9 fascinating bits of secret history revealed in New Year declassified documents

Margaret Thatcher’s fury over Northern Ireland troop deaths, John Major’s all encompassing love of cricket and MPs fears over unflattering camera angles.

These are just some of the fascinating details revealed this week in official documents from the 1980s and ’90s, newly declassified by National Archives in Dublin and London.

The files were released under the “20 year rule” – 30 years in Ireland – which requires secret documents to be declassified after two decades unless there is a good reason not to.

UK documents are revealed by the National Archives at Kew unless they would cause “damage to the country’s image, national security or foreign relations”.

In the UK, documents are released twice a year in August and January – but they’re still playing catch-up with declassifications, after the time limit was reduced from 30 years to 20 in 2010.

Here’s a round-up of the most interesting stories that emerged in this year’s releases.

1. Nuclear weapons could be hidden inside a Northern Ireland mountain

Nuclear weapons could be sited at underground facilities inside a mountain in Northern Ireland, Dublin’s most senior intelligence official advised the government.

Colonel L Buckley, then Ireland’s Director of Intelligence, was asked for a briefing for Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter Barry on the possibility of nuclear missiles being on the island in November 1983.

In a response marked “Confidential”, Buckley complains that he doesn’t have “the monitoring or surveillance systems” to confirm the movements of UK ships, aircraft and support systems.

“Suffice to say any such information would be given the highest security classification and only be available to UK or or other military personnel on the strictest ‘need-to-know’ basis at the highest level,” he added. 

But he said the harbour at Sydenham in Belfast could accommodate Royal Navy or Nato ships “equipped with nuclear missiles or weapons”.

And he said a military base at Benbradagh Mountain, (Ben Bradaigh) overlooking Dungiven in Co Derry, the second highest mountain in the Sperrins which was used by US forces during the Cold War to communicate with its north Atlantic fleet, could hold nuclear weapons.

“Ben Bradaigh NE (north east) of Dungiven has underground facilities, which were originally constructed by US forces for the storage of conventional high explosives but were subsequently redesigned and are understood to be suitable for the storage of nuclear weapons if so required,” he wrote.

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2. Margaret Thatcher ‘grabbed her handbag and stormed out’ of talks in ‘IRA’ row

Margaret Thatcher “grabbed her handbag” and “stormed out” of a meeting with the Belgian prime minister in a row over the extradition of an Irish priest wanted in London over alleged connections to the IRA

A senior Tory adviser told an Irish diplomat about the incident by way of contrasting Thatcher’s “quite natural” way with then Irish Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, adding there was “a lot to be played for between them”.

3. Thatcher kept wrongly convicted Birmingham Six in jail to dodge scandal

The Thatcher government was reluctant to free the Birmingham Six because of pressure from Tory hardliners and concerns it would cause a “scandal”.

A Home Office official admitted the fears to Irish diplomats 30 years ago.

The Irish government was leaned on not to pursue their case with the European Court of Human Rights.

PM Margaret Thatcher’s government also feared a backlash from the media.

Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Johnny Walker, Hugh ­Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny and Billy Power were freed in 1991 for one of the worst miscarriages of justice after being falsely convicted in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings that killed 21 people in November 1974.

4. Thatcher’s fury over ‘her boys’ killed in Northern Ireland

Margaret Thatcher had warned Northern Ireland’s police chief that she would no longer send “her boys over in waves to be killed” in a rancorous row over who was to blame for the slaughter of eight soldiers in an IRA bomb.

Sir John Hermon, then chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was upset by the “neo-colonial connotations” and “World War I overtones” of the Prime Minister’s dressing down, which he took as distancing of herself from the region, newly declassified files disclose.

The IRA detonated a massive roadside bomb, containing 200 pounds of semtex, as an unmarked bus carrying members from the Light Infantry made its way along the A5 at Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, after midnight on August 20, 1988.

Eight soldiers – all aged between 18 and 21 – were killed and another 28 were injured. They had been making their way from the airport to their base at Omagh.

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Six months later, Sir John confided in a diplomat about the “panic reaction” from Downing Street in the wake of the attack as well as tensions between the police and the army over whose fault it was for the deadly security lapse.

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5. Tory who avoided ‘blacks and Irish’ feared for ‘security implications’ of allowing Irish MP

An ‘unsavoury’ Tory MP who openly admitted avoiding “the blacks and Irish” in his constituency feared the “security implications” of allowing Irish politicians into Westminster .

Nicholas Budgen, who took over Enoch Powell’s House of Commons seat for Wolverhampton South West, agreed to have lunch with Richard Ryan, a diplomat in the Irish Embassy in London, in March 1989, a report of the meeting marked “confidential” shows.

Ryan was trying to bolster support – and stymie opposition – to the nascent British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, made up of politicians in London and Dublin.

6. Officials feared John Major would have to ‘hide behind plant’ as Bill Clinton visited UK

Officials feared the Prime Minister would be forced to hide behind a pot plant to avoid shaking a Sinn Fein leader’s hand.

Aides were worried about a chance meeting between PM John Major and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams during US President Bill Clinton’s trip to the UK.

The American President visited London and Belfast in November 1995.

Stormont aide Robert Crawford issued the alert for potential embarrassment in a memo to Mr Major’s private secretary, Edward Oakden.

Mr Crawford wrote: “Sinn Fein (probably Gerry Adams and others) will almost certainly be invited to the reception.

“We cannot see a way of the Prime Minister avoiding Gerry Adams without reverting to the undignified hiding-behind-the-potted plants scenario, which creates almost as valuable a news story as the first handshake.”

7. Tory ministers accused of ‘manipulating’ Dunblane community after massacre

Ministers were accused of “manipulating” the grieving Dunblane community in the aftermath of the massacre of 16 children and their teacher.

Parents of youngsters gunned down by murderer Thomas Hamilton demanded an urgent clarification from Prime Minister John Major days after the 1996 tragedy, amid fears the Government was about to U-turn on a pledge to help, a newly-released letter reveals.

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Relatives were angered by reports Scottish Minister Michael Forsyth was abandoning a pledge to offer taxpayers’ money to rebuild the gym where Hamilton slaughtered five and six-year-olds.

The PM and Mr Forsyth were among a delegation to visit the Scottish town after the March 13 attack.

Mr Major confirmed to the headteacher that finding Government cash for the project “would not be a problem”.

Gerry McDermott, spokesman for the school board of governors, said the gesture “was a source of great comfort” to the community, “relieving strain from those most closely involved”.

8. Sir John Major missed GB’s only 1996 Olympic gold medal ‘to watch the cricket’

John Major skipped seeing Britain’s only gold medal of the 1996 Olympics because he wanted to watch cricket instead, official records suggest.

Aides to the then Prime Minister tried to persuade him to fly to the US to attend the Atlanta Games.

Plans included watching the final of the coxless pairs rowing, featuring Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave, which delivered Britain’s only gold medal at the Games.

But cricket fan Mr Major pulled out of a three-night trip to America at the end of July, despite months of organisation behind the scenes, amid concerns from aides he would go to England’s match with Pakistan.

Downing Street private secretary Rachael Reynolds wrote to the PM saying: “I understand that you are thinking of staying here for the Lord’s Test in preference to going to the Olympics.

“While having to declare certain personal interest here … I do think it would be a pity if you were to give up going entirely.”

9. Heathrow nearly had its name changed to pay tribute to Winston Churchill

John Major considered renaming Heathrow Airport after Sir Winston Churchill.

The then Prime Minister believed the idea of making Britain’s biggest airport a memorial to the Second World War leader was “intriguing”.

The Tory leader asked senior Whitehall aides to explore the proposal after London businessman Harvey Spack suggested Sir Winston Churchill Airport was better than “stupid” Heathrow.

The premier’s reply to Mr Spack said: “Thank you for your letter of 5 September and for your intriguing idea about renaming Heathrow airport after Sir Winston Churchill.

“I am looking into this, and I am grateful to you for raising it.”


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