Belfast Telegraph

Cleric still haunted by Northern Ireland peace talks plan that led to exile

Rev Ralph Baxter
Rev Ralph Baxter
Tommy Gorman
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A Protestant clergyman who was involved in peace talks with IRA leaders in the Republic in 1974 has fought back tears as he talked about how he was forced to leave Northern Ireland after death threats against him and his family by the UDA.

Rev Ralph Baxter, who fled to Canada, told a new BBC documentary that he and seven other clerics involved in the peace initiative were acting as emissaries of the British Government.

Mr Baxter is the only surviving member of the group who travelled to Feakle in Co Clare to talk to the Provisional IRA's Army Council in a hotel.

Reporter Darragh MacIntyre travelled to Canada to meet Mr Baxter who spoke for the first time about what happened in Feakle, where the Republic's security forces arrived before the talks started.

They pointed an automatic rifle at the cleric's head which he said was "a bit off-putting".

The IRA had been tipped off about the raid but they were able to deliver a message to the ministers that they would agree to a ceasefire if London reconsidered withdrawal from Ireland.

Mr Baxter told the documentary makers that Prime Minister Harold Wilson had secretly approved the clerics' mission to sound out the IRA's true intentions.

He added: "We had Harold Wilson's blessing and we knew that because we had talked to him about what would happen if we met with the IRA.

"We met with them on behalf of the British Government." Mr Baxter said the IRA leaders wanted peace "because they wanted out".

The IRA later announced a ceasefire which came into effect just before Christmas but it didn't last and thousands more people were to die in the Troubles.

As he struggled with his emotions during the TV interview Mr Baxter's wife asked him if he was all right. He replied: "No."

During the latest episode of Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History, former IRA man Tommy Gorman broke down as he reflected on the Provisionals terror campaign.

"At the end of the day what was it all about? What the f*** was it all about?" he asked. "A waste of time. A waste of life."

The new episode has already sparked controversy after advance publicity for tonight's programme revealed that it contains footage of an IRA bombing in Belfast 47 years ago.

The film of the attack on the Queen's University Sports Hall at Upper Malone in May 1972 was recorded for an American documentary The Secret Army and it's said that it disappeared after it had been screened only a few times.

The Secret Army documentary was based on a book of the same name by the late American academic J Bowyer Bell who travelled extensively to Northern Ireland.

In tonight's episode two unmasked IRA men are seen loading a bomb into the boot of a car before being driven to the sports hall where the explosion is filmed, wrecking part of the building and injuring a number of people. Tonight's episode also includes footage of a bid to shoot down Army helicopters in Derry.

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