The priority with which John Major treated the emerging Northern Ireland peace process is evident in one of the files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast.
The file deals with a top-level Whitehall committee which incorporated senior figures from the civil service, the military and MI5 and reflected an instruction from the prime minsiter to treat Northern Ireland as an issue “of the highest priority”.
A restricted November 8 1994 memo from Jonathan Stephens, then in the NIO’s security and international division but now the head of the NIO, described how the Cabinet Office was setting up “the new official level coordination machinery to shadow NI Committee which the prime minister has requested”.
The Official Committee on Northern Ireland Questions (NIQO) has only a flimsy file containing only a few pages.
It was chaired by Paul Lever from the Cabinet Office, with Mr Stephens and Kate Collins as its joint secretaries.
Mr Stephens said: “Other departments who will be represented include FCO, Home Office, MOD, Treasury, Law Officers’ Departments, Scottish Office, Welsh Office, DTI and the Security Service. Others can be invited as necessary.”
The committee’s remit was to consider questions relating to the government’s policy on Northern Ireland and relations with the Republic of Ireland and to report to the Cabinet’s ministerial committee on Northern Ireland.
He said that “the Cabinet Office have a very clear prime ministerial remit to treat Northern Ireland as an issue of the highest priority”.
Two of the issues suggested for discussion at the initial meeting of the group were the decommissioning of arms and force levels in Northern Ireland. He said that an additional meeting would focus on exploratory dialogue with Sinn Féin.
In a further indiction of the significance of what was being discussed in a period where the government was attempting to establish whether the IRA and loyalist ceasefires would last, a November 9 1994 note from John Coles in the Foreign Office which accepted the proposed terms of reference for the committee was copied to Stella Rimington, then director general of MI5.