Sinn Fein's version of exchanges: David McKittrick examines details of the documents released yesterday

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SINN FEIN yesterday added to the Government's credibility problem in Northern Ireland by releasing a sheaf of documents which it said were messages passed to it by the Government earlier this year.

The documents do not appear among those lodged in the House of Commons library earlier this week by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The view was common in political circles yesterday that Sir Patrick's reputation was damaged when he announced on Wednesday night that he was correcting 20 errors in the library documents.

Among the material produced by Sinn Fein was what purported to be details of deliberations at cabinet committee meetings on 17 and 18 May of this year to discuss the offer of a two- week IRA ceasefire to allow talks between delegations from the Government and Sinn Fein.

Martin McGuinness related: '(Kenneth) Clarke's advice was that the opening of public negotiations with us was too risky with the Government under siege. Mayhew was wobbling between pushing for acceptance and wanting a safer longer period of cessation. John Major compromised by instructing his secretary to draw up a programme which he would be able to announce in Parliament, that he was instructing the Northern Ireland Office to enter into dialogue with the republican movement.'

Last night, however, the Northern Ireland Office said Sir Patrick's diary showed he had been in Northern Ireland rather than London on 17 May and gave details of his itinerary.

Another document, said to be a personal note from a government source, uses financial terms as apparent code for Sir Patrick, the Cabinet and Mr Major. Part of it says: 'The present position is that the local chairman had accepted your offer, but such a vital economic issue had to go to the board.

'We had miscalculated in assuming that the national chairman would simply give it the nod of approval. Recent economic events have made him nervous of bold steps and your unfortunate headline events of April have made acceptance of your offer much more risky for him.'

The 'headline events' appear to be a reference to the Bishopsgate bomb in the London earlier this year.

Mr McGuinness said a chain of communication with the Government had come to life in mid-1990 after a long dormant period, and gave a detailed chronology of contacts since then. He was dismissive of the government claim that the round of talks had opened in February of this year after he sent a message saying the conflict was over.

He told a Belfast news conference: 'I don't believe there's a person in Ireland with a titter of wit who would believe that I handed such a document or oral communication to the British government.'