Declassified files: Sinn Fein concerns on ‘security’ of Stormont

Sinn Fein raised security concerns with the government about housing Northern Ireland’s new Assembly at Stormont, archives have disclosed.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 6:10 am
Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy. PA image
Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy. PA image

The exchange is mentioned in a confidential NIO memo that summaries a meeting between minister of state Paul Murphy and a Sinn Fein delegation in June 1998.

The memo, released by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, also reveals that Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly joked about removing Stormont’s famous statue of Lord Carson in the discussions about symbols and emblems on the estate in the unionist heartland of east Belfast.

The meeting took place on June 23, two days before members were elected to the new look legislature.

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At that point, secretary of state Mo Mowlam had proposed holding the inaugural meeting of the Assembly on July 1 inside Castle Buildings on the Stormont estate – the same place the Good Friday Agreement had been signed in April.

Further meetings of the Assembly were then to take place at Parliament Buildings at Stormont over the summer, but the new legislature had been given the power to chose a new permanent home if members wished to relocate.

The Sinn Fein position on the location issue was articulated by Mr Kelly and party colleague Bairbre de Brun.

“Ms de Bruin raised the issue of consultation,” the note read. “The party had been asked about locations and had given its view but had then heard nothing more until a letter from the Secretary of State (Mo Mowlam) arrived informing them of a location which was strongly opposed.

“Such actions presented the party with enormous yet unnecessary problems within the community, making it out to be unimportant in the scheme of things and adding to the general cumulative effect of exclusion.

“Ms de Bruin added, rather pointedly, that given a choice, the Government appeared to continually want to support either the unionist or status quo position on any Agreement issues. Decisions like locations had more than just a symbolic effect and the Government needed to realise this. A neutral venue for everyone for the inaugural meeting was the proper solution and venues for it are still available.

“Mr Murphy defended the Castle Buildings decision on purely practical grounds. There had been no other option for Government in the circumstances. Castle Buildings and later Parliament Buildings would be the venues for meetings until the Assembly itself chose a different location. Mr Kelly made the point that it was dangerous for Sinn Fein to get to the Stormont Estate. Every visit caused major security headaches for the party.”

The confidential memo reveals the extent of republican concerns that progress on several key parts of the 1998 peace agreement – such as demilitarisation and legislation to grant the early release of prisoners – had stalled.