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Wednesday 21 August 2019

UK 'bloodbath' fear as Robinson 'plotted for independent state'

Peter Robinson. PA Photo: Paul Faith
Peter Robinson. PA Photo: Paul Faith

Brian Hutton

Northern Ireland's future first minister, Peter Robinson, was plotting to declare an independent state amid a feared bloodbath in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, British officials believed.

In one of a flurry of high-level intergovernmental meetings in 1986, British cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong - the UK's top-ranking official - told Irish counterparts that Mr Robinson was "saying things about independence".

"We may be tending to treat this as unthinkable and to say 'they can't really want it', but the issue may become more real," he warned.

Mr Armstrong was head of the British civil service and chief adviser to then prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the Tory cabinet. Notes from the meeting at Whitehall, marked 'secret', were sent from London to taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in Dublin.

Mr Armstrong told officials that unionists, who feared the recently-signed agreement was a precursor to a British withdrawal, would prefer an independent Northern Ireland rather than a united Ireland.

"However, they do not appear to have thought out the full consequences of this course - and enthusiasm for it is far less than widespread," he said. "They obviously have not given full weight to the financial consequences and do not appear to have considered what their position would be vis a vis the European Community and in the international context."

Mr Armstrong told the meeting that a lot of unionist thinking "particularly on the part of [Ian] Paisley", was based on the premise that "at some time the British would pull the rug out and that then Northern Ireland would have to go it alone".

"Paisley wanted to be in a position to blame the British if this happened - and also to be at the top of the heap," he said, according to Irish official notes of the meeting, just released into Dublin's National Archives under the 30-year rule.

Concerns of a Rhodesia-style unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in Belfast were raised repeatedly during several confidential Anglo-Irish meetings that year, the State papers show.

In a meeting with secretary of state Tom King at the Irish Embassy in London in February, Mr Fitzgerald said a risk with keeping the Northern Ireland Assembly going was it being used "to declare UDI".

Mr King, who wanted to keep the forum going "for letting off steam, if nothing else", agreed that was possible. He said there was "real trouble ahead" as Catholics feared a Protestant backlash to the agreement, citing a television programme that showed the UDA and UVF getting organised.

"The British were unhappy about the role of some politicians," notes of the meeting state.

"Peter Robinson was certainly in touch with the paramilitaries and the British were also extremely dubious about the role of [former UUP deputy leader] Harold McCusker. Even Paisley was now looking over his shoulder to the paramilitaries."

Head of the Northern Ireland civil service Ken Bloomfield also warned Irish officials in April about an attempted revival of Ulster nationalism.

"Unionists are now beginning to realise that the choice facing them is whether to preserve the union or preserve their ascendancy," he said.

Also in April, Mr FitzGerald met with Ulster Unionist Belfast lord mayor John Carson.

One of the mayor's officials, Alfie Redpath, told the meeting there were close links between some politicians and the paramilitaries, saying the "thuggery is being manipulated with a purpose".

"Paisley and Robinson seem to be working with a scenario of UDI in mind," he told the taoiseach. "They will say, when the violence has reached a certain point, that the only way out is for Ulster to look after itself. We could run into a bloodbath."

Mr FitzGerald responded that unionists purported to support the union but "what they are doing is the opposite".

Irish Independent

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