State Papers

Row over venue threatened to derail Brooke talks

The Co Tyrone town of Coalisland was among the more unlikely suggestions as a venue for political talks in 1991. Picture by Cathal McNaughton
Dr Éamon Phoenix

APPARENTLY irreconcilable differences on a venue for 'Strand Two' (north-south) discussions at the outset of the Brooke political talks in 1991 threatened to derail the entire process, government files released in Belfast reveal.

Unionists insisted on London, while the SDLP preferred Dublin but was open to any location on the island of Ireland.

For his part, Irish foreign affairs minister Gerry Collins suggested either "Ballymena, Coalisland or Adare", while Armagh was firmly rejected by DUP leader Ian Paisley.

The looming danger of a stand-off surfaced at a meeting between the Secretary of State Peter Brooke and an SDLP delegation led by John Hume at Stormont on April 30 1991.

The SDLP leader told ministers that if the DUP ruled out Dublin, they would concede Armagh.

West Belfast representative Dr Joe Hendron said the paramilitaries "were watching the talks carefully" and a Strand Two meeting in Dublin "would be significant in minimising their support".

At this point, the minutes record: "Mr Hume, slightly jocularly, suggested Derry while Mr (Eddie) McGrady, sotto voce, muttered Downpatrick".

However, the SDLP leader said that if the location was a real problem, "the talks would be in trouble".

The issue was also raised by a joint unionist delegation with Mr Brooke on May 3, with the DUP and UUP both advocating London.

Dr Paisley insisted: "Anywhere in the ROI, whose constitution laid claim to Northern Ireland, would be unacceptable."

Mr Brooke said the process was dependent on "everyone’s willingness to talk to people with different views".

 

Elaborating his views on Articles 2 and 3, the DUP leader said the Republic might need to hold a referendum on the issue, "but it was unacceptable that they should do so in respect of Northern Ireland’s internal arrangements."

"This was the rock on which everything might break. He understood the SDLP’s argument about Sinn Féin and 1918 (a reference to the republican emphasis on the 1918 general election result), but to give the Republic a veto on NI’s internal political arrangements would be worse than the Anglo-Irish Agreement; it would be like a dog returning to its vomit."

The Secretary of State raised the question of Armagh for talks but Mr Paisley replied: "To go there would be folly and would introduce a religious dimension... there would be special prayers in the cathedral which would be sickening."

At this point the Ulster Unionist MP Rev Martin Smyth said his party had considered a number of locations, "even Rockall" - a reference to the disputed rock in the Atlantic.

There were signs of a breakthrough, however, at further bilaterals four days later.

At a unionist meeting with Mr Brooke, Dr Paisley conceded that "one meeting on the island of Ireland might be possible if the Taoiseach (Charles Haughey) wanted to make a gesture".

"It would, however, have to be in the north although he could not bring Mr Haughey to Ballymena."

In September 1992, the UUP - led by James Molyneaux - took part in historic talks with the Irish government at Dublin Castle – unionists’ first formal discussions there since 1922.

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