The latest release of files from Britain's National Archives covers the first five months of 1997 – the dying days of John Major’s Conservative government.

Major is an underrated figure in British history, overshadowed by both his predecessor and his successor, but he has some significant achievements to his credit – particularly in Northern Ireland.

Major had taken over from Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and won a surprise general election victory against Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in 1992. It was pretty much all downhill from there.

On "Black Wednesday" in September 1992, Sterling was forced into a humiliating withdrawal from the European currency arrangement, the ERM or Exchange Rate Mechanism. This fatally undermined the Conservative reputation for economic competence.

The rest of the Tory party’s reputation was shredded by rows over Europe, as Major’s pragmatic approach was opposed by anti-European diehards – referred to by the Prime Minister in private as "the bastards".

He had a point. Not only were they unpleasant to Major, some of them weren’t very bright, being taken in by hoax phone calls from the comedian Rory Bremner.

Faced with continuing internal faction fighting, in June 1995 Major took the unprecedented step of resigning as party leader so he could face his opponents head-on in a leadership election.

Major was triumphantly re-elected and received congratulations from a host of international politicians, including Taoiseach John Bruton, and his predecessor Albert Reynolds.

Mention of Reynolds recalls one of the high-points of Major’s premiership – the peace process which led to an IRA ceasefire in August 1994. Major had been persuaded by Reynolds to take risks for peace, and it paid off, at least at first.

However, Reynolds lost office shortly afterwards, and his successor, John Bruton of Fine Gael, had less of a rapport with the Republican movement.

The ceasefire ended in February 1996 when the IRA detonated a massive bomb in London’s docklands. The changed political atmosphere forced the cancellation of a proposed visit by Prince Charles to Cork.

Efforts to restore the ceasefire, and provide a path for Sinn Féin into all-party talks, were a drain on Major’s time in his last months in Downing Street. In January 1997, his private secretary wrote on yet another memo on the subject: "I am sorry NI is taking so much time again", to which Major responded: "Me too!" 

The difficulty of making progress was further complicated by Major’s reliance on Ulster Unionist votes in the House of Commons to keep him in power.

As power drained away from John Major, the British were also paying attention to the situation in Republic, where an election was also due.

Who would win – the sitting Taoiseach, John Bruton, or his Fianna Fáil rival, Bertie Ahern? And what did the British make of the two men? The newly released papers offer a fascinating insight into that issue as well.

The newly released British State Papers from the first half of 1997 give a richer and deeper picture of what was going on in Downing Street at the time, and how that affected Ireland.

More information can be found on the website of the UK National Archives here.

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No deal between Major and 'clever little devil' Adams

1997 began with an air of gloom in Northern Ireland. The first IRA ceasefire had ended in February 1996, and was followed by a summer of violence ignited by the standoff over an Orange Order parade at Drumcree.

A secret memo for Prime Minister John Major prepared by the Northern Ireland Office warned of "a feeling of settled gloom and despondency ... For several years, community relations had seemed steadily to be improving … The ending of the IRA ceasefire took some of this optimistic gloss away; Drumcree removed the rest."

At a private dinner during a visit to Northern Ireland, Major blamed "poor political leadership in the Province on all sides for many years… it might be necessary, at some stage in the future, to appeal over the heads of this leadership to the ordinary people in order to bring about a settlement…" 

British Prime Minister John Major on a visit to Belfast in 1997

The issue facing Major was how to achieve a new ceasefire, and to get Sinn Féin into all-party talks which could lead to a new agreement. The problem was – which came first?

The British Government, and Unionists, insisted there must be a ceasefire first, and after proof that it was genuine, Sinn Féin could join the talks.

But Sinn Féin, along with the SDLP leader John Hume and (to a lesser extent) the Irish Government, argued that there wouldn’t be a new ceasefire unless there was a guarantee that it would lead almost immediately to Sinn Féin joining the talks.

In a meeting with the Irish Government (later reported to the British), Sinn Féin claimed it wouldn’t be possible to deliver a new IRA ceasefire without splitting the Republican movement: "There would be defectors if a new ceasefire was declared, for example some might join Republican Sinn Féin".

The SDLP leader, John Hume, was doing his best to bring Sinn Féin and the British government to some agreement, working on different wordings that might be agreed by both.

But the British rejected a proposal he had agreed with Gerry Adams as "a non-starter as it is so far at odds with the British government’s stated position".

Major’s officials supplied the wording to both the Irish and the American governments, despite explicitly promising Hume that they would not do so, and without telling their own colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office what they were up to.

The British viewed Hume’s efforts with some scepticism, thinking he was over-optimistic about the possibility of peace, and that he was under severe stress.

The Irish Government doubted that the IRA was really ready for a ceasefire – but they believed the British should call Sinn Féin's bluff by signalling that the party would be allowed into the talks after the general election, if the right ceasefire with deeds as well as words, was put in place.

When John Chilcott, the top civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, asked Hume how he was feeling at a meeting in January, the SDLP leader responded by complaining that false stories were circulating among journalists about his private life.

Hume said he and his wife, Pat, would both dismiss such stories out of hand, and that he would win a libel case if anyone printed them. "He said that the extreme form of the stories were that the IRA were blackmailing him: he said that this was the most absurd nonsense and anyway recent disputes, very public, with Sinn Féin on electoral matters gave it the obvious lie."

Hume was obviously under pressure; but the British believed that Gerry Adams was also feeling the heat, particularly after an IRA sniper killed British soldier Stephen Restorick in February 1997. The British believed an article by Gerry Adams in the Irish Times later that month was an attempt "to get back on the PR front foot, and throw the ball back into our court". 

In the article, Adams put more emphasis on the need for, and possibility of, a new IRA ceasefire. Major was intrigued by Adams’s move, noting on the memo: "Clever little devil, isn’t he? But is it genuine?"

The Irish Government doubted that the IRA was really ready for a ceasefire – but they believed the British should call Sinn Féin’s bluff by signalling that the party would be allowed into the talks after the general election, if the right ceasefire with deeds as well as words, was put in place.

Northern Secretary Patrick Mayhew was also keen to test the Republican movement, as a ceasefire would be very welcome: "We cannot honourably let pass even a slim chance of bringing one about".

But Major was not for moving, as he explained in a letter to his friend Albert Reynolds, the former Taoiseach with whom he had worked on the peace process.

Patrick Mayhew, pictured during his time as Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary

Reynolds urged him to state that Sinn Féin could enter the talks on 3 June if the IRA declared a new ceasefire. Major replied that this could only happen when there was an unequivocal ceasefire and republicans had made a clear commitment to the democratic process and principles.

"Once they have demonstrated, through words, deeds and circumstances, that the ceasefire is genuine and lasting and that they are committed to democratic means, we have a legal obligation to invite them to the talks.

"But it is up to them how quickly they reach that point, rather than for me to set a date… Their future is in their hands. I hope they will grasp the opportunity."

But the opportunity was not to be grasped until after the 1997 election, when Major was replaced by Labour’s Tony Blair.

Raining on Patrick Mayhew's parade

John Major’s handling of Northern Ireland was complicated by the situation in the House of Commons, where he had lost his majority over the course of 1996, making his government dependent for survival on the votes of the nine Ulster Unionist MPs.

His point man for keeping the UUP sweet was Viscount Cranborne, the Leader of the House of Lords, who was himself a staunch Unionist (according to the secret British State papers, Cranborne regarded the Northern Ireland Office approach to the peace process as "akin to appeasement").

After meeting UUP leader David Trimble in January 1997, Cranborne reported that "provided the UUP could be given some scraps, they would have no wish to bring the Government down – though they would maintain their public line that they would consider each issue on its merits".

This made life difficult for the Northern Secretary, Patrick Mayhew, whose desire to make concessions to nationalist opinion is revealed in the newly declassified documents.

One such concession was on parades, a hot button issue since the disturbances over the banning of the Drumcree parade in July 1996. A subsequent British government report recommended the establishment of a Parades Commission to decide on contentious marches.

Tensions rising on the front line at Drumcree back in July, 1996

Mayhew told Major that this "would not please the Unionists, but it was they who had effectively initiated civil war in the province last summer. The Prime Minister said that he agreed." 

But on second thoughts, Major decided that the British should not rush into a decision. This was largely due to what his private secretary delicately referred to as "the short-term political angle" – in other words, the need to retain Unionist votes at Westminster.

Another issue was the UUP demand for a beefed-up Northern Ireland Committee at Westminster, as an alternative to devolved government in the North itself.

While Major and his officials knew these ideas wouldn’t work, they thought that "no harm would be done by at least continuing to talk to the UUP about them, rather than giving the impression that they had been rejected out of hand".

In conversation with officials at Number Ten, Mayhew "was courteous, as always, but clearly angry … There was genuine alarm in the NIO about appearing to give credibility to off-the-wall UUP ideas."

Much to Mayhew's irritation, Trimble continued to appeal over his head to the Prime Minister. The Northern Secretary complained that the Government should not 'pander further to unworkable UUP views'.

Finally, Mayhew was keen for Major to express "regret" over the events of Bloody Sunday, which the Prime Minister regarded as a step too far, "not because regret was not a reasonable human response to what had happened, but because of what could be made of it publicly. He would certainly not wish the government to make a formal expression of regret…"

One of the documents reveals Major’s extreme sensitivity to Unionist reactions. Mayhew had reported back to him after a conversation with the Ulster Unionist leader. "The PM did express some concern about Trimble’s references to needing reassurance on various points on Monday. Was this a threat? Mayhew didn’t know: he said they hadn’t discussed Monday’s vote at all."

Mayhew appeared to be oblivious to the political realities which dominated the Prime Minister’s thinking.

Having rejected the Northern Secretary’s views on three issues – parades, the Westminster Committee, and Bloody Sunday - Major was advised by his private secretary to have "a soothing word" with Mayhew, "if only to reassure him that his advice is taken extremely seriously but that you have to take into account the politics more than he does.

"His response will be that Trimble will bring you down when he feels like it, whatever you do, but the fact of talking to him should still help."

John Major was extremely sensitive to reactions from Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble 

But soothing words only went so far. Much to Mayhew’s irritation, Trimble continued to appeal over his head to the Prime Minister. The Northern Secretary complained that the Government should not "pander further to unworkable UUP views".

Major’s private secretary observed that they were left in "an uncomfortable position. On the substance, the NIO are no doubt right. Politically, Trimble is trying everything he can and no doubt aiming too high, but he cannot be ignored…" 

Trimble would remain impossible to ignore – until Labour swept into power in the May general election with a massive majority that allowed Tony Blair’s government to take a more even-handed approach to Northern Ireland.

Cancellation of proposed visit by Prince Charles to Republic

The newly released State papers from the British National Archives also show that a proposed visit by Prince Charles to the Republic in 1996 was cancelled over security fears.

The Prince had visited Dublin at the end of May 1995, a visit which the British hoped would be a "step up of the level and style of visits by Members of the Royal Family to the Republic".

The British Ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, was delighted with the "extraordinarily profound and positive response" to the visit, and especially to the State dinner in Dublin Castle.

"Not long ago the idea of a Taoiseach hosting a dinner for the Prince of Wales attended by leading politicians across the political spectrum would have been unthinkable. So too would the prospect of all 220 guests, among them the leader of Fianna Fáil, standing to toast the Queen."

The following January, another visit was suggested for the end of June 1996. This time it was proposed that Charles should visit Cork, along with the Royal Yacht Britannia. He was due to visit Belfast and Derry in the days before the proposed call to Cork, using the Britannia to host receptions in both cities.

It would, the British Foreign Office observed in January, be a "relatively low key" visit, but it would allow a useful extension of the Prince’s contacts in the Republic. "The Foreign Secretary therefore recommends that we give approval in principle for the visit, subject to there being no accidents in the Peace Process…" 

Prince Charles on a visit to Dublin in 1995

But there was to be a very significant "accident in the Peace Process" – the month after the recommendation about the Royal Visit to Cork, the IRA detonated a massive bomb in London’s docklands, signalling the end of its first ceasefire.

This led the Irish government to worry about the security risks which would face the Prince. The Foreign Office observed that the Irish "also have difficulties about the use of Britannia, whose presence they believe would be unwelcome to parts of the population in that part of the Republic."

The British now believed that the risks outweighed the potential benefits of the visit.

When Ambassador Sutherland raised the matter with then Taoiseach, John Bruton, he shared her concerns, and "was grateful that she had raised the issue with him as it would have been difficult for the Irish to take the initiative to have the visit cancelled".

And, because the proposed events had not been publicised, there was no danger of postponement "being seen to concede to terrorist threats".

To the relief of both sides, the proposed visit was quietly cancelled.

Number Ten unhappy over hoax calls

Another revelation from the British State papers recalls the anger in Number Ten Downing Street over hoax telephone calls purporting to come from Prime Minister John Major.

In October 1993, two Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, John Carlisle and Richard Body, received phone calls from someone claiming to be Major, who sought their support and warned against toppling him, as they would end up with Ken Clarke (a leading enthusiast for Europe) as leader.

The caller "sounded very like the Prime Minister, but had been highly agitated" according to Carlisle, while Body refused to believe the call had been a hoax, insisting that it had "the ring of truth to it".

Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler said Mr Major couldn’t have made the call, as he was in Malaysia, and had gone straight from a State dinner to the airport, immediately boarding his plane.

But Body wasn’t having any of it. "Well, you say that. But I can’t find any reason to criticise him… If it had been an actor, he would have been at the top of his profession. Not only because of the voice, but because of how he put his points and his frantic way of putting them."

Body added that the call had led him to stop opposing Mr Major and his Government.

But in fact the call was a hoax, made by comedian Rory Bremner as an experiment in advance of a new show. He wanted to see if his impersonation of Major was good enough to convince people who knew the Prime Minister well.

Rory Bremner impersonated John Major ahead of a new TV show

Robin Butler complained to Channel Four boss Michael Grade, saying it was unacceptable to leave the MPs with the impression that they had been talking to the Prime Minister.

He told Grade that he and the PM believed the calls "had crossed the boundary between entertainment and real life to an unacceptable degree".

Grade was apologetic, giving an assurance that no more attempts to impersonate Major would be made "in circumstances which touched on political matters".

But he said the production team might be allowed to make other types of hoax calls – calling a Blackpool B&B landlady pretending to be the Prime Minister trying to book a room during the party conference, for instance, "or calling a well-known character like Jimmy Tarbuck saying that he was recommending him for a knighthood".

But Grade promised that the victim would be told before the call finished that it was a hoax. Butler – and Major – agreed to let the matter lie at that.

'There are still votes in bashing the British'

The papers shine a light on what London made of Irish politicians – and especially of the two rivals for the office of Taoiseach: the incumbent, John Bruton of Fine Gael, and his Fianna Fáil challenger, Bertie Ahern.

The two men were due to fight it out for the top job in a general election due before the end of 1997.

The British Ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, felt that the Coalition’s chances of re-election were doubtful, despite a successful EU Presidency and a booming economy.

The main problem was that "a series of Ministerial blunders has laid them open to charges of incompetence. The accident-prone Minister for Justice [Nora Owen] appears impotent to counter public fears of a rising crime wave…

"The Ministers of Health [Michael Noonan] and Agriculture [Ivan Yates] have been castigated for bungling – respectively a scandal over contaminated blood and a dubious BSE-related deal with the Russians."

A majority of people in the Republic, she added, blamed the British for the breakdown in the IRA ceasefire, and believed "that John Hume is a saint, and that Adams and McGuinness are genuine peace-makers".

This meant that working with the Irish Government would be increasingly difficult, whichever coalition was in power. But, she added, the British should continue to make the effort to get on with whoever occupied Government Buildings.

John Major (left) was told that John Bruton was 'the best Taoiseach we are likely to get'

This perhaps explains the decision by senior officials from the Northern Ireland Office to travel to Dublin to meet Ahern and senior members of his front bench in January 1997.

Sutherland thought the Fianna Fáilers accepted "the honesty of our intentions", though she didn’t think it meant they would avoid "disobliging remarks about the British Government in future – there are still votes in bashing the British".

Senior Irish official Paddy Teahon raised this meeting with John Holmes, Private Secretary to John Major, saying the Irish government had been "somewhat bemused" by it. "He would not put it stronger than that, but he could not see the Irish paying a similar visit to [British Opposition leader] Tony Blair…"

British respect for the existing Irish leader was enhanced at the end of January by what they saw as "another excellent performance from Bruton" in the Dáil, in which he was "very firm about IRA terrorism" and resisted the temptation to criticise the British government.

Holmes told Major: "As we have commented before, he is the best Taoiseach we are likely to get".

However, London remained slightly nervous of Bruton’s tendency to come up with new ideas without input from his civil servants.

In March, he was suggesting that the two governments should go over the heads of the parties in the North by holding referendums on both sides of the Border on a proposed new political settlement.

Wally Kirwan, a senior official in the Department of the Taoiseach, told an official from the British Embassy that "this was very much the Taoiseach’s personal thinking. His advisers saw the obvious problems, and were trying to dissuade him from doing anything precipitous".

In the event, Bruton kept quiet about this idea in public – though he did spring some other suggestions on an unprepared Major during a telephone call.

Holmes complained to Teahon that "we were not particularly amused that the Taoiseach bounced on us several proposals in this kind of way. He has not attempted to argue. I deduce from this, and one or two other comments, that he himself is embarrassed that the Taoiseach made these proposals to us without warning…"

Meanwhile, with an Irish general election expected in June, Ambassador Sutherland made it her business to establish a better relationship with Ahern, organising a lunch for the two of them in April.

"This was an extremely agreeable occasion and I was surprised how open Ahern was – perhaps encouraged by the absence of party minders – particularly on the North…"

She reported to London that Ahern was confident that he could work with the incoming British Government to achieve progress in the peace process; that Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and the Ulster Unionists would all prefer Fianna Fáil to lead the next Irish Government.

But she said that [Ahern] was worried the election might be inconclusive and his "worst fear was a hung Dáil".

Bertie Ahern (left) on the campaign trail during 1997 election, talking to RTÉ reporter Charlie Bird

She wrote: "This would be disastrous for everyone, and particularly for the Northern peace process.

"The Irish had had experience of this in 1981-82, when there had been three General Elections in 18 months. No government business had been done, and this was one of the reasons for the economic disaster of the late 80s…"

Sutherland concluded with a positive enough assessment of the man who would shortly win the election: "I was left with the impression of a man who could rise to the challenge of Taoiseach, albeit in an entirely different way from Mr Bruton.

"Ahern’s style would be much more that of the man of the people. According to some opinion polls, he is more popular than Bruton precisely because of this." 

The election result would suggest she might have been right.