Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Secret late-night talks with Peter Robinson in his kitchen helped bring unionists back in from cold, claims Mawhinney

Peter Robinson was involved in secret dialogue aimed at bringing unionist parties back in from the cold in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a former NIO minister has claimed.

Mr Robinson, then the DUP's deputy leader, was approached because of the "unhelpful pattern" which the discussions were following under Ian Paisley, according to Brian Mawhinney.

The late-night talks took place in the kitchen of the Robinson family, fuelled by coffee and sandwiches made by Iris Robinson, he said.

In his new memoirs, Just A Simple Belfast Boy, Mr Mawhinney describes the talks as "enormously helpful" in understanding where the "real unionist boundaries lay".

He said the discussions improved the chances of a successful outcome. Eventually there would be inter-party dialogue culminating in the Good Friday Agreement – albeit without the involvement of the DUP.

The discussions involving Mr Robinson (right) are said to have occurred in 1989 – four years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement which saw unionists walk away from the talks process.

Mr Mawhinney said he was asked to lead a "political exploration", and recalled how the Ulster Unionists and DUP were edged back into dialogue.

However, he said the talks broke up in a "state of tension" every week because of the hardline approach taken by Mr Paisley.

Mr Mawhinney wrote that at this point he decided to approach the party's deputy leader.

"Peter Robinson and I have been friends, though not particularly close, for a long time," he stated.

"He is a skilled politician and while he could be as partisan as anyone in Northern Ireland politics he had a sense of political realism and an understanding of the 'big' picture not shared by many of his peers."

Mr Robinson, he added, understood the "importance of delivering good outcomes for people, not just for 'his' people".

According to Mr Mawhinney, the pair agreed to set aside time for a "serious conversation".

However, because of their busy diaries, weekends were the only time available.

It led to bizarre meetings in the Robinsons' kitchen.

"Had we been 'discovered' the political conspirators would have had a politically damaging field day – including some around the table," Mr Mawhinney adds.

"It was my practice to fly back to Belfast on Sunday evenings, ahead of the Monday meeting, so we decided that if we were to get together it had to be late on Sunday night. Understandably Peter did not feel like leaving his home at 10pm or later so I went to his house, which had the advantage of shielding us from prying eyes.

"His wife Iris made us coffee and sandwiches and we sat in the kitchen identifying ways to extricate ourselves from Thursday's cul-de-sac and make progress in the coming week."

Mr Mawhinney said it became a "weekly routine".

"For obvious reasons neither Peter nor I wanted the existence of these talks, much less their substance, to become known – and they never were."

Mr Mawhinney said Mr Robinson helped him to understand where unionist boundaries lay, paving the way for talks which would eventually lead to the 1998 agreement.

The DUP declined to comment.

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