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‘A deeply insecure leader’ and ‘an amiable villain’: What civil servants had to say about North’s politicians

State papers published this week include confidential records showing what civil servants really thought about political leaders

David Trimble (Ulster Unionist Party leader): “A deeply insecure leader who had no real interest in reaching an accommodation” (Northern secretary Patrick Mayhew as quoted by an Irish diplomat, 1997)

“Articulate and “intelligent” but an “instinctive hardliner”. He was “arrogant and abrasive in his personal contacts and the anger which fuels his presentation of the Unionist cause can occasionally spill over into displays of petulance”. (Northern Ireland Office briefing document marked “confidential”, January 1998)

John Hume (SDLP leader): A “complex character” who was prone to dark moods when “things are not going right”. Aspirations that he might be a future secretary-general of the United Nations or president of the European Parliament were “probably unrealistic”. (NIO briefing document)

Ian Paisley (Democratic Unionist Party leader): A “charismatic politician” but also “bullying, scheming or charming as the occasion requires”. Though he came from a puritan Protestant background, he was not a cold personality and his fierce reputation belied his “sense of humour” and many “personal kindnesses”. (NIO briefing document)


Peter Robinson (DUP): A “consummate politician... intelligent, sharp and quick” but also cold and calculating and “even less likely to like”. He was “intensely ambitious for himself”. (NIO briefing document)

Ken Maginnis (UUP): “Friendly, open and garrulous” but viewed as a “loose cannon” in the party and a “rambling and unfocused speaker”. (NIO briefing document).

John Alderdice (Alliance Party leader): “Articulate and ambitious” but sounding sometimes like somebody delivering “sermons to the congregation”. (NIO briefing document)

Seamus Mallon (SDLP): Could be “very charming” and placed on the “green” side of his party emphasising its status as a nationalist party with aspirations towards a united Ireland. A “fair critic who does not go out of the way to be unnecessarily difficult” but his relationship with Hume was “not the best”. (NIO briefing document)

John Taylor (UUP): “An amiable ‘villain’ with sufficient self-assurance and leadership qualities to lead the unionist people towards an accommodation” (Mayhew as quoted by an Irish diplomat)

A “complex figure, found by many to be arrogant and blustering”. He was always conscious of his experience and “undoubted intellect” that gave him a special place in the party hierarchy. (NIO briefing document)

Peter Mandelson (Northern secretary, 1999-2001): “He had a high conception of his own role and abilities and a concern for his place in history... He was also clearly put out that his carefully cultivated image of cool and competence might somehow be tarnished.” (Irish ambassador to the UK Ted Barrington, 2001)

John Reid (Northern secretary 2001-2002): Had “none of Mandelson’s supercilious or condescending manner” (Barrington)

Dick Spring (tánaiste 1994-1997): “Incorporated some traits which would more usually be associated with [a British] national stereotype” (Mayhew, who said in the same breath, that stereotypical Irish traits could similarly be projected on him)

Kenneth Clarke (former UK chancellor): “Although the now front runner for the Conservative leadership [in 2001] has a reputation for being idle, ‘a little bit of Ken Clarke goes a long way’.” His election “would be ‘very salutary’ for Labour”. (Mandelson, as reported by Irish diplomat, July 2001)

Iain Duncan Smith (Tory leader 2001-2003): His win would mean “a predictable right-wing approach”, which would prove much less of a threat to Labour. “The Conservative grassroots [are] ‘awful people’ but... they like to win.” (Mandelson, again reported by Irish diplomat Colm Ó Floinn, before Duncan Smith defeated Clarke).

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