemptorists), who were reputedly acting on the urging of two bishops (Cahal Daly being one). Reid was called back to meet his superiors in Dublin in late September – it is tempting to conclude that this was linked to Duisburg, but we do not know.”

He said that each party representative seemed to have discussed the talks with their party before going and reported back after returning. It noted that this saw “Robinson interestingly crossing party lines boundaries to talk to [UUP MP Harold] McCusker”.

He said that Mr Mawhinney had told the Irish government “something (we do not know how much) of what is afoot”.

The official said that the parties had agreed in Duisburg that talks between the main parties could happen if the compromise plan was agreed but that “despite [Austin] Currie’s enthusiasm, Hume seems unenthusiastic, and even unsighted; the SDLP could well end up allowing the Duisburg initiative to run into the sand”.