Come dine with NIO … three priests critique SDLP, IRA & planners in 1990 #20yearrule

Three west Belfast Catholic priests (Lower Falls, Twinbrook and Ballymurphy) dined with three NIO officials in June 1990. A four page note in the middle of the CENT/1/16/23A file [selective scan], declassified on Friday and now available to view in the Public Records Office, documents the main points of their discussion and offers an impression of the political intelligence being gathered in this joint political affairs/community relations meal.

“The SDLP made little impact in West Belfast because of lack of organisation and as a reflection of the fact that it was a party of individuals. Joe Hendron was worthy but uninspiring. Where the SDLP did well electorally it was more by way of a rejection of Sinn Féin. The West Belfast seat could be theirs for the taking at the next election or the one after that if they really organised to do it.”

A critique of IRA activity was also recorded:

“The IRA was less and less about the pursuit of political ends and more and more about the maintenance of its position for financial gain. There was a real risk that, even if violence ended, we would be left with a deep-rooted and dominant structure of criminal commerce unless real steps were taken to reinforce the position of the bona fide trader. Another dimension of this was the ready co-operation between paramilitary organisations on both sides of the divide over racketeering.”

The priests suggested there was “a real turning away from violence, especially amongst younger people”. They also noted:

“A priest who attacked violence from the pulpit in 1975 would have been menaced in a number of ways. In 1990 a handful of people would walk out. The arrest of Danny Morrison, which a few years ago would have produced rioting in the streets, had passed peacefully and with a hint of relief.”

Lots of other opinions picked up over dinner were noted down and circulated among civil servants working in political affairs and community relations.

“The Protestant communities were less close-knit and thus less able to get their act together to meet collective problems.”

“There was a need for planners to consider the social and political impact of their schemes more carefully – notably the road planners.”

“There was a real need to do something about the hard core of glue sniffing and joy-riding young people. There were significant numbers of them (a figure of one hundred based on the City Cemetery was mentioned). There was no organisation specifically structured to try to get these youngsters off the habit … All this gave the IRA the potential to appear to be providing a service to the community by taking the law into its own hands.”

The thick beige file contains records of contact with church representatives over the period 1987-1991.

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