Gerry Adams was ignorant of basic Protestant views and didn’t think he had to persuade unionists to back a united Ireland: Declassified file

Gerry Adams exhibited surprising ignorance of the splits between Protestants, according to a key figure in the peace process who would go on to be one of two independent witnesses to IRA decommissioning.

Tuesday, 29th December 2020, 12:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 29th December 2020, 11:10 am
Methodist minister the Rev Harold Good would play a key role in the peace process

Files declassified today at the Public Record Office in Belfast include a detailed briefing given to the government by Methodist minister the Rev Harold Good after he had met the Sinn Féin president in 1994.

The Rev Good, who would later become Methodist President, spoke frankly about the encounter to Peter Smyth in the NIO’s Political Affairs Division.

A confidential November 25, 1994 memo from Mr Smyth conveyed details of Methodist talks with both Mr Adams and separate discussions with the PUP leader, David Ervine.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

David Ervine led the PUP, but told clerics that he was 'a bad messenger'

The Rev Good provided considerable detail on what had been discussed, something reflected in a six-page memo — although even after more than two decades, significant sections of the memo have been censored.

The memo said that there had been “no dramatic revelations” and “in both cases, more significance is attached to the fact of the meetings having taken place than to the content”.

There was, he said, a “very clear message that both groups are keen to talk to Government, and that in Sinn Féin’s case at least, an extensive process of education may have to be gone through”.

As part of a programme of meetings with every political leader, the Methodist Church’s sub-committee of its Church and Government Committee had met Mr Adams on November 22 at their rooms in Elmwood Avenue. Mr Adams was “accompanied by an unidentified female Sinn Féin councillor”.

Gerry Adams saw no role for Sinn Féin in convinving unionists of the case for Irish unity

The Rev Good, a liberal cleric from the most liberal of the mainstream Protestant denominations, said that Mr Adams seemed to think that they were “Paisleyites”.

Mr Smyth said: “One of the significant features which emerged from the encounter was the lack of awareness by Sinn Féin of the detail of the unionist position.

“In Good’s account, it was clear that Adams automatically identified the churchmen as unionists red in tooth and claw, and as Paisleyites under a slightly different flag.

“He was surprised when the churchmen revealed themselves to be paid-up members of the Joint Declaration school, who recognised the need for republican/nationalist concerns to be identified and addressed. The church recognised in specific terms that a process of political dialogue would have to be seen to deliver tangible benefits if the republican movement were to continue to support it.”

The memo went on: “Although Adams himself remained silent on the point, his companion expressed her puzzlement at why the unionists should misunderstand and misrepresent the Sinn Féin position.

“After repeated probing, Good formed the impression that she was so thoroughly convinced of the rightness of the Sinn Féin analysis that she genuinely could not see that unionists might legitimately take exception to it, if only to the means by which the party had, until recently, sanctioned in the delivery of its objectives.”

The civil servant who wrote the memo said that he had heard another Sinn Féin councillor, in Londonderry, “who was similarly astonished at the lack of unionist approbation for his world view. The situation did not lend itself to testing his views, but for what it is worth, I felt that they, too, were genuinely held.)”

Returning to the Methodists’ engagement with Mr Adams, the civil servant said that “a certain myopia blindness also displayed itself in the discussion which took place on the principle of consent”.

Again relaying what the Rev Good had told him, he said: “Even after a protracted discussion on the nature of consent, Adams refused to accept that Sinn Féin had any responsibility for, or role in, persuading the unionists that unification of the island was in their best long-term interests.

“That was a problem created by the Brits and it was up to the Brits to sort it out – they had sole responsibility for showing the unionists where their best interests lay. In our conversation, Good acknowledged that the meeting was not the forum where any significant departures from this line would be revealed: nevertheless, as a display of intransigence on a key issue it represented a disturbing portent.

“Slightly at variance with that, however, was a flicker of recognition by Adams that the pace of change had to be governed by what the (unionist) market would bear.”

Mr Adams set out rapid changes in key areas — recognition of the use of Irish, a Bill of Rights, and special provision for the re-integration of prisoners back into society.

He said that “no guarantees of confidentiality were either asked for or given” ahead of the meetings.

David Ervine ‘ostentatiously humble’

PUP leader David Ervine exhibited exceptional humility during a meeting with the Methodist Church, the Rev Harold Good told the government.

NIO official Peter Smyth, said that in discussing his 1994 meeting with Mr Ervine, the Rev Good “provided much less detail” than he had about Gerry Adams.

The minister described Mr Ervine as “extremely polite, and at times almost ostentatiously humble – ‘I have a good message, but I am a bad messenger’ – continuously emphasising that his prison record gave many people an easy excuse for denigrating everything he is trying to do.

“He is desperately keen to serve the loyalist community, but is conscious of his lack of an electoral mandate.”

The memo continued: “Politically, provided that the Union is not threatened (a position the Methodists apparently did not explore), or cross-border institutions established on a dangerous scale (again not teased out) he is prepared to display almost limitless flexibility and accommodation towards republicans/nationalists.”


——— ———

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe