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‘Hoodwinked’ northern secretaries’ tales of woe

It’s not easy being secretary of state for Northern Ireland, as Chris Heaton-Harris, the current incumbent, would no doubt confirm.

Back in the 1980s one of his predecessors, Jim Prior, explained that part of the problem was that most northern secretaries didn’t last more than two years. As he told then-minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry, by the time they went through the learning period, and then “the period of being hoodwinked by the Unionists… they had never had a chance to make any real advances”. [2022/48/632]

Prior asked Margaret Thatcher to extend his time in Belfast; the prime minister, who detested him, was more than happy to oblige.

The previously confidential government files released this week give an insight into how different northern secretaries handled the role. Sir Patrick Mayhew, for instance, admitted to Irish officials that he thought the job would be a quiet backwater, but then found to his consternation that he was expected to work hard.

After a rocky start, he managed to find his feet, but after five years appeared quite happy at the prospect of handing over to Labour’s Mo Mowlam, “a good egg” according to Mayhew.

‘A good egg’ – northern secretary Mo Mowlam

In preparation for the change of government, officials in the Northern Ireland Office prepared briefing material for Mowlam and her team, including personality assessments of some of the leading politicians in Northern Ireland. If she read them, it’s a wonder Mowlam didn’t run from the job, as far and as fast as she could.

There are further intriguing revelations about two of the key political personalities – David Trimble and Gerry Adams – and their apparent mutual fascination, as well as a previously secret weekly meeting involving leading Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionists members, set up at the suggestion of Bertie Ahern.

The main problem between them, of course, was decommissioning, and newly released files show just how obdurate the IRA was on the whole question of putting weapons beyond use.

There are fresh insights too into how the transition from Bill Clinton to George W Bush was handled by the Irish Government, desperate to maintain its influence in the White House.

And as always, there are other stories too, including Tony Blair looking for a good time in Dublin, and ‘Gorbymania’ in Shannon.

Where possible, we’ve given the reference numbers for the files containing the documents we’ve quoted. All of those files – along with plenty more – are available to the public in the National Archives in Dublin when they reopen in the New Year.

By David McCullagh and Shane McElhatton

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