State papers released under the 30-year rule showed that Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald thought the idea had “torn the mask” from Gerry Adams’ claims that Sinn Féin was independent of the Provisionals. Ultimately, the idea was abandoned, with the SDLP leader not sitting down secretly with Mr Adams until 1988.
However, documents from the taoiseach’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1985 reveal mixed emotions about Mr Hume’s desire to talk to the terrorists. One of the deepest insights into his thinking came after Seán Donlon, who was central to the Anglo-Irish negotiations, sat down with Mr Hume on January 25. In his memo to the taoiseach, he suggested support for the Provos may have peaked and that they had run into “obvious military difficulties”. He said Mr Hume only wanted talks with “those who really called the shots”. Other documents recall how the SDLP leader branded Mr Adams a “puppet”. Mr Donlon wrote:
“My assessment of Hume’s present position in relation to the Provisionals is that he is willing, even anxious, to have a confrontation, preferably public, with them.”
Elsewhere, senior SDLP figures thought the talks offer and unionist reaction had given the party the high ground. Margaret Thatcher was said to be “quite at ease” when the issue was raised in talks in March that year, and a month earlier, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Douglas Hurd, said he had not taken the idea seriously but that “it could be worse”.
“I hope we can steer past it without upsetting the main issues,” he told foreign affairs minister Peter Barry as negotiations on the Anglo Irish Agreement were beginning in earnest.
Mr Hurd said he was concerned any meeting with an elected politician and the IRA would set what he called “all the old drum notes”.
He was worried that no matter where the talks were held, security forces and police would have to act to arrest Army Council members and charge them with terrorism offences.
When the idea was first floated by Mr Hume, on separate occasions with the Irish and British government, Mr FitzGerald played down the strength and capability of the IRA at the time. He also threatened to break up any talks. “The IRA are not as strong on the ground and could be financially embarrassed at the present time, as a result of pressure from Ireland, the UK, and the USA,” he told Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary, Robert Armstrong. “If measures were devised that caught the public imagination, the consequence could be that they would be quite demoralised and would cease to become an effective element.”