Brian Rowan: How policeman and Provo talked peace
Sinn Fein support for policing was a vital part of the peace process. In his new book, security writer Brian Rowan reveals what two of the participants in the talks — top policeman Peter Sheridan and former IRA bomber Gerry Kelly — felt as they sat across the table from each other for the first time
Adams and Orde had first begun discussions on the policing issue in November 2004, in Downing Street. Tony Blair and his officials were in the room that day. Orde was not in uniform and there was no photographer to capture the scene.
This was a tentative beginning and the republican agenda for the meeting was demilitarisation — a discussion on the mechanics of how and when the British Army would vacate its posts and stations in Northern Ireland.
Orde was there to talk about policing, of course, but the republicans were not yet ready for the type of initiative they would take in the early part of 2007.
What interests me about this meeting — and the others on this issue — are the private thoughts of those involved. When I spoke with Peter Sheridan about the policing question, I wanted to get beyond the routine text of what the republicans said and what the police said. I asked him what it was really like being in a room with the enemy. What was he thinking? Were they what he expected them to be, or were they something different?
“I’ll tell you honestly what came into my head. And it wasn’t to do with my own difficulties (or those) my family had — having to move out of our house at one stage and all the security work around the house. And it wasn’t all the day-today hassles that you had.”
He told me a personal story about a very close friend of his “whose father was murdered” by the IRA. “He was in nothing,” Sheridan said. “He was mistaken as a police officer.” Many years later, Sheridan’s friend told him she had voted for the Good Friday Agreement because she wanted a “better life for her kids”.
“But,” he went on, “she couldn’t forgive one person — and that was Martin McGuinness. Right, wrong or indifferent, in her mind that was the face — that was the face.”
So this is what was in Sheridan’s head as he sat in that Downing Street meeting:
“How am I going to say to this girl that this is who I have met today in the role I have, and when I went home that evening, that’s who I went round to see.”
Every war leaves its scars, and this is one of them — a human story behind a political and policing story, something that gives us a little insight into the challenges of peace-making. It is not easy, and some are asked to do much more than others. Behind everything you see and hear in public, there is always another story being told.
I had something to do with Peter Sheridan being present at that Downing Street meeting. The night before, a Sunday night, I had spoken to Hugh Orde. He was in London with his Director of Media and Public Relations, Sinead McSweeney, and the story had broken in Ireland of the talks planned for the following day, at which Sinn Fein would be represented by Adams, McGuinness and Gerry Kelly. If I remember it correctly, I called McSweeney on her phone and she asked me to have a chat with Orde.
We discussed the items he wanted to talk about the following day. He planned to link the question of republican support for policing to the issue of demilitarisation. He was going to argue that his officers needed to feel confident and safe on the ground, and that if that could be achieved, they could then patrol without Army support and the watchtowers on the hills of south Armagh could be decommissioned. He made the point that republican support for policing had to be clear, that ‘they (couldn’t) continue to be indifferent’, and that once the IRA had left the stage, the demilitarisation process could be expedited.
He told me he was trying to get someone else over to London to accompany him, and I mentioned Peter Sheridan’s name. Sheridan was then Assistant Chief Constable with operational responsibility in rural areas, including south Armagh, where the controversy about the Army’s watchtowers was raging. Sheridan travelled first thing Monday morning to be present at the Downing Street meeting. Was he concerned about the compromises that might be involved?
Of course, Sheridan knew that meeting was about moving the peace process forward, that was the end upon which all minds needed to be focused:
“I take people, and maybe this is just my nature, as being people. I deal with people as being human beings — not as A, B and C — as paramilitaries.
“I deal with people as being human beings and part of myself, I suppose, is — if this helps and moves it (the process) on, I will treat people with respect, irrespective of what I think or may know about their background.”
Rowan: But you knew exactly who you were meeting?
Rowan: Their backgrounds?
Sheridan: Yes I did, but I was going to treat them as human beings and treat them with respect.
Gerry Kelly was also in the room that day with his IRA record, as one of a bomb team working in London, as a prisoner who had escaped and been recaptured, and as one of those republicans who grew into political leadership as the peace process developed. He could add the weight of war service to the arguments and the theoretical debates taking place within republicanism. What were his thoughts on meeting the enemy?
“We clearly had a great suspicion of each other, of motives, of what was possible, of all of that, but remember we were the believers — we always said talk I do think there is a military mindset that you can get into I would argue that we were (now) out of the mindset. As you said earlier, my history has been the IRA and clearly during that period, I mean I was very proud of it, but clearly you are in a fighting mode.
“When you enter politics, when you enter negotiations, you have to remove yourself certainly from the fighting mode, but certainly that doesn’t mean to say that all of a sudden you’re compromising on everything.
“You’re in a battle to try and get equality, to try and get a proper police service
“It (the Downing Street meeting) was cordial, became, I suppose, you could describe it almost friendly, it was very good-mannered. It was all of that I didn’t think they were ogres.
“I knew from their point of view they thought they were doing a job. I thought they were doing it wrong, but that’s beside the point.
“A lot of it, I thought, was political, but once you start talking then personalities actually do come into it. So, I’m not being dismissive of personalities. Clearly if you have somebody who cannot bend and is the person who is negotiating then you’re in trouble. So their personalities do come into it. It was certainly cordial, quite friendly. There were one or two humorous moments.”
How The Peace Was Won by Brian Rowan, Gill & Macmillan. Price £14.99