Belfast Telegraph

London and Dublin feared unionists might declare independence in wake of Agreement

By Brian Hutton

Former First Minister Peter Robinson was plotting to declare Northern Ireland 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 inter-governmental meetings in 1986, British Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong - the UK's top-ranking official - told counterparts in the Republic 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.

Sir Robert was head of the UK Civil Service and chief adviser to Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Cabinet.

Notes from the meeting at Whitehall marked 'Secret' were sent back from London to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in Dublin. Sir Robert 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."

He told the meeting 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 at the time was its 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.

"Robinson was certainly thinking in those terms," he said.

Mr King said there was "real trouble ahead" as Catholics feared a Protestant backlash to the Agreement, citing a television programme that showed the terrorist UDA and UVF getting organised.

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

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