State Papers reveal the trouble with Deputies

Over the past few days I have been reading the newly released State papers from both the Irish and British governments. One of the main things that jumped out at me was the position of the deputy leaders of both the SDLP and DUP in the mid 1980’s and indeed their respective political fortunes thereafter.

Peter Robinson had resigned briefly as Deputy Leader of the DUP in 1987 when the Task Force Report, which he had jointly written with UUP members Harold McCusker MP and Frank Millar was rejected by Rev Ian Paisley and UUP leader Jim Molyneaux. The report had called for a strategic Unionist rethink of their tactics in opposing the Anglo Irish Agreement.

A meeting took place however, between the DUP, UUP and NIO in January 1988 – essentially talks about talks – on how Unionism could change its opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreement yet not lose face with their core support base. Peter Robinson and Harold McCusker were part of their respective party delegations, Robinson having re-taken the position of Deputy leader.

The NIO analysis of Robinson following that meeting and as seen in the State Papers was: “It is widely believed that the political gamble which led to his resignation has paid off handsomely, with his greater influence underlined by his membership of the new unionist panel and his return to the DUP’s deputy leadership.”

Robinson was also described as “a dangerous man” by Peter Barry, Minister for Foreign Affairs, following a meeting at Hillsborough Castle.  Barry thought Robinson much more hardline than Paisley.

Robinson was prepared to toe the line, bide his time and serve as Paisley’s deputy until such times as he was able to take the party leadership himself. Despite what has happened in his personal life, the rumours of disaffection in the DUP rank and file and allegations about impropriety, Robinson steered the ship and resigned at a time of his choosing, on his own terms and leaving the party in a reasonably tidy state.

There’s a marked contrast with the behavior of the SDLP Deputy Leader at the time, Seamus Mallon. The State Papers show that both Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady were briefing against John Hume to senior Irish government officials.  This was at the same time as an eight foot high fence was being erected around Mallon’s home – a marked contrast to the open door policy of John Hume’s family home.

It’s not surprising now that Mallon, in recent months, has given a number of media interviews where he has sought to explain his lack of support for his party leader at critical moment in the peace process. He clearly knew (or perhaps was reminded) that these State Papers would be released and he was perhaps trying to salvage his own reputation in advance. He failed pretty miserably.

What is clear now is that bitterness, a desire to be in power on behalf of certain individuals and a refusal to support the views of the party grassroots on the process of peacebuilding through the Hume-Adams talks, devolution, the Good Friday Agreement and so on was what damaged the SDLP electorally. John Hume didn’t sacrifice the party for peace as has been alleged. Embittered men who refused to accept the views of the majority of party members were the ones who holed the SDLP below the waterline.

That lack of respect for the voice of the party majority and that lack of discipline does not exist in the DUP or Sinn Féin. Their Deputy Leaders were not briefing civil servants in any government on their concerns about their party leaders. That is why the DUP and Sinn Féin have thrived electorally and the SDLP has not.

It is likely that the State Papers of 2030 will cast Peter Robinson, for all of his flaws, in a much more favourable light that Seamus Mallon. One must speculate what else the revelations of 2030 will disclose and just how different our society may be by then. More on that anon.

I will be discussing the release of the State Papers tomorrow morning just after 9 am on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence along with historian Dr Éamon Phoenix and Sam McBride of the Newsletter.