From James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney
Fascinating documents describing contacts between the newly-elected British prime minister, Tony Blair and the North’s political leaders, written in the days following New Labour’s historic May 1997 general election triumph, have made their way to The Broken Elbow, and they show that Blair began his stint in Downing Street as he would continue it, by saying one thing in public but doing the opposite in private.
The documents show that despite a public pledge to the contrary, Blair was in almost immediate contact with the Sinn Fein president and IRA Army Council member Gerry Adams in blatant contravention of a public pledge that this would not happen until a new ceasefire had been called.
The documents, which come from British files, also reveal that Blair was advised to avoid elevating the SDLP leader, John Hume into a major player during Blair’s stewardship of the peace process. Writing to Blair on May 9th, 1997, less than a week after Labour’s general election triumph, the new premier’s principal private secretary and senior Foreign Office mandarin, John Holmes gave the following advice: ‘We want to avoid getting into a position where Hume is once again an intermediary. You will need to be careful not to give Hume messages to take back to Adams, and to avoid getting drawn into any text he may have in his pocket.’
A week after Labour’s election victory, on May 9th, 1997, the new Blair administration was in touch with Gerry Adams via his secretary, Siobhan O’Hanlon who contacted the Northern Ireland Office official, Quentin Thomas to pass on a three paragraph message from the SF leader to Blair promising to keep contact with the new prime minister secret, along with Mr Adams’ desire, in a veiled reference to a renewed IRA ceasefire, ‘…..to help create conditions in which real progress can be made. The sooner this is done the better.’
Siobhan O’Hanon was one of the members of an IRA team which plotted to bomb Gibraltar in March 1988. Three of the team were shot dead by the SAS as they apparently carried on a target surveillance operation on the Rock, but O’Hanlon remained at the team’s Spanish base and survived. A sister of a Sunday Independent columnist and fierce IRA critic, Eilis O’Hanlon, she became Adams’ secretary but succumbed to cancer a few years later.
Adams was good as his word. With a challenge from IRA dissidents, led by IRA Quarter-Master General Micky McKevitt faced down at a special IRA Convention, Adams and his allies were, by the Summer of 1997, back in charge of the IRA and free to resume the peace process. A new ceasefire was called on July 20th, 1997, nearly three months after Blair’s general election triumph, although an IRA split quickly followed.
Another document, also from John Holmes, described arrangements for phone calls from the various NI party leaders to Blair. ‘This is a somewhat grisly prospect but necessary’, he wrote, adding: ‘They are getting 30 minutes each. You have to see the party leaders from time to time. But they should not get into the habit of bypassing Mo (Mo Mowlam, Blair’s NI Secretary), which they will be tempted to do, especially the Unionists’.
He continued: ‘It will not be difficult to be in listening mode with Paisley, although he is often the soul of joviality on these occasions. Robinson is much cleverer and more difficult to deal with’. Paisley and Blair went on to cultivate a friendship based on a common interest in religion born out of Blair’s wish to convert to Catholicism.
A third document describes a Downing Street meeting between Paisley, who traveled alone, and Blair, his new NI Secretary, Mo Mowlam and three officials, Jonathan Stephens, Jonathan Powell and John Holmes. It took place on May 12, 1997 and was notable for the following pledge Blair gave Paisley: ‘The Prime Minister said that his priority was to make clear to the Unionists that he was absolutely attached to the principle of consent. His government would not be acting as ‘persuaders’ for Irish unity. He asked Dr Paisley the best way of reassuring the Unionists’.
Paisley singled out the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution which Unionists saw as laying claim to Northern Ireland,
Here are the documents, beginning with the secret messaging to Gerry Adams, via Siobhan O’Hanlon (the final sentence in the second document from John Holmes stubbornly refuses to be loaded. It reads ‘….have to be done in the absence of Sinn Fein. Trimble is trying to see Bruton (which is much t be encouraged)’:
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