State Papers

Mary Robinson's 1993 meeting with Gerry Adams 'angered British government'

President Mary Robinson during a visit to Coalisland, Co Tyrone in 1993. Picture from Pacemaker
Dr Éamon Phoenix

THE British government was strongly opposed to President Mary Robinson’s decision to meet Gerry Adams during a visit to west Belfast in 1993.

Mrs Robinson's visit to a community centre on June 18, which was met by protests from unionists, saw her shake hands with the Sinn Féin leader.

According to newly-released files, the British government only discovered Mr Adams would be at the meeting the night before it happened.

An NIO memo noted that Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew "feared the meeting would be seen as the head of state of a country with a territorial claim over NI meeting Sinn Féin which justified violence in support of that territorial claim".

"That would cause grave damage to her, to the Irish government whose credibility with unionists would be undermined and consequently, to the interests of the British government," the note read.

The memo reported that Sir Patrick and Prime Minister John Major had urged at an Anglo-Irish summit that no such meeting should happen.

"The Irish were deeply embarrassed and realised that this was a disaster in the making, but they had no control over the president’s visit which was a private one," the note read.

According to the NIO official it "appeared that President Robinson was taking some heed of [their] very strong representation" and planned to curtail the meeting.

The night before the visit, Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast Reg Empey complained to the NIO that while he had a high opinion of the president, he felt the visit "would cause long-term damage" and appeared to "legitimise Sinn Féin".

Declassified documents also showed the efforts of the NIO and British ambassador to Dublin, David Blatherwick, to encourage politicians from the Republic to visit the north.

Mr Blatherwick said such visits "convey a sense of normality and, of course, make Articles 2 and 3 (the parts of the Irish constitution which made a territorial claim on the north) look even emptier than they are".

The ambassador added: "Ten years ago I never expected to see an Irish minister attend a function in NI as a guest of the Secretary of State. Dev (former taoiseach Éamon de Valera) must be spinning in his grave".

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