David Trimble feared Sinn Fén MP being elected in North Belfast
UNIONIST fears that Sinn Féin could capture the Westminster seat in North Belfast were aired during meetings in 1996.
The choice of ex-US Senator George Mitchell as chairman of all-party talks convened by the British and Irish governments as well the ‘three-stranded’ approach were also highlighted in previously confidential files.
The unionist concerns surfaced at a meeting between the Prime Minister John Major and the UUP leader David Trimble and his colleague Jeffrey Donaldson, MP – now DUP Chief Whip at Westminster – in Downing Street on June 3, 1996.
The UUP leader accused the NIO of sectarian discrimination in the funding of Protestant areas of Belfast and feared that Sinn Féin would capture the North Belfast Westminster seat.
Mr Trimble began by voicing his disappointment at the recent election results to the new NI Forum. His party’s share of the vote had been poor - 24.2 per cent as against 18.8 per cent for the DUP.
The result in Belfast had been disastrous. And there was a danger that Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly "could be the next MP in North Belfast" which was, at the time, held by the UUP's Cecil Walker before Nigel Dodds won it for the DUP in 2001.
This was partly the fault of the NIO because of ‘their blatantly discriminatory policy on the distribution of financial assistance for businesses and schools’.
Mr Major’s private secretary noted: "Trimble was not prepared to listen to any denial – he had no doubt that there was deliberate sectarian distortion".
The Unionist leader described the increased vote for Sinn Fein (15.5 per cent as against 21.4 per cent for the SDLP) as worrying, saying that it should worry Dublin.
The discussion turned to the possibility of an IRA ceasefire and the position of Sinn Féin. The Prime Minister said that the IRA/Sinn Féin now faced a difficult position on the ceasefire.
The question also remained of how to achieve decommissioning.
The UUP leader commented that he had not agreed to the three-stranded structure for the talks. For his part, Jeffrey Donaldson said that east/west relations were not simply a governmental issue but concerned the totality of relationships. They did not want a north/south link which stood alone. However the Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew said that the three-stranded approach "was now hallowed by time".
Mr Trimble claimed it had been designed to assist John Hume and ‘left the unionists permanently behind the game’. However, the prime minister warned of ‘the great danger’ in opening Strand Three as the Irish were bound to demand a say in Strand One (relating to internal NI structures).
Trimble said he was determined to insist ‘on the consent principle’ in the negotiations.
In a note on the file, Mr Major’s private secretary commented: "This was not an easy meeting … but [Trimble] did not reject the government approach outright".