Peter Mandelson urged Northern Ireland’s cross-community Alliance Party to redesign itself as unionists at Stormont in 1999 to facilitate the formation of a power-sharing government, declassified documents have revealed.
But the party rejected the then secretary of state’s suggestion, with one MLA demanding to know whether he would ask Sinn Fein to switch from nationalist to unionist.
The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement saw the creation of a system which required the largest political bloc of Unionists to share power with the largest bloc of Nationalists in an obligatory coalition at Stormont.
The agreement also created a system where MLAs are designated as unionist, nationalist or otherwise. Alliance MLAs designate as other.
But in 1999, the Assembly was operating in murky form amid disagreements over the IRA’s decommissioning of arms, and Mr Mandelson, who had recently succeeded Mo Mowlam as Northern Ireland secretary, was pushing for the devolution of full powers.
A briefing document details a meeting he had with then Alliance Party leader Sean Neeson and MLA Seamus Close.
The memo read: “Neeson said he and (then UUP leader David) Trimble had recently talked about this matter.
“The Prime Minister had asked if Alliance would change its identity designation as he was less enamored of the thought of the NIWC (Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition) lending its support – and in particular succeeding in an election on the basis of Monica McWilliams changing the its designation.
“Neeson continued, saying it was impossible for Alliance members to change their designation, the party had been formed in 1970 as an alternative to trade unionism and nationalism and had consistently fought for its votes from this platform.
“The choice to change this fundamental position could not be sanctioned by the party”.
The briefing document states that Mandelson has pressed Alliance representatives about the possibility of changing the designation.
“Close was unequivocal in its response. The Alliance couldn’t tolerate it,” she said.
“Moreover, why should a party that had for so long tried to maintain the centre-right now be asked to change its position?
“Why shouldn’t Sinn Fein be asked to change their designation from nationalist to unionist?”
The memo records the intervention of the secretary of state to affirm that it was an “implausible proposal”.
The note said the couple were then asked if they would consider changing their designation for a short while, before changing it again.
It read: “Seamus Close, appearing more interested, asked if this could be achieved. It was agreed that legal advice could be helpful on this point.
“The Secretary of State, at the conclusion of the meeting, asked the Alliance to do everything possible … to ensure a positive outcome.
“The GFA (Good Friday Agreement) had to work; there was no plan B.
“He again urged them to consider changing their designation adding that while he accepted their fundamental political stance of building a center between the two traditions, FM/DFM election assistance would surely, in the long run, provide also progress towards the goals of the Alliance”.