Northern Ireland news

Ian Paisley's fear for SDLP's survival

Ian Paisley had reservations about the choice of Senator George Mitchell as talks chair

IAN Paisley expressed fears that Sinn Féin was displacing the SDLP as the voice of nationalism ahead of all-party talks in 1996.

The DUP leader also had reservations about the choice of Senator George Mitchell as talks chair.

Papers show that Mr Paisley's fears about Sinn Féin were shared by John Major.

Exchanges took place at a meeting at 10 Downing Street on June 5, 1996 between Mr Major and NI Secretary Mayhew and the DUP leader and his deputy, Peter Robinson.

Mr Major jocularly congratulated Mr Paisley on his success in the Forum elections, "no doubt aided by the trick he had pulled with the Electoral Officer to get his name on the ballot paper". Mr Paisley had his name placed against every DUP candidate in the May election.

Mr Paisley said he was in "a state of ignorance" about the preparations for the talks while "Trimble seemed to know everything". Mr Major confirmed that both the Forum and the talks would begin in June. He did not expect an IRA ceasefire but thought that Sinn Féin would turn up for the cameras.

The DUP politicians asked the PM about the Forum. Mr Paisley voiced concern about the presence of the small loyalist parties, the Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Democratic Party.

Mr Robinson asked whether the prime minister envisaged Senator Mitchell chairing the plenary session and Mr Major confirmed this. Mr Paisley felt it would be very difficult to get agreement for this but Mr Major explained that they were anxious to avoid stories of secret deals. Mr Paisley said that the chairmanship of the plenary was the key role. "Giving it to Mitchell would bring down the furies on the government's head."

The prime minister said it had not been his first instinct "to go for an American" but he had become convinced that this was the best way forward. Besides, the former senator was "a good and skilful politician". However, Mr Paisley recalled that Senator Mitchell had been one of those who sponsored the first US visa for Gerry Adams.

Mr Paisley voiced concern at Sinn Féin's success in the elections. "This was a further chapter in the usual history of Republicanism – the extremists taking over from the moderates and the SDLP was in danger of being swallowed up," he said. The PM was inclined to agree, adding: "Many voters had probably concluded that there was no point in voting for the party sheltering Sinn Féin when you could vote for Sinn Féin itself." In Mr Major's view this must be causing distress to SDLP leaders other than Mr Hume.

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