The detention of the pregnant daughter of the Northern Ireland civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin McAliskey threatened to degenerate into a “PR disaster”, John Major was warned, according to files released to the National Archives.
The decision to hold Róisín McAliskey in Holloway prison while awaiting extradition to Germany – on suspicion of participating in a 1996 IRA mortar attack on a British army base in Osnabrück – caused acute anxiety in Whitehall at a sensitive moment in the peace process.
Secret Downing Street files show that McAliskey’s treatment imposed pressure on the justice system and on negotiations with the Irish government.
McAliskey was arrested in County Tyrone in November 1996 at the request of German authorities. She was transferred to HMP Holloway in north London, where she was held as a category A prisoner and regularly strip-searched.
Stories that she would be shackled when she gave birth were repeatedly denied but prison officials would not confirm whether she would be permitted to keep the baby.
In February 1997, a Cabinet Office letter to Major’s principal private secretary recorded that Dick Spring, the then deputy prime minister of Ireland, called in the British ambassador to Dublin to warn that the case was damaging the UK government’s position in Ireland.
A telegram from the ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, said Spring had “implied a deep personal hostility towards the whole Devlin/McAliskey family” but he was concerned “to avoid damage to our bilateral relationship”.
Sutherland added: “The strength of feeling on this case is increasing, involving very many people with no connection whatsoever to the republican cause.”
Major’s principal private secretary, John Holmes, wrote to the Home Office saying the prime minister was troubled by press coverage. He did not want McAliskey treated “differently from other prisoners” but nonetheless was keen “not to give the republican movement a cause which will attract wider support”.
An inter-departmental meeting was told that the number of strip-searches had been reduced. Pressure from Downing Street appears to have obtained further relaxations to McAliskey’s conditions: her “high-risk” category A status was downgraded and a decision was expected that she would be allowed to keep her baby.
In March, Holmes wrote to the prime minister: “I think this is now going in the right direction. I am continuing to keep a close eye and to remind all concerned of your interest in ensuring that we do not have a PR disaster on our hands.”
McAliskey, in her mid-20s, was eventually allowed to keep her daughter. She was held in prison for 15 month before being released in 1998 on the grounds that she was too ill to be extradited.
The Crown Prosecution Service subsequently found there was insufficient evidence for her to be tried in the UK. She has consistently denied involvement in the IRA attack.
Elsewhere, Northern Ireland files reveal that Major wrote a letter of sympathy to the DUP MP Nigel Dodds in December 1996 following a failed IRA assassination attempt on him while he was visiting one of his children in hospital in Belfast.
“That anyone could mount an attack in a children’s hospital seems almost beyond belief,” the note said. “But it shows once again what we are up against.”
On an earlier trip to Northern Ireland, in December 1995, Major dismissed attempts by aides to cancel a school visit and substitute it with a trip to “some place of economic/business interest in Ballymena”. Major wrote on the note: “This will be fine. It is Christmas after all!”
An article in the Irish Times by the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, urging the prime minister to let the republican movement enter peace talks before an IRA ceasefire, prompted Major to scribble: “Clever little devil isn’t he, but is it genuine?”
Another file from 1994 reveals that the Tory peer Norman Tebbit was contacted by a Libyan businessman who wanted to establish contact between Muammar Gaddafi and the UK government. Gaddafi’s officials later answered questions from the Foreign Office about his military support for the IRA.
A Cabinet Office file from 1978 records one of many earlier attempts by the IRA to open talks with the British government. A message was sent by the republican movement in 1978 via the World Council of Churches to Martin Ennals, the then secretary general of Amnesty International.
Ennals’s brother David was a minister at the time in the Labour government. Downing Street officials informed Jim Callaghan, the prime minister, but concluded: “There can be no deal or understanding or indeed direct contact with them.”
David Ennals was told “to forget it”. Martin Ennals was instructed to say: “You cannot use me for this purpose.” The Good Friday agreement, ending the Troubles, was signed 20 years later in 1998.