Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Truth behind secret terror talks with dissidents

The details of secret contacts involving dissident republicans and government officials can today be revealed.

An facilitator with detailed knowledge of the process has told this newspaper that a dialogue involving representatives of the British and Irish Governments and various dissident groups has been ongoing for months.

Yesterday Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed the British and Irish Governments have been talking to dissidents — a claim denied by both Governments.

But an informed source has revealed that a process of building up relationships is ongoing.

Asked about the purpose of the contacts, the source replied: “Trying to find out what these people are for – what does it look likethat does not include violence, seeking alternative ways of expressing political opinions.”

As a result of the contacts, he said there had been a reduction in the number of so-called punishment shootings carried out by dissident groups.

According to the source, elected politicians are not involved in the contacts.

“It’s certainly not politicians,” he disclosed. “At no point are politicians involved. It’s officials.”

This newspaper knows the identity of the group facilitating the contacts, but is not revealing details at this stage.

Information on the secret process emerged as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed the British and Irish governments have been talking to dissidents.

Mr McGuinness later told the Telegraph: “I don’t say things unless I’m 100% (certain).

“The important thing is it’s happening.

“It’s always deniable,” he added, but said he was “absolutely convinced” that there have been contacts.

The source who spoke to us claimed: “The building up of relationships with dissidents has been going on for some months.”

He said the contacts have the “imprimatur of the leaderships of the various groups” — and described “a spectrum of conversations with a spectrum of organisations”, including the Real and Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann. “The funding for this is coming from a series of independent trusts,” he added.

Asked about the purpose of the contacts, the source replied: “Trying to find out what these people are for — what does it look like that does not include violence, seeking alternative ways of expressing political opinions.”

As a result of the contacts, he said there had been a reduction in the number of so-called punishment shootings carried out by dissident groups.

Asked if this is the same process referred to by the Deputy First Minister, the source responded: “I don’t know whether it is or isn’t, but it could be.

“It would fit with what we are doing.

“It’s a dialogue process through intermediaries — facilitators.”

A process he described as “separate conversations”, but with all sides knowing what is happening in the conversations.

As this continues in the background, in recent days there has been a surge in dissident violence.

This has included a car bomb attack on a PSNI base and the targeting of an Army major, a woman police officer and civilian security guard with under-car booby trap devices containing commercial explosives and fitted with mercury tilt switches.

All three intended victims had lucky escapes.

Senior police sources believe dissident groups are “trying to build some type of momentum”, with recent actions possibly designed to coincide with the anniversary of internment.

Now there is information on this off-stage and deniable contacts process.

Asked what he expected from the dialogue, the source who spoke to this newspaper responded: “There are no guarantees from either side (but) it would be worse not to try.”

Analysis: Behind-the-scenes bids to sway terrorists from path of violence

These things are always deniable — they have to be for all sides.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening.

Politicians can’t sit across the table from the “terrorists”, and the dissident groups will not want to be seen to be in dialogue with the enemy, in this case “the Brits”.

“If you are involved in conversation you are going down the same bloody road the Provos did,” one source said — the Provos who are accused by the dissidents of “selling out”.

So, all of this is meant to be hush-hush, out of sight and out of hearing.

The more that is out in the open, the more the chances of success are reduced.

But something is going on, as has been described by Martin McGuinness and the source who has spoken to this newspaper.

It may change nothing; there is absolutely no guarantee of success.

But at least there is some effort to explore what is going on in the thinking of dissident groups and some attempt to persuade them of an alternative to violence.

These off-stage contacts and back channel dialogues can at times involve many strands.

Look at the build-up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

The British security service was in secret contact with the republican leadership, John Hume was speaking privately to Gerry Adams, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was involved in an initiative, influential Irish-Americans were engaged, as were church figures and others.

Remember, too, that then Prime Minister John Major said it would turn his stomach to talk to republicans, while at the same time and with Government approval, MI5, using intermediaries, were in contact with republican leaders Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly.

So, McGuinness knows about these things, how they are denied and why they are denied. And the Deputy First Minister is adamant he can stand over what he said yesterday.

So there may be two plays on two very different stages — the one on which we see the violent activity of recent days, and another, hidden from our view, on which an arm’s-length contact is happening.

Sometimes these things are difficult to see and difficult to believe when you look at them through the fog of violence.

But, again, go back to what happened before the IRA ceasefire.

That behind-the-scenes contact between the British and republican leadership continued in 1993 after the bomb in Warrington, and was revealed within weeks of the slaughter on the Shankill Road.

Whatever is going on may fail, and if its full detail emerges there will be someone expected to carry the can as the different sides deny contact and walk away.

But remember what that source told this newspaper: “It would be worse not to try.”

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