State Papers

Martin McGuinness 'sent personal letters to leading Tories and asked to meet them'

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams in 1992
Éamon Phoenix

IN what may have been an attempt to initiate discussions with the British government in the last years of the Troubles, Martin McGuinness sent personal letters to leading Conservative politicians seeking a meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership.

The previously unknown overtures are disclosed in declassified files from 1992 released today.

On June 15, 1992 Mr McGuinness wrote to Peter Brooke, the recently replaced Northern Ireland secretary, from his home in Derry's Bogside, suggesting they should meet.

Following his departure from Northern Ireland, Mr Brooke had admitted that he would like to have met the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams as a matter of history and as a "human reaction" to his "significant role in events".

Later, in 1994, he would describe Mr Adams as "a brave and courageous man".

In his typewritten letter, Mr McGuinness wrote: "Dear Mr Brooke, I found it interesting that in a BBC interview shortly after you left office as secretary of state you expressed your regret at never having met the Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams during your time in Stormont."

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The Derry Republican said he appreciated that, even though he had left the NIO, "difficulties may still exist to prevent you undertaking such an initiative. Accepting this, I would still like to explore the possibility that a meeting between yourself and other members of the Conservative Party with representatives of Sinn Féin could take place at some time in the future."

Secretary of State Peter Brooke at Stormont. Picture by Pacemaker

Mr McGuinness said he was also writing to extend the invitation to the former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath.

By way of encouragement, he referred to recent discussions "between the Presbyterian moderator and Bishop Edward Daly (bishop of Derry) and Sinn Féin", adding: "There is general acceptance that this has been a positive development and I feel the courage shown by these clergymen is worthy of commendation." He expressed the hope that Mr Brooke would give serious consideration to his proposal.

The files show that Mr Brooke forwarded the letter to the NIO for its advice in responding. In a memo to the new NI secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, dated June 22, 1992, John Chilcot, head of the NIO, stated that the secretary of state had endorsed his advice that Mr Brooke should not "say anything in reply to Mr McGuinness other than what will be, no doubt, a polite refusal".

Mr McGuinness's letter in similar terms to Heath evoked a belated response from the ex-prime minister's private secretary, Nick Edge who rang Jonathan Rodell, Mr Brooke's private secretary, on August 21, 1992.

According to Mr Rodell's memo, he "rang ... to ask what I could tell him about a certain Martin McGuinness. I explained that McGuinness was a leading figure in Sinn Féin and a close associate of Gerry Adams; that it was widely believed that he was also a central figure in PIRA; that he had previously been seen as one of the hard men of the republican movement, but that recent reports had suggested that his position was softening slightly and that he was interested in recruiting either Mr Brooke or Sir Edward to act as some kind of mediator."

Former Prime Minister Edward Heath

The private secretary revealed that Sir Edward had recently received a letter from Martin McGuinness to which he had "sent only an acknowledgement".

However, the former prime minister's interest had been awakened by a report that the DUP leader Ian Paisley was "claiming that the idea (of talks with Sinn Féin) had the support of the government".

In response, Mr Rodell told Mr Edgar bluntly that the secretary of state (Mayhew) would be happy to talk to Sir Edward about the matter: "I made it clear that McGuinness was not someone who either ministers or officials would be prepared to speak to and that the question of contact with Sinn Féin was a sensitive one."

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