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Saturday, 1 January, 2000, 12:20 GMT
Prince Philip touted as peace talks head

The Royal Family were kept out of peace talks because of the high risk of failure

Secret records from 30 years ago have revealed Harold Wilson's government thought of asking the Duke of Edinburgh to chair peace talks in Northern Ireland.

Prince Philip would have sat in the chair occupied by former US senator George Mitchell at all-party round table talks, under the scheme.

Notes from ministerial meetings show the Duke of Edinburgh was regarded as "a non-political chairman of unchallengeable impartiality".

But ministers rejected asking the Queen's husband to become involved in a political process because they deemed the likelihood of success to be low.

"The risk of failure is perhaps too great to make it realistic to engage the Royal Family directly in the undertaking," the records state.

The Public Record Office documents demonstrate the desperation of Mr Wilson's administration confronting the Northern Ireland problem.

As well as considering Prince Philip for the sensitive role, ministers suggested expelling Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

But they rejected this idea too, because they feared an invasion by the Republic of Ireland.

Secret direct rule bill

A briefing paper prepared by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Burke Trend said: "For geographical as well as political reasons we cannot wash our hands of the country.

"There seems a strong likelihood that political pressures would compel the Irish Republic to step in and annex the six counties.

Harold Wilson: Sent troops into Northern Ireland in 1969
"The expulsion of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom would not enable us to withdraw troops, since it would merely result in further rioting, possibly in civil war, and ultimately in the intervention of the Irish Republic."

The Wilson cabinet met on 19 August to take the decision to deploy troops in Northern Ireland, a key event in the evolution of the Troubles.

But they decided not to impose direct rule, which was not brought in for a further three years.

But the records show the UK government's increasing disillusionment with the Northern Ireland prime minister and Ulster Unionist leader Captain Terence O'Neill and show Home Secretary James Callaghan had secretly drawn up legislation to impose direct rule from Westminster.

No intelligence on IRA

A further disclosure from the papers is that the government had no real intelligence about the IRA at the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

A top secret report by the Joint Intelligence Committee shortly before British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969 made clear how little the government of the day knew about the situation.

The report stated: "The volume of secret intelligence is small and our knowledge of the strengths, weapons, organisations and intentions of the IRA and the militant Protestant Paisleyite organisations is consequently inadequate."

The JIC report complained that the government was entirely reliant on the Northern Ireland authorities for intelligence from the province.

Nevertheless, JIC advised against the government establishing its own intelligence network in Northern Ireland as that would only alienate the authorities there and cut off what little information they received.

Instead, it endorsed a plan to send a senior MI5 liaison officer to work with the Northern Ireland authorities on modernising their own intelligence gathering capability.

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