Northern Ireland news

State Papers 1995: Martin McGuinness accused NIO of having 'brass neck' in branding IRA arms the stumbling block to talks

British Prime Minister John Major (pictured with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds) was looking for was ‘substantial progress on arms' Picture by AP Photo/Dave Caulkin
Éamon Phoenix

SINN Féin accused the British government of having "a brass neck" for suggesting IRA arms were the problem during tense post-ceasefire exploratory talks.

At the second meeting between the two sides at Stormont on December 19, 1994, NIO chief Quentin Thomas pressed Sinn Féin to clarify its position on an explosive device found at Enniskillen, raised by a loyalist delegation in separate talks,

The party stood by the IRA denial of any involvement, leading to "forthright exchanges", with Mr Thomas insisting arms were central to whether Sinn Féin could be included in wider political negotiations.

Martin McGuinness said the NIO "appeared to be erecting a series of hoops" through which Sinn Féin were expected to jump.

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When Mr Thomas insisted "the past was the past, what mattered was their attitude to the legitimacy of the armed struggle in the future", Mr McGuinness accused the government of having "a brass neck", positing: "What about Bloody Sunday?"

The minutes record during a recess: "[Sinn Féin] first spurned, but then accepted, light snacks."

Discussion moved to parity of esteem and funding of Irish medium secondary school Meanscoil Feirste, but were brought back to disarmament by Mr Thomas, saying both sides "appear to agree on the object of removing the gun from Irish politics".

His attempt to move to "modalities and practicalities" was rejected, with Mr McGuinness maintaining making arms a precondition "would inevitably mean that the peace process ran into a brick wall".

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In a note after the session, Jonathan Stephens, a NIO official, noted: "Again Mr McGuinness dominated for Sinn Féin. Mr [Gerry] Kelly said nothing. Sinn Féin clearly had their instructions on arms and held to their position... They relaxed only towards the end, perhaps relieved that they had discharged their remit."

Mr McGuinness used a third session on January 16, 1995 to press for the involvement of ministers, branding the government's response to the IRA ceasefire "minimalist".

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and north Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly at Stormont Castle. During the 1994 talks `Mr McGuinness dominated for Sinn Féin. Mr [Gerry] Kelly said nothing' according to NIO minutes. Picture by Mal McCann

"The British have been trying to defeat the IRA for twenty- five years and had failed. It seemed it was now trying to get Sinn Féin to do the job for them. The British government had to take the political initiative if they were to end the 800 year conflict," he declared.

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Evoking the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations and Lloyd George's threat of "great and terrible war", Mr Thomas said "he did not see himself as an apologist for David Lloyd George", instead, "what the British prime minister [John Major] and others were looking for was `substantial progress on arms'."

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