Declassified government files show that senior civil servants privately told Sinn Fein in 1995 that decommissioned weapons may not be forensically tested – a policy which police now say makes it far harder to solve Troubles atrocities.
Even though it would be a decade before many IRA weapons were put beyond use – a process now acknowledged to have been incomplete – the ground rules for that process emerged in the mid-1990s.
Files made public today at the Public Record Office in Belfast reveal detailed government accounts of the first authorised and acknowledged talks between government figures and the political representatives of the IRA, even though for years there had been deniable contacts through MI5 and the Londonderry businessman Brendan Duddy.
The talks, which began with senior NIO officials in December 1994 and were joined by NIO minister Michael Ancram five months later, involved the government appearing to coax Sinn Fein to seriously discuss decommissioning of IRA weapons, using the carrot that such weapons would never be used to convict IRA members.
A similar suggestion was separately put to loyalists with NIO official Stephen Leach telling them that “while no final decisions had been taken by ministers, it was quite likely that an amnesty would be proposed for offences of possession connected with the decommissioning and that there would be no forensic testing of weapons for evidential purposes”.
Last year the then PSNI chief constable Sir George Hamilton said that the decision to allow paramilitaries to decommission weapons without forensic tests means that police investigating Troubles deaths have “one hand tied behind our backs”.
That provision was put into law in The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 which was passed in the final weeks of the Major administration.
Although careful not to express a view on whether that decision was correct, the then chief constable said it had removed a “major line of inquiry” and that only about 4% of the 1,700 unsolved Troubles murders are likely to see convictions.
Unlike modern government minutes which are often sparse, the declassified accounts of the 1994 and 1995 meetings are lengthy and vivid, perhaps out of concern that Sinn Fein’s version may later be leaked to embarrass the government, and perhaps also with an eye on the historical record. It was at the fifth meeting with Sinn Fein – whose initial team was Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, Siobhan O’Hanlon, Lucilita Bhreatnach and Sean McManus – that the suggestion about not forensically testing arms was first made orally as they discussed an NIO paper.
The February 7 1995 meeting at Stormont, at which the civil service delegation was headed by NIO political director Quentin Thomas, lasted almost three hours.
A minute of the meeting by NIO official Tony Beeton said that if arms were decommissioned then the government believed that “it could be constructive to explore the parallel progress which might be possible in other fields as confidence built up”. The minute said that Mr McGuinness “had been listening carefully” as decommissioning was discussed.
He said that Sinn Fein was prepared to discuss the issue “but would not accept the paper”. That semantic difference then led to the officials reading to Mr McGuinness the paper which he refused to handle.
“Throughout his presentation Gerry Kelly was most attentive and took detailed notes which he put carefully away into his case as he went. Mr McGuinnes was also paying close attention and looked particularly interested in the references to forensic testing.”
However, Mr McGuinness said that the proposals were “cloud cuckoo land” and then addressed an NIO official directly: “You know better than most, he said, looking straight across the table to Mr Thomas, that the IRA has not been defeated. The government should not expect Sinn Fein to get its surrender.”
“Mr Thomas said that we knew we had not defeated the IRA. But he believed it was common ground that members of the IRA should take the view that a return to the campaign would be a mistake ... We should seek a willingness in principle to disarm; if the peace process was real then the IRA would do so eventually and we needed a common practical understanding of how it should happen, and some tangible movement ... to show good faith.”
A note of that same meeting was made by NIO official Jonathan Stephens – part of the NIO talks team – and distributed on the restricted basis of it being ‘confidential and personal’, with an instruction not to share it without authorisation.
Mr Stephens, who is now Sir Jonathan and the NIO’s most senior official, wrote that civil servant Stephen Leach told Sinn Fein that “one legal consideration which might arise might be the question of an amnesty for offences of possession of weapons. Ministers would want to look at this carefully, along with the possibility that there should be no forensic testing of decommissioning weapons for evidential purposes.”
In the margin, someone had written by hand at that section “note!” and another individual had written “noted!”.
Mr Beeton’s minute of the meeting said that Mr McGuinness reminded the NIO that even prior to the ceasefire there had been contacts with Sinn Fein “and, Mr Thomas, with civil servants like yourself since October 1990”.
He said it was “scandalous” that his party was only allowed to meet officials rather than ministers, which he said told Sinn Fein “you aren’t going to be treated equally”.
Mr Thomas said that “there had been a number of moves in respect of security force deployments, broadcasting restrictions and so on, and there was the fact of this dialogue itself”. After he reminded Mr McGuinness that “many people would say that the IRA should never have started its violence in the first place”, “the exchanges got a little more testy”.
It is clear that the prime minister was aware of what was going on. In a December 15 letter to John Major updating him on the first meeting with Sinn Fein, Sir Patrick Mayhew’s private secretary said that a government paper to be presented to Sinn Fein on the methods of decommissioning was intended to draw the party into discussion on the topic.
He said: “The paper makes a brief reference to legal considerations. There are some complex issues here, including the basis for an arms amnesty (should we wish to adopt this route) and the possibility of giving an undertaking that weapons handed in would not be subject to forensic testing.”
He told the prime minister that the secretary of state had consulted the attorney general on “these sensitive issues”.
In 1995 Mr Major had said publicly that he was not concerned about how weapons were removed from paramilitary groups and his key concern was “that those weapons are no longer available for use in terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland”. He added that he was”not pedantic about whether those weapons are surrendered or whether those weapons are decommissioned and destroyed with some form of verification ... that is the significant point – that they are no longer available for use”.
Last night retired RUC detective chief superintendent Norman Baxter said that what the files reveal is “very disturbing” because not forensically testing would “prevent the police from gaining access to evidence from recovered weapons – this was occurring in 1995 when the IRA were still murdering people in Northern Ireland and prior to the breakdown in the ceasefire in 1996, when a further seven police officers and soldiers were murdered”.
He said that the decision not to forensically test weapons denied justice to victims and added: “These papers reveal how morally bankrupt the government was.”
Whether to forensically test weapons was discussed at a January 10 1994 security coordinating meeting involving NIO officials, senior RUC commanders and Army officers.
In minutes marked ‘secret’, under the heading ‘arms decommissioning’, it was written: “Mr Perry reported on the meeting with the Irish the previous week ... the Attorney General had recommended the use of legislation to provide the basis for any amnesty scheme, particularly if forensic tests were not to be carried out on arms recovered.”
The minutes said that RUC deputy chief constable Blair Wallace “accepted Mr Steele’s point that the evidential value of such testing was likely to be very small – the benefit to the police was in confirming that used weapons had been surrendered”.
When many of the IRA’s weapons were decommissioned in 20015, The Guardian’s then Ireland Correspondent Henry McDonald reported that republican sources had said that “the IRA was particularly concerned to get back [from units, so they could be decommissioned] guns used to murder and maim during the Troubles because they still had forensic traces on them”.
The declassified files on which the News Letter reports today, and over coming days, have been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast where from today anyone can go to view the original documents.
As the old 30-year rule for declassifications is cut to 20 years, one year of files is being released each six months.
The files are released based on the year in which they were closed – in this case, 1995 – but such files may contain documents which go back several years or a stray file from much earlier.