Belfast Telegraph

Look who's talking

The disclosure of contacts between the two governments and republican dissidents is part of a long history of talking to terrorists. Just ask the man who revealed them: Martin McGuinness. David McKittrick reports

Martin McGuinness's statement that both the British and Irish governments are in contact with dissident republicans will cause some observers to recoil from the prospect of talking to active terrorists.

In recent days, the dissidents have set off car bombs and placed devices under vehicles in the hope of killing individuals associated with the security forces.

In doing so they have had the clear intention of re-igniting the Troubles and violently reversing all the progress of recent years. In the process they seem utterly indifferent that their bombs might kill not only police, but also civilians - including a toddler.

What is the point, many people will ask, of talking to people so detached from civilised society?

The most effective retort to such questions lies in the personal history of the figure who has raised the issue. Martin McGuinness is deputy First Minister, has met Mandela and Clinton and receives invites from abroad to help in conflict resolution.

Yet it was not long ago that major shockwaves were generated by revelations that he, along with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, were in touch with British administrations.

In those days, he was classified as an outcast, as one of the leaders of a party which supported the IRA's ongoing campaign. Political representatives, successive governments regularly insisted, did not talk to 'men of violence'.

John Major, as Prime Minister, famously told the House of Commons that the very thought of talking to Mr Adams "turned his stomach".

Yet it turned out that behind the denials lay a whole web of contacts. Sometimes these took place between republicans and local politicians, such as John Hume; sometimes intelligence personnel were involved; sometimes independent mediators had a role.

When the news of the talks broke in the early 1990s, it initially looked as though a ministerial head would roll. Yet the Commons took a strikingly tolerant view, in effect endorsing the approach.

This was partly because the practice had a long history. The most direct formal talks between a government and republicans had taken place in 1972, when a previous Conservative government flew Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness and others for secret talks in London.

More systematic contacts took place in 1974 and 1975 when, under a Labour government, senior officials met Sinn Fein leaders on a regular basis at a house near Belfast. These resulted in a short-lived IRA ceasefire.

Irish governments had deep reservations about such contacts with violent republicans. Former Dublin prime minister Garret FitzGerald declared: "The contacts that had taken place had had the effect merely of prolonging the violence by deluding the IRA into believing that a British government would eventually negotiate a settlement with them."

The contacts cooled in the years that followed, largely because republicans alleged British officials were not negotiating seriously, but simply trying to gain tactical advantage over the IRA.

Later governments concentrated on combating the IRA by security means while attempting to build a political solution based on centrist parties, excluding Sinn Fein. But at the same time an underground channel of communication remained in place, based largely on figures in the city of Londonderry. And it all came back to life again in the early 1990s when MI5 officer John Deverell became intrigued by new rhetoric being used by Sinn Fein.

As head of intelligence in Northern Ireland, Deverell convinced the then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke to authorise new feelers. The prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, might have been expected to forbid such an exercise, but did not.

For years government ministers did not actually meet Sinn Fein or IRA leaders, but many messages flowed between the two sides, including lengthy documents which have since come into the public domain.

Looking back, one of the striking features of this period was that communication continued despite the persistence of IRA violence. Even IRA "spectaculars", including attacks which took lives and caused major destruction in both Northern Ireland and Britain, did not close down communications.

Such contacts, which for years were kept strictly secret, eventually became publicly known. Years more negotiation took place, with Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness becoming frequent visitors to Downing Street to meet Tony Blair and his chief negotiator Jonathan Powell.

Mr Powell, who has written of his encounters with "the slightly threatening bearded face" of Mr Adams and "the clear, chilling eyes" of Mr McGuinness, is today involved in promoting similar dialogue in disputes across the world. He said in a recent interview that there is a long period of educating terrorists about working towards agreements - "because usually they are not really into compromise, they've stuck to a position and never thought practically about what they want".

These words may apply to today's republican dissidents, who seem wedded to the simplistic idea that more bombs and more bullets will somehow achieve their version of Irish freedom.

Those involved in talking to them would very clearly not be in the business of making substantial concessions to the dissidents.

Rather, they would be seeking to bring home the futility of their violence and educating them in prevailing political realities.

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