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.

  • Brendan Heading

    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.

    Patricia, do you really think that the DUP or SF are internal democracies and that their respective leaderships respect the voice of the party majority ?

  • eac1968

    Seamus Mallon was only ever happy when he was hogging the limelight. I will always remember the look of pure smug delight on his face the day he was appointed dFM opposite Trimble.

    It is obvious that his comments of last week were his attempt to get his defence in first, ahead of what he knew would be released. There is nothing as sad as an embittered old man who thinks history hasn’t given him his due.

    At least Seamus had a bit of an intellectual spark, though. Eddie McGrady, on the other hand, hadn’t. If ever a man was out of his depth even in the shallow end of Westminster, it was poor old Eddie.

  • Roger

    Bang on Brendan. If the Deputy in SF had piped up, he may have ended up with sore knees…or is that no knees? That’s the difference between SF and SDLP, certainly at the time.

  • Patricia

    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.

    And where, exactly, is this clear? Apart from in your head?

    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.

    No shit, Sherlock…

    That is why the DUP and Sinn Féin have thrived electorally and the SDLP has not.

    No, it’s not.

    Mallon’s, not unreasonable, complaint was on the failure to insist on decommissioning prior to the formation of a devolved Assembly and Executive. His failure was in not backing Trimble when Trimble was under pressure from his grass-roots support for that very reason. Arguably Mallon was, at that time, accurately reflecting the views of his party’s grass-roots.

    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.

    Nonsense.

    What you fail to acknowledge in your simplistic ‘analysis’ is the role of the British, Irish and US administrations, with media compliance, in all of this.

    The promotion of a deal of the extremes has been the British policy for over a decade. Ask Jonathan Powell.

    In your discussions on the release of State Papers do remember that not all papers are released. Some are held back for various reasons. Including any that may undermine the current Executive arrangements.

    And, of course, national security. Not looking at any parties in particular…

    *wanders off whistling*

  • Robin Keogh

    Parties have to show a united front or they disintegrate. Just look at the UUP as an example of a party that ate itself alive with public spats and back room plotting. Regardless of differences behind closed doors, the public simply are not going to support any party that appears disunited. Have your battles in private, resolve the issues in private then present a united face to the public.

  • Nevin

    “It was a very new development. For the first time our people have been treated with total confidence,” Hume said.

    John didn’t just treat unionists with contempt, he ‘mushroomed’ his party colleagues by keeping them in the dark.

    As the PRM dithered later re.the Downing Street Declaration, Seamus gave us two caustic observations: “hadn’t spent 30 years in politics to play wet-nurse to the IRA” and “Sunningdale for slow-learners”.

    “Embittered men who refused to accept the views of the majority of party members were the ones who holed the SDLP below the waterline.”

    Eamon Delaney, in ‘An Accidental Diplomat’, refers to great tension within the SDLP prior to the ceasefires caused by PRM ‘procrastination’ and John Hume’s ‘lack of information’. He also mentions John’s allegedly colourful rebuke when the Irish government allegedly wanted him to do more to secure areas of Northern Ireland ‘for the nationalist cause’.

  • Brendan Heading

    I understand that Robin, but Patricia seemed to be giving the impression that these two parties are some kind of collective voice that debate alternatives rather than a group of people who are expected to diligently follow the leadership’s every whim. I find it very hard to believe that internal dissent is tolerated in either party.

  • Brendan Cafferty

    I would prefer Seamus Mallon any time. He was an honest constitutional nationalist,not a one man band. Hume helped SF/IRA get off the hook at a time when they were getting older, riddled with informers and nowhere else to go with their sectarian campaign of murder & mayhem. Hume helped to make SF/IRA acceptable in the USA. Who prospered,look at SF/IRA now and the SDLP. Dont blame Mallon FFS.

  • Nevin

    “the process of peacebuilding through the Hume-Adams talks”

    The released papers give an insight into John’s view of Gerry Adams and the PRM:

    He [Sean Donlon] said Mr Hume only wanted talks with “those who really called the shots”.

    Other documents on the issue recall how the SDLP leader branded Mr Adams a “puppet”.

    “My assessment of Hume’s present position in relation to the Provisionals is that he is willing, even anxious, to have a confrontation, preferably public, with them,” Mr Donlon wrote.

    “For the first time in a while, he seems to feel that he could significantly damage them in a confrontation. .. source

  • SDLP supporter

    Eac, I don’t think you know too much about Eddie McGrady. Your comment is mean-minded, wildly inaccurate and shows a deep ignorance of the type of man he was. Eddie was of one of a large, struggling family in Downpatrick (his father was a cobbler). University was out of the question, so he trained and qualified as a chartered accountant and he and his brother built up one of the strongest and most respected accountancy practices in the North. Eddie became quite wealthy and could have led a very comfortable life without getting involved in politics. He also gained first place in Ireland in his chartered accountancy examinations and anyone who does that is no slouch intellectually, to put it mildly. Put simply, even his political opponents acknowledged his integrity, honesty, acumen, astuteness, moderation and competence, as was evident from the tributes paid to him when he died.
    Eddie was involved in politics since 1961 as a Downpatrick councillor and his cumulative voting record in South Down over the subsequent decades was pretty stellar. He had widespread support in South Down and drew support from all over the community: a lot of unionist folk, if they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him, “forgot” to vote on election day. He was a quiet man, and he did have difficulty because of a congenital hearing condition, which sometimes inhibited him joining in group discussions.
    By your patronising and snobbish comments, you are indirectly indicting the people of South Down who voted for him in their tens of thousands. If he had been an intellectual lightweight he would have been found out long

    See this, including a rather graceful tribute from Caitriona Ruane:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-24900825

  • murdockp

    True, but then you see a scene such as mary Lou back slapping ‘slab murphy’ and it really hammers home how SF works.

  • Granni Trixie

    Even if you are accurate in your ‘hogging the limelight’ reading this does not necessarily invalidate his latest assessment of Hume etc.

  • eac1968

    We’ll have to agree to differ then SDLP Supporter. But then, your user name kind of gives you away as not exactly being an impartial observer.

    I’m no snob, and I don’t think I’m patronising. And further, I know quite a lot about Eddie and how he worked, as I was based in Downpatrick for many years. I have never suggested, nor would I, that he was in any way dishonest or dishonourable. He may well have been the best chartered accountant in the country, but that didn’t make him a good politician. It is my view that he was a political lightweight, and I’m entitled to hold that view.

    His widespread support, as you term it, was initially as much a result of the ‘anybody but Enoch Powell’ call than direct support for Eddie McGrady. I worked on his first successful campaign, so I know what was being said on the doorstep at that time. In later years, the watch words became more ‘keep SF out’ than ‘vote Eddie in.’

    One major criticism I have of both Eddie and his successor is that after polling day they tended to forget that the constituency consists of more than Downpatrick and its environs. They’re only ever seen in other areas when it is close to an election, or a photocall for the paper. Finally, Eddie’s voting record in the House of Commons was pretty poor. It isn’t good enough to respond to that criticism with ‘at least he took his seat’, which I heard several times.

    So, you see, I made my comments not just to annoy SDLP supporters like yourself, but to state my views as I see them. Your views differ, but that does not make mine invalid. I have the evidence of my own involvement with him and his team to back up my conclusions.

    As for his hearing problem, being deaf myself I know the difficulties the issue can cause in group scenarios.

    To sum up – Eddie McGrady may have been a decent man and a good accountant, but he was a political lightweight imho. They are not mutually exclusive!

  • Brendan Heading

    He [Sean Donlon] said Mr Hume only wanted talks with “those who really called the shots”.
    Anecdotes about Hume persistently record this characteristic.

    Paddy Devlin wrote : (Straight Left, pp. 137-138)

    “From the outset of our relationship I had misgivings about his motives and doubted the strength of his loyalty to us as a group. He had a tendency to identify the most powerful and influential people among those we encounter and go off into corner-huddles with these pace setters and opinion formers. Editors of important newspapers and TV programmes were those most regularly endowed with these special briefings, which laid the groundstones for his later reputation as a political visionary and fixer extraordinaire.

    [..]

    “He only seemed to work the system when it was going his way. As our cohesion developed he led our group away from Stormont on several occasions. I allowed myself to be dragged into these boycotts and walk-outs, sometimes reluctantly, for reasons of unity, but deep down I harboured doubts because I believed that outside Parliament is no place for a democrat. ”

    Writing about the imminent announcement of the SDLP’s establishment on page 140 :

    “What I had learned from a friendly Catholic lawyer was that John Hume had been at a weekend meeting in Donegal designed to form a Catholic political party. I found this very surprising because Hume was heavily involved in the talks the civil rights grouping were having with a view to a broad-based party. What surprised me most was that none of our group were invited to the meeting or were even informed of it, which, we heard later, had been attended by middle-class Catholics, mainly from Derry. I could smell that the Knights of Columbanus were probably involved.

    “We were angry with Hume, for it was not for the first time we had felt he was pursuing his own agenda.”

  • Sergiogiorgio

    We seem to be on a full scale hatchet job of the SDLP. It doesn’t surprise me from some of the usual unionist nay’sayers, you know who you are. I met Hume a few times and also Mallon and they seemed ok. But, bottom line, Hume delivered us from murder and mayhem. Had we been waiting on the DUP bigots and SF apologists, we’d still be scraping the bodies off the pavements. We may not like the “means” and cherry pick the details but they justified the “ends”. Always remember where we could still be….

  • SDLP supporter

    Friend, I’ve never disputed your right to hold your opinion. However, your first comment was that he was an ‘intellectual lightweight’ and I think I have provided evidence that he was anything but. You have now somewhat changed the charge to him being a ‘political lightweight’ which is somewhat different. As to his ‘poor voting record’, democratic Irish nationalists who took up their seats at Westminster, from O’Connell through to Parnell, Davitt and right down to the SDLP, by preference didn’t really want to be there and refrained as far as possible from matters concerning England, Scotland and Wales. If you check the record on NI-related matters, I think you’ll find the SDLP voting record was pretty good.

  • Granni Trixie

    The POV in the post above sounds like a SF interpretation of this new evidence. Which is ok if the perspective from which the piece is written is made clear. I wish Slugger had a consistent rule applied to posters.

  • eamoncorbett

    I don’t really think the Nationalist community turned against the SDLP so much , it’s just that they didn’t see Seamus Mallon as someone who could go head to head with Robinson and Paisley . As time elapsed under the new arrangements it became clear that Adams and McGuinness were more adept at sparring with the DUP , using the POC to stymie anything they didn’t like . You could argue that this is zero sum politics , but that is the nature of these two beasts.

  • eac1968

    Where did I use the phrase ‘intellectual lightweight’? I said that whereas Mallon had intellectual spark in the context of Westminster politics, McGrady hadn’t. You brought the words ‘intellectual lightweight’ into the discussion, not me.

  • Robin Keogh

    If the IRA were in such tatters, why did the British government bother. If they were that close to defeat and extiction why not ignore Hume or simply humour him until the Ra were finished off?

  • SDLP supporter

    Quelle horreur! The extracts show Paddy Devlin thought that John Hume was using his very considerable intellect and powers of persuasion to influence opinion-formers! Well, I never, the audacity of him!
    Paddy was a good man but, though highly intelligent, he had a resentment of Hume’s formal education and a not inconsiderable paranoia from time to time. Paddy was virulently opposed to the very idea of the Common Market and he never really forgave Hume for tanking him electorally in 1979.

  • Brendan Heading

    Paddy makes a number of claims in his autobiography which we now know to be categorically false, and I agree that a bitter theme clouds the whole book.

    Nonetheless, his comments about Hume’s habit for “corner huddles” behind closed doors with key influencers, to the exclusion of his leadership colleagues, are reflected elsewhere including by the Irish government officials quoted by Nevin above. I also recall Hume playing this game during the talks at the Forum for Peace & Reconciliation at Dublin in the period immediately following the ceasefires. Alliance’s objection to one session where he went off for a long chat with Irish government officials by himself was reported in the media at the time.

    On the subject of the common market, Devlin does record his hostility to the concept, but also notes that Hume announced his candidacy for the EU parliament to the leadership team without them having had a chance to debate it at all.

  • Nevin

    Brendan, John was a superb networker but doesn’t appear to have been much of a team player. Presumably someone or some organisation persuaded him to change his stance on Gerry Adams from Gerry, the ‘puppet’ of the PRM Army Council, to Gerry, someone he could collaborate with.

  • Nevin

    Patricia, there’s a glaring omission in your naming of deputies: Martin McGuinness. Did the states’ papers have nothing to say about Martin?

  • OneNI

    Important to ensure that the IRA didnt spilt – hence not just the Talks and Agreement but the blind eye turned to fuel laundring and tobacco smuggling up until very recently

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely we have to credit Mallon on apparently having a professional working relationship with Trimble? 1. Because it’s generally accepted Trimble was a difficult person to get on with and 2. The UUP didn’t seem to accept their political failures in running NI.
    Credit where credits due.

  • eamoncorbett

    Don’t get me wrong I’m not knocking Seamus Mallon , on the contrary I have the utmost respect for the man , I remember the slogans on the wall at Silverbridge , disgusting , my point was that he was conceived as not being robust enough in the face of the emerging dynamic duo of Paisley and Robinson.