Mo Mowlam considered an attempt to persuade the Parades Commission to delay a report on contentious marches amid concerns that it might destabilise peace talks in Northern Ireland archive files have revealed.
A series of letters from senior civil servants in Downing Street and the Northern Ireland Office show the concerns inside government about the potential impact of the Commission issuing its preliminary view on volatile parading disputes such as Drumcree/Garvaghy Road in Portadown and Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road.
The recently formed independent body established to adjudicate on Orange Order parades in the region had been due to issue a report at the end of March 1998 setting out its preliminary views on whether some of the most controversial marches should be allowed to proceed along traditional routes.
This planned publication date was at a pivotal point in political efforts to strike a peace agreement – the Good Friday Agreement would ultimately be signed on April 10.
An exchange of letters from mid-March, contained in newly released archive files from 1998 from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, reveal government deliberations on the appropriateness of using “discreet persuasion” to get the Commission to delay publishing its findings.
On March 13, Ken Lindsay, the private secretary of then Northern Ireland secretary Ms Mowlam, who died in 2005, wrote to Tony Blair’s private secretary, John Holmes, to outline the issue.
He said there was concern that the ruling on the Drumcree/Garvaghy Road dispute would have “the potential of impacting adversely on the progress made during the political talks which would at that time be at a particularly sensitive stage”.
Mr Lindsay added: “My Secretary of State has, therefore, together with ministerial colleagues and senior officials, been considering whether there would be any advantage in seeking to persuade the Parades Commission to delay publication of the preliminary view, for example until after Easter.”
He stressed that the Commission was an independent body and, as such, may not take the advice on board.
He continued: “And even if it did, it is inevitable that the delay would be widely seen as having resulted from political pressure from Government thereby considerably damaging the credibility of the Commission as an independent body.”
Mr Lindsay said Ms Mowlam had decided that there would be “little to be gain from attempting to persuade the Commission” and the best approach would be to “stand back from the issue” and not intervene.
The senior official asked Mr Holmes to confirm if the Prime Minister was content with that approach.
Days later, internal correspondence between NIO officials revealed there were differing views within the Commission on the issue.
It referred to a conversation with Commission secretary Richard Buchanan who, the internal letter states, said three Commission members had expressed doubts about the wisdom of publishing its report ahead of the anticipated agreement in the political talks.
However, the letter added that Commission chairman Alistair Graham and other members remain committed to the end of March date.
In a further letter Mr Lindsay sent to Mr Holmes on March 22 the matter is raised once again.
That correspondence refers to a previous letter Mr Holmes sent to Mr Lindsay on March 18. He noted that, in the March 18 letter, Mr Holmes had asked if the NIO wanted to exercise “discreet persuasion” on the Commission, how would that be done.
Noting recent conversations officials had had with the Commission chairman and secretary, Mr Lindsay stated: “Our clear judgment is that the Commission would not be prepared to consider any form of “discreet” representations about this issue.
“If Government wished to seek to persuade the Commission to delay publication of the preliminary view it would need to be done openly and on the record.”
My Secretary of State remains firmly of the view that we should not make any approach to the Parades Commission, whether formal or informal, about this issue
Norther Ireland Office official
He added: “My Secretary of State remains firmly of the view that we should not make any approach to the Parades Commission, whether formal or informal, about this issue.”
The Commission met on March 23 to discuss whether it should proceed with issue its preliminary view report at the end of the month. A decision was taken to delay publication until April 23.
Mr Lindsay wrote to Mr Holmes on March 26 to inform him of this development. He said it was the NIO’s understanding that the sensitive state of the political talks had not been a factor in the decision.
“We understand that this decision was taken in light of advice from the Commission’s authorised officers on the ground, that scope remained for progress to be made towards possible accommodation in relation to a number of contentious parades,” he said.
“The Commission felt that an early announcement of the preliminary view might inhibit such progress. The potential effect of the timing of the announcement on the Talks process did not, we understand, form part of the discussion at the meeting and was not a contributory factor to the decision.”
Mr Lindsay predicted the delay may lead to the “usual allegations of government interference”.
He said the NIO’s public line would be to make clear that neither ministers nor officials made representations to the Commission on timing.
Ms Mowlam’s private secretary added: “My Secretary of State feels that these latest developments bear out the wisdom of our decision not to interfere with the Commission’s consideration of this issue.”