On Christmas Eve I read Gareth Gordon’s story about the possibility of convening party talks at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle or the Rockliffe Hall near Darlington and shuddered as I remembered a buff-coloured file, three or four inches thick, that I’d read in the Public Records Office just a few weeks before.
The file marked CENT/1/20/69A: Political Developments – Minutes of Meetings May 1991 [partial scans] is released to the public today, and it contains the stapled minutes of government meetings with political parties in just one calendar month, May 1991.
The vexed issue of where the hold political talks dominates many of the discussions detailed in the verbose minutes. Three-stranded talks
were about to get underway in the gap created before a Anglo-Irish Conference. The ‘Brooke Initiative’ aimed to weave together: had begun
- Strand 1 = discussions between NI parties on how to achieve devolution;
- Strand 2 = north/south discussions;
- Strand 3 = Irish-British discussions.
The file of papers goes into details about many different aspects in the talks about talks over that single month of May. But I’m going to concentrate on one seemingly insoluble problem that dogged the organisers of the talks: the venue for Strand 2.
In a nutshell, the starting positions of this negotiation were that the SDLP wanted strand 2 to be held in Dublin; unionists (the DUP and UUP tended to negotiate as one) desired London; and Alliance favoured Belfast. Sinn Féin weren’t part of the talks, though were in contact with the government through a secret back channel, not mentioned in these papers.
In a phone call to Minister of State Brian Mawhinney on 2 May 1991, Alliance leader John Alderdice said that his party favoured Parliament Buildings as “the process had already begun to find a home and should build on that”. However he was clear that “his party would talk to anybody anywhere”.
The ‘note for the record’ which was dictated by the Minister goes on to highlight the level of information sharing during the build-up to the talks.
“His [Alderdice’s] main reason for ringing was to report in confidence a private conversation he had had last night with Nigel Dodds. He was worried because the party appeared to be taking a firm line on the venue for Strand 2 which was likely not to coincide with the views of others … I explained to him the problems of accommodation in the intellectual/emotional and physical senses of that word which he totally accepted.” [emphasis included in the original]
Another topic raised by most parties was the level of media access to the talks. The civil service plan was to keep media facilities at a distance from the main talks building to prevent door-stepping, though Alliance’s “early view had been in favour of a more open approach to the media but they agreed that privacy and confidentiality were most important.”
John Alderdice added that “undue restriction on the activities of the Press could lead to uninformed and poorly based speculation but, more particularly, to attempts to gain access to junior members of political parties [who would have] less experience in handling the media and might find themselves led into saying something which would be unhelpful both to a particularly party and to the talks process”.
Reference was later made to the “elaborate procedures which had accompanied the Algerian independence talks at Evian in the early 1960s” which misdirected or confused the media. Weeks later, Alliance spoke about meeting up on the first floor of a building to frustrate any media attempts to eavesdrop from outside.
The SDLP’s Joe Hendron told officials that “coming to Parliament Buildings had been a big concession for the SDLP” (back in 1973). John Hume said that “if Unionists ruled out Dublin, the SDLP would concede Armagh”. A few minutes later, Seamus Mallon “intervened by saying that it would look foolish for the second strand – if it were reached – to take place in London; confidence in the whole process would be undermined”. The Secretary of State insisted that it was “necessary to take account of all views”. Humorous retorts were recorded in the minutes:
“Mr Hume, slightly jocularly, suggested Derry. (Mr McGrady, sotto voce, muttered Downpatrick.)”
A week later and there was still deadlock, with media suggestions of a European location ruled out by unionists because this would “‘internationalise’ the problem”.
The SDLP were willing to compromise on strand 2 meetings alternating between London and Dublin (with the starting venue decided by the toss of a coin) with a symbolic opening in Armagh.
John Alderdice fed back that while out canvassing for a local council by-election in Carrickfergus he detected that “the perceived difficulties about the location of the second strand were pulling down the credibility of the talks”.
The Secretary of State told unionists that “the SDLP and the Alliance had put it to him that if it proved impossible to resolve this issue, there would be little scope for resolving other more substantive issues”.
“Where better than to resolve a UK problem that in the UK capital” insisted Ian Paisley who said that “reasonable people would see London as the appropriate place”. He added that “it was … insulting to the people of Northern Ireland to have the question of location decided on the toss of a coin”.
Peter Robinson said “there was a genuine feeling that the SDLP were being mischievous”, adding “if the venue had not been a difficulty in 1973, why should it be now?” William McCrea – who was not always singing from the same hymn sheet as other factions within the DUP – said that “this was an issue on which the Unionists could not move”.
Back in with the SDLP later that same morning, the Secretary of State was told by John Hume that “stage two was about relations within Ireland” so “it was therefore logical for it to be in Ireland”. What was logical for one party was illogical for some others.
“Mr Robinson drew attention to some practical matters which were still causing difficulty. Dr Paisley had, that morning, been locked out of both his room and his toilet and none of the DUP’s word-processing equipment was working.
“Dr Paisley added a complaint about being asked to show his pass when he entered the building … Dr Paisley said that he had heard John Hume had been asked to open his car boot on Tuesday and that his concern was that incidents like this would mean that people’s tempers would be frayed before they even sat down at the table.”
The word-processing problem was referred to by some as ‘the great Olivetti scandal’.
“As a Ballymena man” Ian Paisley also asked about remuneration of secretaries for which the NIO had set aside some funding.
Jim Nicholson “pointed out that the telephones in Parliament Buildings could only be used to make calls within the United Kingdom” and explained that as MEPs, both he and Ian Paisley would need to be in regular contact with their offices in Brussels during any talks.
Asked if they “were prepared to allow photographs and film footage to be taken of the first plenary meeting [of strand 1] for archive purposes” Ian Paisley said no because it would set a precedent for strand 2. Jim Molyneaux “concurred saying that they had come to talk not to provide entertainment” and William McCrea said that “in forty years they would all be judged by what they had achieved not by the photographs they had left behind”. The Secretary of State said that “this was a straight answer to a straight question”.
The minute of the meeting notes that “the good humour of the early part [of the meeting] evaporated during the discussion on key issues and by the time the meeting had got on to North/South venue Dr Paisley was not in a compromising mood.” The minute concludes with the observation that “it was noticeable that Mr Molyneaux and his colleagues left almost all the running to the three DUP members”.
Later the SDLP suggesting using the “Throne Room” in Dublin Castle, a venue with much heraldry and many British connections. Dr Paisley was content that the Isle of Man could be a “neutral venue”. Alliance suggested the Irish Embassy in London and the British Embassy in Dublin and the Secretary of State encouraged the centrist party “to continue with their inventiveness”.
The NIO concocted a compromise proposal consisting of an initial meeting in London, a series of substantial meetings somewhere in Northern Ireland (but definitely not on Stormont Estate) followed by a further symbolic meeting in Dublin to summarise progress and act as a transition from Strand 2 into Strand 3. Unionists were encouraged to see the Dublin meeting as an opportunity to directly address their concerns to the Irish government.
Soon the talks became bogged down with concerns about the (independent) chairing of Strand 2 and some parties reached out for meetings with the Prime Minister over the head of the Belfast officials and Secretary of State.
It wasn’t until the 22 or 23 May that the venue for strand 2 of the talks was agreed – or at least the parties stopped objecting to the proposal – though history shows that great plans can still fall apart during execution, in this case when the Strand 1 talks ran up against the Anglo-Irish Conference deadline that would ‘unsuspend’ the Maryfield civil service team and signal the end to unionist willingness to talk.
While perhaps the single most frustrating file I’ve flicked through at PRONI over the last couple of years, the level of detail in the civil service minutes of meetings is incredible, and the retention of humorous asides provides a lot of colour about the characters involved and their relationships.
“… commenting to the Secretary of State that he thought that the Government Team might find it of strategic value were they to seat the Unionist Delegation facing the windows, thus with the light in their eyes.”
If you have a day space in your diary, head down to the Public Records Office and request to see file CENT/1/20/69A.
And if you want more context about the Brooke Initiative, I recommend finding a copy of David Bloomfield’s readable book Political Dialogue in Northern Ireland: Brooke Initiative, 1989-92. [Sorry – I got the last £10 copy, but Libraries NI have two copies across in Belfast Central and one in Armagh!]
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.