State Papers

John Hume outlined ideas anticipating Good Friday Agreement in 1990 meeting with Secretary of State

SDLP leader John Hume pictured after a meeting with Secretary of State Peter Brooke. Picture by Pacemaker
Dr Éamon Phoenix

THE evolving political views of John Hume engaged the close attention of Secretary of State Peter Brooke and his senior officials in 1990.

Significantly, the SDLP leader's ideas broadly anticipated the outline of the Good Friday Agreement eight years later.

Previously confidential minutes of two key meetings involving Mr Hume are contained in declassified files at the Public Record Office in Belfast.

On March 6 1990, the deputy under-secretary of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), Ian Burns, reported to ministers on discussions at a location near Derry.

He noted that "Mr Hume wanted to talk about the importance of the recent statements by Martin McGuinness".

The SDLP leader accepted that making political progress through inter-party dialogue was equally important, but felt that the prospect of the talks between unionists and his party was "putting pressure on the Provisionals".

Mr Hume was explicit that his proposal for "a double referendum" (in Ireland, north and south) after any constitutional agreement would "mean a referendum that was capable of altering Article 2 of the Irish Constitution".


When "goaded" by Mr Burns about his proposals for political development, he offered "a torrent of detail", including some involvement in power for both communities.

Mr Hume seemed to "deliberately avoid" the term "power-sharing", as used in 1973-74, stressing that there would have to be a new north/south relationship, "embracing the devolved administration and, perhaps, some sort of Council of Ministers".

The outline of his thinking was of sufficient interest to the Secretary of State Peter Brooke to arrange to "bump into" the SDLP leader at his room in the House of Commons on March 29 1990.

Mr Brooke’s private secretary, Stephen Leach, noted that "no-one else was present but the Secretary of State" and it had been intimated to the NIO that Mr Hume’s deputy, Seamus Mallon, "was rather suspicious of Mr Hume’s and the Secretary of State’s motives".

Mr Brooke told the SDLP leader that "he had never personally had the opportunity to hear Mr Hume explain his political strategy and would much appreciate if this were possible".

Mr Hume said he really had two strategies. "The first was posited on reaching agreement with the unionists. This would clearly have to involve at an early stage conversations between the unionists and Dublin."

He agreed with the Taoiseach (Charles Haughey) that if a satisfactory understanding on new institutions of government for the north could be reached, "then Articles 2 and 3 would definitely be on the table in the unionist/Dublin discussions".


Ranging more widely, Mr Hume said "that the emphasis on territory in unionist political attitudes (and in the Irish Constitution) was a debilitating obstacle to progress; he wanted to focus attention on a potential union of people, not of land".

"But for this to happen, the unionists needed to define themselves in a positive way rather than relying on the old negative stereotypes ('No Surrender', 'Not an Inch', etc).

"The negative philosophy which unionists had become wedded to was a travesty of an essentially creative people – from whose stock, for example, 11 US presidents had emerged."

At a more detailed level, the SDLP leader said he would be looking in any new institutions for full power-sharing, together with a Council of Ministers drawn from the north and south to consider cross-border issues.

He accepted that the border would remain and Northern Ireland would still be part of the UK.

On security, the SDLP leader had developed the tentative idea of a 'dual police force' along Belgian lines - involving an "ordinary" police force and a "security" police force to handle terrorism.

Turning to unionism, Mr Hume believed that "Dr Paisley was a good deal more flexible and more positive-minded than Mr Molyneaux (the Ulster Unionist leader)".

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State Papers