It was April, 1986 and Northern Ireland was in turmoil. Six months earlier the British and Irish governments had signed the Hillsborough Agreement, giving the Dublin government a consultative say in the running of the North – and Unionism had exploded in rage.
A protest rally outside Belfast City Hall in November, 1985 had attracted a huge crowd, a significant section of which was comprised of middle-class, respectable Protestants who normally eschewed political activity.
Unionists had withdrawn from councils around the North, including Belfast, bringing local government to a halt. Unionist MP’s had resigned en masse from Westminster to force by-elections so that opposition to the Hillsborough deal could be measured.
In March, there had been a one-day strike which led to widespread rioting, especially in Portadown, regarded as Orangeism’s citadel. Intimidation of RUC officers was widespread and there were indications that some policemen were reluctant to face rioters in Loyalist areas.
The situation was deteriorating and Unionists seemed unwilling to even consider the only mechanism which could remove the Anglo-Irish-Agreement: a power-sharing deal with the SDLP. The two then leaders of Unionism, Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux had floated the idea of opening talks but hardliners had forced them to retreat.
The hardest of hard-liners was believed to be Paisley’s deputy, the East Belfast MP, Peter Robinson, who later that year would be arrested at Clontibret in Co. Monaghan during an incursion by a new Loyalist paramilitary group called Ulster Resistance, composed largely of the most intractable elements in Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.
That would happen in August, but in April that same year into this worsening and increasingly violent story arrives an American reporter who manages to secure an interview with Robinson and, in the context of the time, a scoop.
Robinson tells him, (or is it a her?), that he is prepared, albeit reluctantly, to enter into negotiations to secure a deal to replace the Hillsborough accord. This represents a major break from the Unionist consensus and a very good story for the American reporter.
So what does the reporter do? If your answer is that he, or she, makes a dash for a typewriter (this is 1986!) to draft an interesting story for his/her newsdesk then go to the bottom of the class.
No, the reporter goes straight to the British government to tell them of the news. In fact he or she goes to the British the day after the interview with Robinson.
His/her interlocutor, one J Alford, from the Northern Ireland Office’s Political Affairs Division, then drafts a report of the conversation which is circulated widely and to the very top of the NIO. You can read it in full below; it is part of a cache of documents recently released by the British.
Unlike the American reporter, J Alford protects his/her source by not naming him or her, even though the note of the conversation is being shared at the highest levels of the NIO.
So we don’t know who the reporter was or which newspaper in the US he or she wrote for. But the conclusion is seemingly unavoidable: there are higher ethical standards in the British government!