The full extent of a secret 20-year “back channel” between the British government and the IRA is revealed today by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who declares that the peace process might never have been possible without the link.
In the first authoritative account of the link by a British official, Jonathan Powell tells the Guardian that a Derry businessmen, Brendan Duddy, and a series of MI5 and MI6 officers risked their lives to allow the British government and the IRA leadership to communicate in private between 1973 and 1993. In the latest extracts from his memoirs, serialised in the Guardian this week, Powell writes: “It is very hard for democratic governments to admit to talking to terrorist groups while those groups are still killing innocent people.
“Luckily for this process, the British government’s back channel to the Provisional IRA had been in existence whenever required from 1973 onwards.” The secret link was only used on three major occasions: to negotiate an IRA ceasefire in the mid-1970s; during the first IRA hunger strike in 1980; and in the early stages of the peace process in the 1990s. But Powell writes that the simple fact that a link existed from the IRA leadership to Downing Street – mainly via Duddy and his MI6 handler Michael Oatley – was of huge significance.
Powell writes: “It was, metaphorically, contained in a locked box, the key to which was in the possession of Brendan Duddy and behind which, wherever he happened to be in the world, was Oatley, known to the IRA as ‘Mountain Climber’.”
The link broke down in 1993 when Martin McGuinness, Sinn FÃ©in’s chief negotiator, reacted furiously to claims that he had sent a message purportedly saying that the IRA’s “conflict is over”. Duddy told the BBC’s Peter Taylor, in an interview published in today’s Guardian, that he was interrogated for four hours by four “very senior Provisionals” after he was wrongly suspected of sending the message.
Powell admits that the message is in dispute, but he says it laid the grounds for the peace process. “What that message succeeded in doing, true or not, was to get the attention of the British government. John Major really thought: ‘Gosh, here is a chance that we can make a breakthrough in Northern Ireland’.”
The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, condemned Major for the secret back channel when it was revealed in 1993. But Powell reveals in his memoirs that 10 years later the DUP established its own secret channel to Sinn FÃ©in when Paisley’s party won the elections to the Northern Ireland assembly of 2003. The channel was kept secret because the DUP refused to meet Sinn FÃ©in at the time on the grounds that the IRA was still active. Powell says: “They [the DUP] were no different from the British government at the time of John Major or Margaret Thatcher saying they never had contacts with the IRA – but actually [they were] doing so as well. It did play an important role in making possible that extraordinary meeting between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. They had never met, they had never spoken until they sat down for that photo-opportunity in March 2007. If you hadn’t had that back channel building confidence over time, it would have been difficult.”