Northern Ireland

Denis Bradley: Peace Comes Dropping Slow: My Life in the Troubles extract

In his new book, Denis Bradley recounts a crunch meeting in 1993 between Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly and an MI5 officer

Columnist Denis Bradley. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

At that meeting in the early 1990s, when McGuinness talked about the need for republicans to become peacemakers, he referred to this dislike of Duddy.

He knew that I had not officially been a part of the backchannel for years, but valued my judgement, which was that the opportunity was too great to be ignored or blocked by a clash of personalities.

I defended Duddy and his work as best I could but proposed that I would return to the backchannel if that made it easier for him to develop the momentum for peace. And so once again I became part of the threesome.

When the fax came through that the British were pulling out of the March 1993 meeting, I argued that there was no way that the link could continue if the meeting was cancelled.

McGuinness had cleared it with the Army Council, and another member of that council (at that stage we didn’t know it would be Gerry Kelly) would already be on his way to Derry.

The distrust and the fear on both sides was always high. A meeting cancelled at the last moment at this time of mounting expectation would only add to the difficulty of getting the sides together.

The last time the British government and the IRA had met face to face was sixteen or more years ago; it had taken years to get this new meeting set up.

To call it off at the last minute would be disastrous for what Duddy, Gallagher and I had been trying to bring about for years. If the British didn’t come, I wanted them told that I would no longer be part of the link.

I argued that the other two should make it clear that they were of the same mind. Gallagher agreed, as did Duddy, who had put years into meeting, cajoling, arguing with and educating British diplomats, and who would have found it the most difficult to walk away and stay away.

The decision was made to send an ultimatum to the British that we would terminate the link if the meeting was cancelled.

After several faxes, Fred faxed back to say that he would meet with Duddy but not with the IRA. That was a further irritant.

I don’t know how many faxes went back and forth after that, but by early afternoon Fred contacted us to say that the meeting was back on schedule. To this day I do not fully know why Fred arrived on his own.

Our assumption had been that he would be accompanied by either John Deverell, Director of Intelligence in Northern Ireland, who was one of those who died in the chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994, or Quentin Thomas, a senior civil servant in the NIO. But in the end, no one else came.

Both sides were playing hard to get. The meeting was on, then off, and now it depended on persuading the two republicans that it should happen.

It was Duddy who very quickly suggested that I should take Fred to Peggy McGuinness’ house. I wasn’t dying about the suggestion, but he was right – I was the most likely to be able to persuade McGuinness to take the meeting. I was amazed that Fred agreed to go with me.

I was going to drive him into the heart of the Bogside to meet with two of the most senior members of the IRA. Two men who were annoyed that they had been stood up. Fred could have been abducted and used for ransom. I believed that would not happen, but had I been Fred, it would have been at the front of my mind. Yet he didn’t object.

I drove Fred to the house and left him in the car while I persuaded McGuinness to hear him out. When McGuinness reluctantly indicated that he would, I fetched Fred and then left him in the kitchen of Peggy’s house to make his case to McGuinness and Kelly. It was nerve-wracking sitting in the living room with Peggy, waiting for the outcome of that discussion.

I felt a massive wave of relief when McGuinness emerged from the kitchen with the news that the meeting would go

ahead, and I was to tell Gallagher to pick Kelly and himself up in about fifteen minutes. Fred and I drove back to Duddy’s house. He was not very forthcoming about how he had changed their minds beyond repeating some of the things I had already said and explaining that while there was great apprehension in government about meeting with the IRA, there was also a strong conviction that both sides had to meet and come to an understanding.