1983 First Day Briefs: NIO pen pictures of local politicians & parties #20yearrule

NIO/12/804A is a thick blue file that’s available from today under the 20 Year Rule in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.

It contains the 1983 First Day Briefs to new Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland.

Along with an introduction to each department and a list of burning political issues, there’s a handy twenty page potted history [PDF] of Northern Ireland that begins with The Government of Ireland Act in 1920 and ends with the Forum for a New Ireland being convened in Dublin in May 1983. Further appendices outline constitutional developments over the years.

But viewed at the distance of 33 years, one of the most interesting sections introduces the new Secretary of State to the local political parties and leading politicians with whom they will need to quickly become familiar. [PDF]

James Molneaux (UUP) is “a shy man, he is not a gifted speaker, but he has a strong sense of public duty.”

It was noted that “under the influence of Enoch Powell, a growing body of opinion within the [UUP] party has seen the commitment to devolution as being potentially inconsistent with the maintenance of the union and has laid greater stress on seeking, through the establishment of an ‘upper tier’ of local government, to ensure that Northern Ireland is governed in the same way as the rest of the UK.”

Harold McCusker (UUP) “takes a particularly hard line on security although he is something of a left-winger on socio-economic issues. His health is not good.”

John Taylor (UUP) “is not particularly well-liked of trusted within the UUP and takes care to distance himself from the leadership.”

Peter Robinson (DUP) “is a dedicated politician, an extremely ambitious man and a polished public speaker. A spokesman for the younger element within the DUP, he has little sympathy for the Party’s fundamentalist approach on moral issues; nevertheless, he remains completely loyal to Mr Paisley.”

Part of the DUP description explained that the party “is essentially the hard-line Loyalist alternative to the UUP and beings a more uncompromising and populist style to its politics”.

John Hume (SDLP) is “an academically minded man of great energy and political acumen … a moderate man who has always believed in the value of continuing dialogue with the NIO and the main Unionist parties, he has consistently opposed the use of violence and espoused the cause of reconciliation …”

The briefing notes that “for the first time, the SDLP faced a united nationalist challenge at the polls in the shape of Sinn Féin: although they secured over 18% of the first preference and a total of 14 seats their share of the nationalist vote fell to less than two-thirds.”

Seamus Mallon (SDLP) is “personable, fluent and possessed of great charm, he is a leading figure in the rural ‘green’ wing of the party which sees no prospect of an accommodation with the Unionists and looks to Dublin for its salvation.”

Oliver Napier (Alliance) is “a moderate in Northern Ireland politics, he does not have a charismatic public image but is capable and sincere.”

It is noted that the Alliance Party “insist that although six of their Assembly members are Catholics, they should not be regarded as representatives of the minority community and have made it clear that they will not support any proposals for devolution which do not provide a clear role for the SDLP.”

Jim Kilfedder (Ulster Popular Unionist Party) is “a highly individualistic politician, he is a maverick in the Unionist ranks but sides, on most issues, with the DUP.”

No pen-pictures were included for Sinn Féin politicians – ministerial contact was banned under NIO policy – but the party itself is described as “the political wing of the Provisional IRA”.

At the start of the present troubles Sinn Féin, so far as it existed at all in Northern Ireland, had little credibility. But as the IRA itself grew in strength and importance so did its political counterpart: and the split in the IRA into Provisional and Official wings was mirrored in Sinn Féin … In recent years, as the party has sought to harness popular support for causes which complement the terrorism of the Provisional IRA, it has supported candidates running in other colours at both local and Westminster elections … Sinn Féin have not taken their seats in the Assembly.

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