The DUP and Sinn Fein were engaged in “substantive, direct contact” nearly three years before they agreed to share power, according to leaked US embassy cables.
A series of classified documents released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks refer to extensive discussions between the parties during a period in late 2004 — a time when the DUP insisted it would not talk to the republican party.
The revelations are contained within the “Northern Ireland Cables”, a series of confidential memos contained in a tranche of 1,900 US embassy dispatches obtained by the Belfast Telegraph.
Their publication today follows a lengthy investigation by this newspaper.
At the start of a series of daily extracts, it can be disclosed how substantive contact between the DUP and Sinn Fein was reported by US officials.
The DUP has always insisted there was no contact of any kind with Sinn Fein prior to the restoration of a power-sharing Executive.
Last night a spokesman said: “The party was not involved in any negotiations or direct meetings with Sinn Fein before the weekend of March 24 2007.”
But a series of leaked US cables, dating from July 2004 to November 2006, refer to various exchanges — both direct and indirect — between the parties.
The cables disclose:
- Frustration at DUP reluctance to hold face-to-face discussions with Sinn Fein in 2006 — described as a “regression” from two years earlier when there had been “substantive, direct contact”.
- Claims there had been “over 30 instances of quiet contact” between the parties during negotiations in December 2004.
- Detailed plans for secret “proximity talks” in London which would involve senior government officials shuttling between party representatives.
The contact is said to have taken place in late 2004 — before the £26m Northern Bank raid and murder of Robert McCartney.
While there has long been speculation of secret discussions — as recently as December 2010 in a cable published by the Guardian — the documents obtained by the Belfast Telegraph provides the strongest evidence yet of direct contact between the two parties.
A cable written in the wake of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, and referring to the “substantive, direct contact”, offers the clearest indication.
It reports on a meeting between Dermot Ahern, then Irish Foreign Affairs minister, and US Ambassador Thomas Foley.
While Northern Ireland's parties had been told to establish a power-sharing Executive by November 24 2006, Mr Ahern thought this deadline was unrealistic.
He noted various problems, including hard-balling by both the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The cable states: “He [Ahern] added that a further complication in negotiations was Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) reluctance to engage in face-to-face discussions with Sinn Fein on the policing/ oath hurdle.
“This reluctance was a regression from late 2004, when Sinn Fein and the DUP had substantive, direct contact in pursuit of a devolution deal at that time.”
A second, previously released cable, dated May 2006, also suggests contact was taking place around this time.
It quotes Bertie Ahern as telling diplomats there had been “over 30 instances of quiet contact” during the December 2004 negotiations.
“Since the collapse of those talks and the subsequent Northern Bank robbery and McCartney murder, engagement had ceased,” it adds.
“Ahern cited Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' view that the IRA's July 2005 decision to decommission weapons should have merited renewed contact with the DUP at some level, not necessarily with DUP leader Ian Paisley.”
Another cable contains a detailed plan for “proximity talks” in London, which would involve senior officials from both governments shuttling between representatives from the parties.
The document, written by Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Benton, is dated October 14, 2004 and previews talks scheduled for the following day.
It states the Irish government wants to keep the talks secret, and will use the pretext of Mr Adams being in London for a separate reason as cover.
The cable also outlines what commitments are expected from either side.
It states: “Senior officials from the two governments will shuttle between Sinn Fein and DUP representatives.
“The Irish government wants to keep this out of the Press and believe they can, given that Gerry Adams has a separate reason for being in London.”
Key details of what is planned at the talks are contained in the cable.
“The Irish say it is time for both parties to show what is on offer, and then to see if they can come to terms on a comprehensive package, including modalities of decommissioning, DUP commitments on devolution and policing, and the issues surrounding how the institutions would work,” it adds. “Substance would be agreed first, then sequencing and a time line.
“Irish officials believe the elements of a deal are achievable, but caution that it always comes down to political will.”
The cable also states Sinn Fein officials in Dublin have told embassy staff they are “optimistic” about the London talks.
TUV leader Jim Allister — a former DUP MEP — said he believed contact took place.
“There must have been contacts but they always were vehemently denied to the point of great anger if anyone suggested that they occurred,” he said.
“I believe the 2004 discussions happened, I believe [a DUP official] was involved, I believe [another DUP member] had contacts in London in Quaker House but anytime you suggested that, people went down your throat.”
A DUP spokesman insisted there had been no contact prior to 2007.
“Prior to the St Andrews talks, the DUP participated in discussions with government ministers and officials who in turn met other parties. During these discussions papers were exchanged and shared with other parties. This was public knowledge.
“The party was not involved in any negotiations or direct meetings with Sinn Fein before the weekend of March 24, 2007. Furthermore, no individuals representing the party were engaged in meetings or discussions of this nature.
“The party at no stage sanctioned or had knowledge of any meetings between anyone from Sinn Fein and anyone from the DUP or anyone alleging to act on behalf of either party concerned.
“Furthermore, at no time was any third party acting on behalf of the DUP as an intermediary as has been alleged.
“All negotiations and discussions were conducted through the Government.”
Sinn Fein refused to comment on the claims.
Stormont remained suspended amid allegations of a republican spy ring.
In September 2004, intensive negotiations at Leeds Castle to restore devolved government ended without a deal being reached.
The British and Irish governments had tried – but failed – to smooth differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Allegations that the IRA was responsible for the £26m Northern Bank raid in December 2004, and the murder of Robert McCartney, dealt a further blow to hopes of securing a deal.