Northern Ireland

NI state papers: Government considered banning Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams addresses a rally in west Belfast in 1983
Image caption The newly elected West Belfast MP Gerry Adams addressing a rally in 1983

Previously confidential state files show that the government considered banning Sinn Féin when electoral support for the party started to grow.

The state papers from 1983 also name Gerry Kelly, now a Sinn Féin MLA, as the IRA inmate who shot a prison officer during the Maze jail escape.

Mr Kelly was later charged with the shooting but found not guilty.

More than 1,000 documents have been published by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

However, 225 have been kept secret.

PRONI has not published all of the available documents as many of them are said to contain "sensitive personal data".

The files give an insight into government thinking in 1983, when Sinn Féin polled more than 13% in the General Election and Gerry Adams was elected MP for West Belfast.

'Terrorist outrages'

Following the IRA bombing of Harrods department store in London in December 1983, in which six people were killed, the government considered banning Sinn Féin.

The then Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Jim Prior, held a meeting with officials on 19 December 1983 to discuss the position of Sinn Fein in light of the London bombing, according to a memo from civil servant J M Lyon.

The meeting also took place against the backdrop of a statement by the then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Dr Garrett FitzGerald, that said 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.

There were, the official acknowledged, considerable drawbacks to this course of action.

Image caption Police released this photo of Gerry Kelly in 1983 after he escaped from the Maze prison

Mr Lyon noted: "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."

The memo added: "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."

In the end, the idea of banning Sinn Féin was rejected.


The newly-released state papers refer to the escape of 38 IRA prisoners from the Maze jail in September 1983.

A report on the break-out refers to Gerry Kelly as the inmate who shot and wounded prison officer John Adams.

According to the official file, another prison guard saw Mr Kelly "pointing a pistol into the control room".

The report added: "This would establish that Prisoner Kelly shot Officer Adams who was on duty in the control (room)."

Gerry Kelly was later charged with the shooting but found not guilty.

'Abuse scandal'

The newly-released papers also include details about a row over the use of the Irish language in the Maze, and accusations of violence against prisoners by staff after the 1983 escape.

The official files also report on government discussions on the scandal involving child abuse at the Kincora boys' home in east Belfast in the 1970s.

These include minutes of a meeting between Northern Ireland Secretary of State Jim Prior and the Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General in London in 1982 at which it was suggested that the brutal murder of a Belfast boy, Brian McDermott in 1973, had possible links to Kincora.

The papers detail some of the high-level political discussions about the child abuse scandal.

The catalogue of files for 1983-1984 will be publicly available online on PRONI website from Friday 27 December 2013 and files will be available to view at PRONI from Monday 30 December.