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Brian Rowan: Uncovering link helping Ulster up peace path

For more than two decades Brendan Duddy had a secret part in the peace process. Here, he talks to Brian Rowan about the link role he played between the British Government and the IRA leadership

You can just imagine the fallout - and the questions and the questioning. To quote the words of one source, Patrick Mayhew had just thrown a hand grenade into the peace process.

It was "destructive ¿ and you can make up your own mind what the intention was".

All of this is before the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and the political settlement we now have.

This is November 1993 - months before the IRA ceasefire of August 1994 - and Martin McGuinness, often portrayed as the "hawk" of the Army Council, is named by a British minister as the author of a secret message to the Government.

It's not any old message - but one that suggests the conflict is over and the IRA needs British advice on how to end its war.

In how it was presented it was almost the stuff of surrender. Indeed, if McGuinness hadn't been McGuinness with all his standing and credibility with the IRA leadership he would have been finished.

Remember this place was still at war.

It was then Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew who named him as the message sender, something repeated by the former Prime Minister John Major in a weekend BBC interview.

From the early 1970s there had been a link between the IRA leadership and the British Government - a channel of communication and dialogue.

Brendan Duddy was the man who spoke to the British in those hundreds of meetings spanning so many years.

So, what was he talking about?

At the weekend, I contacted him after the Major interview.

On his secret role, Duddy hasn't and doesn't seek publicity, but, this time, he said he was prepared to speak for the purposes of "history and fact" .

"There's a lot of honour involved, and in that honour, that's how it worked," he said.

Duddy is speaking about how the "link" or the "back channel" functioned - survived - and he believes that Mayhew "broke the code" when he said what he said in November 1993.

It's worth remembering the context of the period. Journalist Eamonn Mallie had produced a document of proof of contacts between the British and the IRA - the same IRA that had just left its mark in the slaughter of the Shankill Road bomb.

Now, Major and Mayhew were in trouble - accused of talking, however indirectly, with the IRA while that organisation was still at war. In the eye of the storm Mayhew claimed the contacts were linked to the McGuinness message, which he dated as February 1993.

And it's the specific suggestion that McGuinness asked for British advice or help to end the war, that Duddy now addresses.

"John Major gave a very balanced assessment on TV on the difficulties and the delicacy of negotiating peace. He played a significant part," he said. "Where he went off track was in speaking about Martin McGuinness. Martin McGuinness was psychologically not capable of asking for British advice to end the conflict - the IRA's war. That is not in McGuinness' make-up or character.

"Whatever message Major got, the purpose of it was to allow him to proceed with the process."

The context that Duddy emphasises is that Major was moving in the face of significant Cabinet and unionist opposition. This is what he means about the difficult and delicate balances of that period.

But he has now told us something about his own key role that requires us to re-visit our own thinking and analysis of what that secret "back channel " was. The belief we've had is that the link was a kind of post box into which the British - through the Security Service - and the republican leadership dropped messages that were then delivered.

My guess is it was something much more - that Duddy had a more substantial role in trying to develop an initiative that was about ending conflict and creating a dialogue for negotiations. He was giving his analysis to both sides - and he was trying to help them think their way out of their war. So, everything that went to the British wasn't written, or spoken or cleared by Martin McGuinness.

This is the flaw in what Major and Mayhew say about that 1993 message. Yet, by August 1994, with those two men still in their positions, the IRA delivered the first "complete cessation of military operations".

The 'Provos' needed British help to end that war, but the 'Brits' also needed McGuinness and the IRA. They needed each other to find a different way.

Is that the message that the link was trying to deliver not just in 1993 but over many years? And is that the analysis that became so skewed and misrepresented when Mayhew found himself in the eye of that storm in 1993?

Brendan Duddy is very discreet: "You can't pick out half a sentence. You can't pick out half a day's work or an hour's work in 20 years." He's emphasising a context that will only be seen if a fuller picture emerges.

He could draw it.

Belfast Telegraph

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