Sinn Féin letters should receive curt, formal, and short Private Secretary replies #20yearrule

File NIO/12/669A [partial PDF] is being released this morning under the 20 Year Rule in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Titled “Approaches to Government and Access to Prisoners by Sinn Féin”, the file details the development and evaluation of policy on how the UK Government publicly engaged with Sinn Féin in the period 1983-1989.

The 1983 guidance within the Northern Ireland Office included the advice that:

“… no NIO minister would meet a Sinn Féin MP or councillor; letters from Sinn Féin members and councillors should receive ‘curt, formal, and short’ Private Secretary replies; and no more replies to correspondence should be sent by Ministers personally.”

In September 1984 this guidance was extended to cover contacts with DUP Assembly member George Seawright “who had made clear his support for violence”.

Lists of current and former Sinn Féin councillors and representatives were kept up to date and circulated. Their addresses have been redacted (in all but one instance) from the papers released today.

The premise for this policy was the understanding that:

“Sinn Féin is the political wing of the IRA. It calls for the overthrow of British Rule in Northern Ireland, the disbandment of the Leinster House government in Dublin and the establishment of an all Ireland unitary socialist republic. It advocates that this goal be reached through a mixture of political activity and terrorism. The leadership of PIRA and Sinn Féin overlaps to a considerable extent and works to a single coherent strategy; Sinn Féin lends moral and political support to PIRA.”

The May 1985 version of the constantly updated advice discusses how to deal with face to face, post and telephone contact with members of Sinn Féin.

Regarding visits that would involve a mix of local councillors, UK Ministers were to be “carefully briefed on … advance identification of Sinn Féin councillors” and “as far as individual courtesies such as handshakes are concerned this should be left to the Minister’s discretion”.

“Letters to Ministers raising constituents’ problems must be dealt with adequately in the interests of the constituent but should be brief and formal, avoiding any appearance of friendliness (eg phrases such as ‘thank you’ for your letter of …… or ‘I regret’ that I am unable to grant you your request ….. should be avoided).”

In addition:

“The normal response to telephone enquiries to Private Offices from Sinn Féin members (or those claiming to speak on their behalf) should be to ask them to put the point in writing.”

There’s mention of a Sinn Féin councillor who pretended to be from the SDLP who was erroneously put through to a Private Secretary’s phone extension!

“Ministers will not extend to Sinn Féin the customary courtesies and hospitality given to other elected representatives.

In a May 1989 letter to the Secretary of State Tom King, Richard Needham noted the distinction it drew “between meetings on ‘our ground’, as it were, and theirs”.

“Requests for a Ministerial meeting with Sinn Féin representatives, whether separately or as part of a council delegation, should be turned down. But the presence of Sinn Féin representations at meetings which we are not ourselves arranging, for example on a Ministerial visit to a district council, often cannot be prevented.”

In 1990 Sinn Féin were being excluded from talks about talks … while in the background the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Sir Peter Brooke was authorising secret contact with the IRA “in order to find the conditions under which republicans would consider calling a ceasefire and was complemented by more public overtures“.

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