Northern Ireland’s former 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, then-British cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong — Britain’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 prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the Tory cabinet.
Notes from the meeting at Whitehall, marked “secret”, were sent back from London to then-taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in Dublin.
Mr Armstrong told officials that unionists who feared the agreement was a precursor to a British withdrawal would prefer an independent Northern Ireland rather than a united Ireland.
He said: “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 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, released under the 30-year rule.
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