NI state papers: Government considered proscribing Sinn Féin
The British government considered banning Sinn Féin after the IRA bombing of Harrods department store in London in December 1983, in which six people were killed, newly released state papers reveal.
According to a memo from J M Lyon, private secretary to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Jim Prior, Mr Prior and the Minister of State, Nicholas Scott, held a meeting with officials on 19 December 1983 to discuss the position of Sinn Féin in light of the London bombing and a statement by the Irish Prime Minister, Dr Garrett FitzGerald, that he was considering proscribing Sinn Féin.
The secretary of state noted that he had power to proscribe any organisation that appeared to him to be concerned in terrorism or promoting it.
It appeared that Sinn Féin "fell comfortably within those criteria".
Penalty for membership on summary conviction was not more than six months' imprisonment or a fine of not more than £400. As a result, Lyon noted, "proscription could well lead to the imprisonment of prominent members of Sinn Féin".
There were, the official acknowledged, considerable drawbacks to this course of action.
"It would be seen a reaction to the London bombing when terrorist outrages in Northern Ireland had brought no such response. Sinn Féin might well change its nom de guerre... There was a danger too that those who had voted for Sinn Féin in recent elections without actively supporting terrorism might be further alienated from the constitutional process."
The main drawback, however, would arise if Sinn Féin leaders "sought to make themselves martyrs through such methods as a hunger strike in prison".
On the other hand, the advantages included that such a step would be seen as a proper response to terrorism. It would restrict Sinn Féin access to the UK media and "would also go a long way to removing the threat to the SDLP at the European Assembly elections and it would provide a basis for refusing to deal with Sinn Féin on constituency issues".
Concluding the discussion, the secretary of state said that ministers were not yet in a position to form a final view.
It was agreed that much would depend on the attitude that the Irish government eventually took. If Dublin decided against proscription, it was unlikely that the UK government could proceed. In the meantime, Mr Prior would seek the views of the RUC chief constable and sound out John Hume.
In a note to officials on the same day, A J E Brennan of the NIO noted that the Ulster Unionists had demanded that membership of Sinn Féin should be made illegal, while Peter Robinson of the DUP complained that "it took an incident in London to raise the question there and in Dublin".
The official argued that proscription should be introduced only if it would work effectively without a counter-productive bind on the security forces or an adverse reaction on the political scene. "It is not clear that either of these criteria will necessarily be met," he wrote. "We do not know how Sinn Féin would react to proscription but [it is likely] that it would confront the Government rather than disband itself.
"Confrontation could force the authorities into the need to take action against large numbers of people. It would make inevitable the arrest of Adams et al and those engaged in activities associated with Sinn Féin such as advice centres."
It could lead to legal problems with significant numbers declaring themselves Sinn Féin members "in order to court prosecutions" while the process of making arrests could be contentious.
As for political reaction, there was the potential for arousing "very strong feelings in the nationalist community" while proscription might not harm Sinn Féin in elections and "could be a very damaging policy in the United States" where it could be seen as an attempt by Britain "to muzzle legitimate nationalist representatives".
In a minute containing a contrary view, H Doyne-Ditmas of the liaison staff at Stormont House felt that the Provisionals must not be allowed "to have their cake and eat it".
At present they were able "to exploit our democratic and open society" by "putting terrorist pressure on HMG" while also applying political pressure.
Referring to the recent upsurge in violence that included, as well as the Harrods bombing, the murder of three elders at Darkley Pentecostal Church in south Armagh, the assassination of the Ulster Unionist politician, Edgar Graham, and the kidnapping of the US supermarket executive, Don Tidey, in the Republic (which resulted in the deaths of an Irish police officer and soldier) the official went on: "However, circumstances in the last couple of weeks (Darkley, Edgar Graham, Don Tidey, Harrods) have cumulatively given us the opportunity, which will pass if we do not seize it, to hit the Provisionals really hard where it hurts by taking away, or at least severely disrupting, the political prong of their two-pronged strategy.
"At the moment the Provisional masterplan envisages a continuation of terrorism combined with increasing success in the European [and other] elections." Such action would be widely understood domestically and internationally especially if it was done "hand in hand with similar action in the Republic".
On the question of creating republican martyrs, he wrote: "Leading figures like Adams might court imprisonment by provocative acts but there would be no need to make martyrs by severe punishments for membership of Sinn Féin. The intention would be mainly to stop the Provisionals standing in elections under any guise."
As for the reaction of the nationalist minority, he felt "that many in the minority community would be relieved if the government took firm actions against the Provisionals in this way as they could see much more clearly than outsiders what Sinn Féin really stands for".
Doyne-Ditmas rejected the argument that it would be necessary to ban the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) at the same time, adding: "Unlike Sinn Féin-PIRA the UDA are currently little involved in organising or even inciting violence."
However, a note of caution was sounded in a letter to officials from Sir Ewart Bell, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, dated 19 December 1983. He warned that if Sinn Féin were proscribed in both the UK and the Republic, the subsequent reaction would be minimal except in Northern Ireland where the government would have "to carry the burden of the martyrdom campaign and the ongoing battle for the minds of young Catholic voters in west Belfast and elsewhere".
He saw little practical advantage in proscribing Sinn Féin on their own. "If, on the other hand, the Irish government feels disposed to do so, then we need to think carefully about whether to follow suit. The Irish can get away with turning the screw on fellow-Irishmen in a way that is not always possible for the UK government," he warned.
Summing up, the official concluded that it might well be easier for the Republic than for Northern Ireland to implement proscription. "By itself it would probably be more harm than good for us, but if it were part of a wider security package, jointly agreed with ROI, it could be worthwhile."