Why Donald Dewar didn’t condemn Royal Catholic ban

Donald Dewar stands in front of Bute House with members of his Lib Dem/Labour coalition executive.  Picture: Ian Rutherford
Donald Dewar stands in front of Bute House with members of his Lib Dem/Labour coalition executive. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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DONALD Dewar feared that backing SNP calls to end the ban on Catholics acceding to the throne would disrupt the Northern Ireland peace process, it has emerged.

Newly declassified documents giving an insight into the birth of devolution reveal the late first minister had to perform a delicate balancing act when dealing with a bid to repeal the Act of Settlement, which forbade Roman Catholics from becoming monarch.

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Despite being personally in favour of repealing the Act, Mr Dewar was aware that making his view the public position of the Scottish Parliament could antagonise Protestants in Ulster.

With the SNP forcing the issue back in 1999 shortly after the establishment of devolution, Mr Dewar came up with a form of words to express Scottish ministers’ position on the issue, which was then sent to Buckingham Palace and Tony Blair’s UK government for approval.

The former Labour first minister’s deliberations come to light in papers which also reveal the problems Scotland’s first devolved government had with leaked information to the media and the action it took to try and prevent sensitive information from reaching the public domain.

Papers from the first Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive in 1999 have been declassified today under the 15-year rule and reveal ministers’ “careful handling” of the then opposition SNP’s call to repeal the ban on Catholic monarchs. They reveal that Mr Dewar sent his lines rejecting the SNP’s motion to Number 10 and the Palace for approval.

The Act of Settlement of 1700 forbade Catholics from acceding to the English throne and this was extended to Scotland in the Act of Union six years later which stated “all Papists and persons marrying Papists shall be excluded from and for ever incapable to inherit possess or enjoy the Imperial Crown of Great Britain”.

In a carefully considered six-page treatise to ministers, Mr Dewar said: “My natural sympathies lie with the campaign to amend the Act of Settlement.

“It reflects the political concerns of an earlier era and it was also based on the kind of prejudice which is no longer acceptable to modern society.”

But he added: “I personally think that it is important to avoid a simplistic or hasty approach in response to this campaign.

“We do not want needlessly to offend public opinion. By coming down firmly on one side or another we would risk alienating some group or groups.”

He went on: “It is also worth pointing out that against the background of the delicate peace process in Northern Ireland, it would send entirely the wrong message to the Unionist community to suggest that the UK government might be re-
examining aspects of the Act of Settlement.”

Ministers subsequently agreed to amend the SNP’s motion in December 1999 to acknowledge the depth of feeling on the matter.

It went on to stress that “an amendment to the Act of Settlement would be a very complex matter”, but welcomed the fact “the UK government has not ruled out further consideration of the matter”.

It was a sign that the then Scottish Executive was acutely sensitive to how its position would go down with the Palace and the UK Labour government.

The document said: “In order to ensure consistency with the line being taken by the UK government, the terms of the proposed amendment should be cleared with the Home Secretary and Number 10.

“It would be advisable to seek the views of the Scotland Office and of the Home Office on this wholly reserved matter, if embarrassment to the UK government is to be avoided.

“It would also be advisable for me, as a minister of the Crown, to clear the lines with the Palace.” The ban on Catholics acceding to the throne was finally repealed two years ago by the present Conservative/Liberal Democrat UK coalition government in the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.

The papers highlight some of the problems which plagued Scotland’s first devolved executive – in particular the bad publicity caused by leaked material.

Minutes from early cabinets show that Mr Dewar asked colleagues to respect the privacy of the cabinet proceedings and papers. “Ministers should avoid giving the media any details about the proceedings of the cabinet and should refer enquirers to the official briefing in the event of their being ‘doorstepped’,” the minutes said.

However, the fledgling executive was soon embroiled in a leak inquiry and a controversy which became known as “Lobbygate”.

The Lobbygate investigation probed allegations that PR firm Beattie Media had special access to ministers, notably the then finance minister Jack McConnell, who went on to become first minister and now sits in the House of Lords.

Mr McConnell was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing but the minutes reveal the strain he was under at the time.

The minute of a cabinet meeting in October 1999 referred to the controversy, which was generated by a newspaper investigation.

It gave an insight into the scrutiny that Mr McConnell was under at the time.

The minute said: “As he [McConnell] made clear to the parliament, on the basis of the facts know (sic) to him and the assurances he had obtained from the ministerial colleagues named in the covertly filmed meeting, there was no substance in the allegations.”

It added: “Given the nature of the allegations against him, Mr McConnell had offered to make all relevant material about his engagements available to the committee but this need not be regarded as a precedent which others would have to follow.

“An internal investigation into the contracts and contacts between public relations and professional lobbying firms and the public bodies for which the executive was responsible had also been set in hand.

“Mr McConnell expressed his gratitude to colleagues for their support over the previous week.”

A later cabinet minute from October 1999 refers to a secret document obtained by The Scotsman and shows that an inquiry was launched into how it was leaked.

“The First Minister referred to the unauthorised disclosure to The Scotsman of a draft of his statement to the procedures committee on links between ministers and lobbyists,” the minute said.

“He stressed that leaks were an extremely serious matter which risked undermining the effective operation of the executive.

“The draft statement had had limited circulation and an investigation into its unauthorised disclosure was under way with external assistance.

“All ministers would be required to give details about how they had handled the paper and would be interviewed by an external investigator.”

The papers also reveal other action taken to plug the leaks from the early executive after a cabinet paper found its way into the press.

Mr Dewar outlined “straightforward steps” ministers and officials could take to avoid leaks, including greater care when reading them in the public chamber and ensuring someone accompanied ministers on public transport to look after their papers.

It states: “Staff in departments and private offices could contribute to improved security by taking care in the use of language when drafting minutes and papers on particularly sensitive subjects or when recording the views of ministers.”

It advised officials to set out pros and cons on the most sensitive subjects rather than setting down “firm recommendations or conclusions”.

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