TONY Blair hoped the Queen could officially open Northern Ireland’s new Assembly in 1998, newly released state papers reveal. 

The Labour Prime Minister was however concerned that it would be a “delicate issue” for nationalist opinion, and a Welsh MP was charged with raising it with republican politicians in Northern Ireland. 

The new Labour government had introduced devolution, via referendums, following its election in 1997. 

But while the devolved Parliament in Scotland, and the then National Assembly for Wales, were a response to growing calls for some form of self-government, or greater autonomy, the Assembly in Northern Ireland was part of the peace process to try to bring an end the 30 years of troubles. 

While the Queen would open both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly with little controversy the following year, her presence at the opening of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont would have been highly controversial and likely unacceptable to the Irish nationalist community. 

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Blair however didn’t believe his UK government should avoid the possibility of her attendance and handed the potentially tricky issue of raising it in Northern Ireland to Torfaen MP Paul Murphy. 

Murphy, a miner’s son from Abersychan, was a Northern Ireland Office minister and earned plaudits for his detailed work as Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlem’s deputy. 

The National Wales: Then Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, pictured in 2003 Picture: PAThen Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, pictured in 2003 Picture: PA

The Stormont Assembly was formally established in 1998, with the first election taking place in June and the first meeting in July, though it essentially existed in shadow form without assuming full devolved powers until December 1999, mainly due to political disputes over IRA decommissioning of weapons. 

Ahead of the opening, Mowlam suggested that it might help “see off controversy” if ideas which didn’t have to include the involvement of the Queen could be considered. 

Newly released papers reveal a letter from John Holmes, principal private secretary to Mr Blair, addressed to Nick Perry at the Northern Ireland Office on September 21, 1998 when he raised the possibility of the Queen officially opening the Stormont parliament. 

He writes: “The Prime Minister agrees that we cannot assume that this will remain a sleeping dog. 

“However, he does not believe that it would be inappropriate for The Queen to open the Assembly and does not agree we should ourselves try to avert this possibility. 

“Nevertheless, he recognises that this is a delicate issue for nationalist opinion.” 

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It was then suggested that Murphy, who is Catholic, should subtlety raise the possibility with the Nationalist SDLP deputy first minister Seamus Mallon before approaching Ulster Unionist first minister David Trimble. The tactic meant the UK government had sought a nationalist, republican leader’s views ahead of that of the unionists. 

The National Wales: David Trimble (left) being elected first minister with SDLP's Seamus Mallon (right) elected as his Deputy of the Northern Ireland Assembly Picture: PADavid Trimble (left) being elected first minister with SDLP's Seamus Mallon (right) elected as his Deputy of the Northern Ireland Assembly Picture: PA

The letter adds: “He therefore believes that as a first step Paul Murphy should talk to Seamus Mallon privately about arrangements for the opening, mentioning the possibility of The Queen, but in neutral terms, before raising it with (David) Trimble or making any other moves. 

“We can take it from there, depending on Seamus’s reaction.” 

A letter from Labour official Jonathan Stephens said he had had a meeting with Mo Mowlam on the issue. 

He stated: “She was entirely content with the line being taken by No 10. 

“But she also suggested that it might help see off controversy if we were ready to come forward ourselves with vibrant and exciting proposals for marking the devolution of full powers to the Assembly in a way which did not necessitate the Queen’s involvement – eg children’s choirs, etc.” 

No official opening with the Queen was organised. However she did visit the Assembly as part of her golden jubilee celebrations in May 2002. In 2012, while marking her diamon jubilee, the Queen attended a party in the grounds of Stormont on the same day she had met, and shaken hands with, then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

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Murphy would later become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, from 2002 to 2005, which was in between two stints as Welsh Secretary. 

The National Wales: David Trimble, prime minister Tony Blair, Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, and Seamus Mallon on the platform during the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool in 1998 Picture: PADavid Trimble, prime minister Tony Blair, Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, and Seamus Mallon on the platform during the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool in 1998 Picture: PA

The details of the potential visit are contained in documents held at the Public Record Office in Belfast. Hundreds of the files are now being opened for public viewing under the 30/20 year rule. 

Several files deal with preparations for the physical establishment of the new Assembly, with concerns raised about accommodation in the Stormont estate, including that in Mr Trimble’s Stormont office as there was nowhere that his television could be plugged in. 

Other details revealed by the paper showed how Sinn Fein raised security concerns with the government about housing the assembly at Stormont. 

Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly joked about removing Stormont’s famous statue of Lord Carson in the discussions about symbols and emblems on the estate in the unionist heartland of east Belfast. 

Lord Carson is credited as having secured the six north-eastern counties of Ulster a continued place in the United Kingdom. 

The reference to the landmark statue of unionist icon Sir Edward Carson came in a section of the memo titled “symbols and emblems”. 

The National Wales: The sun sets over Carson's Statue at Stormont Picture: Niall Carson PAThe sun sets over Carson's Statue at Stormont Picture: Niall Carson PA

“Mr Kelly asked what symbols and emblems would be displayed (or removed – Carson’s statue was briefly mentioned in a slightly humorous way) in the Assembly and what might constitute an opening ceremony,” the note recorded. 

“Mr Murphy responded by saying that the Government was not proposing to display any symbols or emblems. Furthermore Assembly members’ stationary would only carry their name – nothing else. There were no plans for an opening ceremony – other than signing the roll and the individual designation of members.” 

Other releases have shed new light on talks between London and Dublin during the peace process. Those include comments by Prime Minster John Major who privately conceded the IRA could not be defeated militarily and that the British government believed Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was on the IRA Army Council at the time of the first ceasefire in 1994. 

Horrific details of the August 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people, have also been revealed in the release of papers from the local health authority. 

In other papers it was revealed former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Patrick Mayhew, was warned by an Irish official in 1994, that he was in danger of being seen as a “colonial governor”. 

The Conservative considered himself a dispassionate figure, with “no axe to grind and no greater ambition” who thought he could make a significant contribution to but felt under appreciated by politicians in the north and south and also in London. 

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In a confidential memo drawn up by Irish Department of Foreign Affairs official Declan O’Donovan, he reports that he suggested that such a viewpoint could make Mayhew appear like a “colonial governor”. 

“I did not go into all the reasons why they might not wish to do so, but I did say in a gentle way that hard-pressed politicians immersed in political struggle and expecting to go on being so might see this presentation as smacking a little of the colonial governor.” 

The Irish official advises: “He might find them more sympathetic if he came across as more like themselves.” 

Additional reporting by PA.

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