Depth of hostility revealed in 'sombre note'

Éamon Phoenix

THE reactions of British Ministers to the first flush of Unionist opposition to the Anglo Irish Agreement are recorded in declassified files released today in Belfast under the 30/20 Year Rule. The files contain a 'sombre note' by the Secretary of State, Tom King, to Margaret Thatcher on January 11 1986 on the depth of Unionist hostility to the Agreement and a considered response to it by the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe in which he criticised supergrass trials and warned against pressure on Dublin to remove its irredentist claim to the North.

King's letter to the Prime Minister was considerably 'beefed up' by Sir Ken Bloomfield, head of the North's Civil Service who added a sentence stating that the Unionist majority ' see it [the Agreement] as at worst a calculated and treacherous sell-out to Dublin and a deliberate movement towards an ultimate United Ireland, and at best a well-meaning but an ill-judged attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable [and, therefore] bound to collapse ...'

In his letter King told Thatcher: "the situation is worrying. Not only has Unionist denunciation of the Agreement been extremely vehement, it has also been almost unanimous...." In addition, the SDLP response had been "disappointingly cautious" and had stopped short of "encouraging new attitudes to the security forces or to the machinery of government". The position had been aggravated by a high level of IRA activity. Beyond, he told Thatcher, lay the Unionist byelection campaign which Ian Paisley would use as a mandate and "a message to you that the people of Ulster have spoken and that the Agreement must be abrogated". King urged Thatcher to press the Irish government to amend Article 2 and 3 containing the South's claim over the North. King's views prompted a strong response from the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Writing on 15 January 1986, he told Thatcher that their policy must be to stand firm on the Agreement. "It would be fatal for the ultimate success of the process which you initiated at Hillsborough if Unionist opponents of the Agreement gained the slightest impression that the British Government could be thrown off course by their opposition to it....."

Turning to specific issues in the situation, Howe was critical of the current wave of 'supergrass' trials, describing them as "a legitimate cause for public concern" which should be examined.

Finally the Foreign Secretary was critical of King's reference to the need to press the Irish Government to amend Articles 2 and 3. In his view the British needed to be realistic about this as it was "not within the gift of the Irish Government to amend the Constitution" which could only be achieved by referendum. He went on: "Although the Agreement has been well received in the Republic, I doubt very much whether it has yet produced sufficient visible change in NI to enable the Irish Government to get popular support for a further major step towards acknowledging the legitimacy of Partition".

* CRITICAL: Sir Geoffrey Howe


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