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UK Confidential Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 10:18 GMT
Ian Paisley sought 'deal' with SDLP
Ian Paisley
Paisley was prepared to reach a deal with nationalists
By the BBC's Chris West

The outspoken unionist and arch-opponent of the Good Friday power-sharing agreement, the Reverend Ian Paisley, offered to form a government in Northern Ireland with the nationalist SDLP, according to secret Cabinet documents released on Tuesday.

The details were revealed in a BBC2 programme, UK Confidential, which you can view by clicking on the "watch the programme" link above.

In 1971, one Northern Ireland administration had collapsed, and another was teetering on the brink of failure.

Internment without trial had been introduced, and was already regarded as a disaster. The British government was staring at the unappetising prospect of introducing direct rule from Westminster.

Then came an extraordinary suggestion. A confidential note from Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, discloses that Dr Paisley had indicated he could "reach an accommodation with leaders of the Catholic minority, which would provide the basis of a new government in Stormont."

However, SDLP sources pour cold water over Dr Paisley's comments that an agreement could have been reached in 1971.


I think we should at least keep an open mind about the possibility of a deal between Paisley and the Catholics

Sir Burke Trend, Cabinet Secretary

Foundered

A follow-up memo to Prime Minister, Edward Heath, remarks: "I think we should at least keep an open mind about the possibility of a deal between Paisley and the Catholics."

There had indeed been contacts between Dr Paisley and members of the SDLP, but the plans foundered when it became clear that an overwhelming unionist vote would create a very one-sided alliance.

In an interview for UK Confidential, Dr Paisley remembers: " The SDLP did not want to go along the road that we would have wanted them to go. I wouldn't say there were talks, there was an exchange of views between us, but it never got anywhere.

"We were prepared to try and seek a way whereby we could govern Northern Ireland and that people of both faiths could be happy with the way it was being governed, but it all rested on the key point - the person with power would be the person that the people gave the power."

Dr Paisley's political career
1970 Elected to Northern Ireland Parliament
1970 Member of Westminster Parliament for North Antrim
1971 Co-founded DUP
1979 Became Northern Ireland MEP
1998 Member of the New Northern Ireland Assembly
The idea would not have been contemplated by Whitehall, concerned at the massive popularity of right-wing unionists such as Dr Paisley or the Ulster Vanguard leader William Craig.

Radical initiative

A note to the Prime Minister in early September from the Central Policy Review Staff declares: "No Westminster government could live with a Craig or a Paisley as Prime Minister in Belfast."

But even in 1971, more radical initiatives were gaining currency. A note from Sir Burke Trend to Edward Heath before a visit by the Irish Premier Jack Lynch confesses to "a feeling of dismay about the bareness of the landscape."

To cut Northern Ireland free from the United Kingdom is "presumably unthinkable," the Whitehall mandarin says.

"But is it less unrealistic to think in terms of an arrangement which would give Dublin not complete control over Ulster, but at least a more effective say in its administration?"

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