Boris Johnson urged a “hard egg” approach to the Northern Ireland peace process in 1996 in the belief Britain could crush the IRA, according to declassified documents.
The then deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph favoured a security-led policy over political talks that led two years later to the Good Friday agreement.
Johnson appeared to believe Britain could win a military victory in the twilight of the Troubles, an Irish diplomat said in a confidential note to the Irish government. “Johnson argued for what he called a ‘hard egg’ approach,” the diplomat wrote after they spoke on 13 February 1996, four days after an IRA bomb devastated London’s docklands and ended a ceasefire.
“Let them use the bomb and the bullet, we shouldn’t give in and we will beat them eventually,” Johnson is quoted as saying. The unnamed official noted: “Implicit in Johnson’s argument was ‘let the nationalists go to hell’.”
The document, which detailed conversations with British journalists and opinion-formers, is part of a trove of Irish state papers released this week by the National Archives of Ireland.
The diplomat said he told Johnson a “hard egg” approach would lead to “broken heads” and that the priority must be to seek an alternative to violence. Johnson rejected this, saying the IRA had been on the verge of defeat in 1994, when it called a ceasefire, said the diplomat.
“I asked him to name one serious security source who would back up that statement. Surely the lesson of the last 25 years is that there is no security or military solution. This was not an argument he was prepared to accept.”
The conversation underlined the hawkish sentiment in Conservative British political and media circles while John Major’s government edged through a controversial peace process and lay the foundation for the Good Friday agreement. Johnson told the Irish official that the Daily Telegraph, then edited by Charles Moore, considered Major too emollient with the Irish government.
The Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday contrasted Johnson’s hardline position in 1996 with his decision as prime minister in 2019 to negotiate the Northern Ireland protocol, which unionist leaders consider a blow to the region’s position in the UK. “The irony is not lost.”
The diplomat’s note to his superiors in Dublin said few Conservatives took a serious interest in Northern Ireland. “The prevailing mindset for most Tories is one of resolute anti-terrorism and a hatred of Gerry Adams rather (than) pro-unionism.”
It cited Peter Riddell, a political commentator with the Times, saying Major “actively dislikes” John Hume, the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) leader, but had better relations with his deputy, Seamus Mallon.
A separate document from September 1992 showed British frustration with unionist leaders. In a meeting with Irish ministers the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, called the Democratic Unionist party leader, Ian Paisley, an “extraordinarily dated creature”. Of the Ulster Unionist party, Mayhew said: “They’re thick.”
A separate memo reveals that Prince Andrew predicted the rise of Sinn Féin. On a visit to the US in July 1998, three months after the Good Friday agreement, he told Orla O’Hanrahan of Irish consulate in Boston that “the Irish would be laughing on the other side of their faces” if Sinn Féin support grew in the Republic, “a prospect he thought likely”. Since 1998 the once-fringe party has steadily grown and is widely expected to lead the next government.