What Fred Did

Owen Bennett-Jones on the go-betweens who paved the way for the Northern Ireland peace process

Owen Bennett-Jones on the Go-Betweens

There is a sentence in Jonathan Powell’s Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts that raises intriguing questions about how the Northern Ireland peace process got underway.[*] ‘Martin McGuinness,’ Powell writes, ‘still denies sending the message stating that “our war is over” which started the correspondence with John Major, and it is pretty clear in retrospect that one of the intermediaries in the chain between the government and the IRA did in fact embellish the message.’ The peace process, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff is suggesting, began with an exaggeration. Or what others might call a falsehood. It’s a remarkable story.

The exact wording of the message Major received in Downing Street on 22 February 1993 was: ‘The conflict is over but we need your (British) advice on how to bring it to a close.’ It came, Major was told, from Martin McGuinness. McGuinness’s precise status in 1993 was contested, but the British took him to be someone who could speak for the IRA.

The message had a long backstory, much of it chronicled three years ago by the leading journalist of the Troubles, Peter Taylor, in Talking to Terrorists (yes, Jonathan Powell lifted someone else’s title). There had been intermittent contact between the British government and the IRA throughout the Troubles. Having explored a number of channels of communication, the British settled on a Derry businessman, Brendan Duddy, as their middleman. Supported by Denis Bradley, a former priest who officiated at McGuinness’s wedding, and Noel Gallagher, another Northern Irish businessman with good links to Sinn Féin, Duddy established what became known as ‘the link’: a back channel through which the British government and the IRA passed messages. It was first used in the run-up to the IRA ceasefire of 1975 and was revived in 1980 for negotiations aimed at getting the hunger strikes called off. When that failed, the link was used less often, although Duddy and a representative of the British government continued to meet even if there was very little to discuss. A third and final phase of dialogue began in 1990 and led to the 1994 ceasefire that presaged the peace process.

Over the years Duddy had contact with various British officials. In 1990 his interlocutor was a former MI6 officer seconded to MI5 who introduced himself as Colin Ferguson and later said his name was Robert McLarnon. Believing in neither name, Duddy called him Fred. The Northern Irish members of the link were relatively optimistic that a peace deal might be possible. The conflict had reached a stalemate: the British could contain the IRA but not defeat it and the IRA’s leaders were privately discussing the possibility of switching to a strategy of seeking a political solution. Diplomatic pressure was also building on London as, with increasing persistence, the US pressed the UK to come up with ideas to break the cycle of violence. Even the normally inactive Dublin government was showing some interest in a political process.

According to Bradley, Fred too sensed there was a chance of progress. He told Duddy that ‘the British government does not want to be left sucking the hind tit.’ Bradley took this to mean that if everyone else was talking, London didn’t want to be watching from the sidelines. And Fred, like the members of the link, believed that London couldn’t base its strategy on talking to moderates: a lasting settlement could only be achieved by communication between the people who had the guns. But neither the IRA nor the British was prepared to make the first move.

Bradley recently told me that one day in early 1990 the three members of the link were sitting in the offices of his TV production company in Derry. Frustrated by the failure to convert possibilities into actual progress they decided to put some thoughts down on paper. All three suggested forms of words that attempted simultaneously to analyse the political situation and to summarise the IRA’s thinking. Bradley says that since he was considered ‘the scholar’ of the three, he did the writing. The result was a two-paragraph typed document which stated that a phase of violence in Northern Ireland was coming to an end and the two sides needed to learn how to live with each other.

In a documentary from 2001 called Endgame in Ireland Bradley suggested that this document was the first draft of the message that ended up on Major’s desk. ‘It would have used words like the conflict was drawing to a close,’ he said, ‘and it is clear there needs to be a new political engagement – words of that style.’ But, he added, it was Fred who came up with the words about the IRA wanting advice from the British.

I asked Bradley if the Derry document had contained the precise phrase: ‘The conflict is over.’

‘No, it didn’t have those precise words,’ he replied. ‘I would have remembered that – if I had written the words “the conflict is over.” But it said something very close to that.’

After the meeting in Derry, Duddy took the document to London where, in a Heathrow hotel room, he showed it to Fred – or maybe they just discussed it. Duddy, some of whose personal papers and videoed interviews are now available in an archive at the National University of Ireland in Galway, has claimed that the ‘conflict is over message’ was the outcome of this meeting. So who came up with the key words that ended up on Major’s desk? Was it him or Fred?

Duddy: ‘Who did it? It was done in a hotel room in London. I didn’t do it.’

That is in line with Bradley’s account. After the Derry document had been typed, he said, ‘Brendan takes it off and there is a meeting in London with Fred. And what I think happens is that Fred takes this document and embellishes it slightly. Slightly. And then when Fred was asked the question “Who does it come from?” he said “Martin McGuinness.”’

In both these versions there were only two people in the hotel room: Fred and Duddy. Duddy, however, also gave a contradictory account to his archivists claiming that a third person, another mediator close to Sinn Féin, was also in the hotel room and that it was this unnamed person who helped Fred draft the message. It’s not the only time that Duddy has muddied the waters about exactly what happened at various points – probably deliberately. Duddy might have said there was a third person in the room in order to deflect attention from himself (some in the IRA suspected him of being a British agent). Or, he might have been keeping quiet about the presence of the third person in order to protect his identity. But in none of his accounts does he claim that the words came from McGuinness. Former Irish taoiseach Albert Reynolds, in his autobiography, lent weight to the idea that there were three people in the room. He recalled that Noel Gallagher told him he had watched Fred ‘complete the letter in preparation for passing it on to the British government’ in the Excelsior Hotel near Heathrow.

The Duddy archive includes the Heathrow hotel room note itself, written in pencil on blue paper with the text of the message Major received. Duddy said that Fred gave it to him. Tantalisingly, it is numbered ‘4’, suggesting that there were earlier pages, earlier drafts or other copies. As other documents in the archive confirm, it is in Fred’s handwriting. And the text suggests that Fred composed it. The IRA tended not to use the word ‘conflict’: it saw its struggle with the British as a war. And would the IRA really have asked the British government for advice? Fred had chosen words designed to appeal to the residual British colonial mindset.

To ascribe the note to McGuinness was a big extra leap for Fred to make. The British government, after all, could have interpreted it as an IRA surrender. Major was fully aware of the importance of the sourcing: he asked for confirmation that it really was from McGuinness. The permanent undersecretary of state at the Northern Ireland office, John Chilcot, assured the prime minister it was.

‘What we told him,’ Chilcot recalled, ‘was, having worked it through and done some digging: yes it was authentic, it was from McGuinness and it was spoken with authority.’ How Chilcot made that mistake is not known, but one possibility is that he asked Fred and got the confirmation he wanted. Or he might himself have used deliberately ambiguous language, telling the prime minister that the message came from McGuinness in the sense that it accurately reflected McGuinness’s thinking.

Fred’s creative mediation was not over. Having persuaded the British that the IRA was serious, he set about persuading the IRA that the British genuinely wanted a deal. His chance came when Major, acting on the belief that McGuinness had indeed sent the message, approved direct talks between Fred and one other British official and, for the IRA, Martin McGuinness and the former hunger striker Gerry Kelly. Two days before the meeting was due to take place, in March 1993, IRA bombs killed two children in Warrington. Bearing in mind the British insistence that talks could only take place if there was a ceasefire, Fred told the IRA via Duddy that the meeting was off. After frantic phone calls in which Duddy warned that he had McGuinness and Kelly physically in place and that cancelling would lead to a complete breach, Fred said he would come, but without the second official. Bradley chaired the meeting, which took place in the Bogside in Derry, somewhere British officials generally feared to tread. Fred, he said, put on a ‘superb’ performance, convincing McGuinness and Kelly that dialogue could be worthwhile. As he drove Fred away in the middle of the night, Bradley recalls saying to him: ‘That was a very brave thing to do.’

‘Well, Denis,’ Fred replied, ‘sometimes you have to die for the cause.’

There are two points to make about this meeting. The then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Patrick Mayhew, insists that he didn’t know about it. But that doesn’t mean Fred was flying solo. The Duddy archive includes a fax sent by Fred to Duddy in August 1993 which strongly suggests Fred had some level of clearance to meet the IRA in spite of what happened at Warrington. ‘Could you also tell your friends that they are inadvertently creating great difficulties for me by their frequent references to my having met them. This was only known by very few people and officially my instructions were only to speak to you.’ It’s not unusual for British officials to do things without telling their ministers – especially when they think the minister would rather not know. And sometimes ministers are grateful for the deniability. That some people knew Fred was meeting the IRA would hardly have been surprising – security considerations alone would have necessitated at least a few being told of his expedition to such a hostile part of Derry.

The Heathrow hotel room note, from the Brendan Duddy Archive in the James Hardiman Library at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
The Heathrow hotel room note, from the Brendan Duddy Archive in the James Hardiman Library at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

The most likely course of events was that Fred asked for clearance from close colleagues in Northern Ireland and was told to go ahead so long as the meeting was deniable and that, if exposed, Fred would take responsibility for it. I recently asked John Chilcot (by email) whether he had known in advance that Fred was going to meet McGuinness. He sent a message in reply regretting he wasn’t in a position to offer any comment.

But even if Fred did have some level of authorisation, the words he used in the discussions with McGuinness and Kelly went far beyond his brief. Duddy and Bradley, who were at the meeting, have both said that Fred told McGuinness and Kelly that while the UK government would never abandon the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland, eventually Ireland would ‘be as one’. McGuinness and Kelly responded just as Major had – by asking about the sourcing. ‘Does this come from the top?’ they asked.

‘From the highest level,’ Fred said.

The IRA had little choice but to see where the dialogue would lead. The loose use of language was a deliberate strategy employed not only by Fred but also by Duddy, who once said he would be willing to talk to someone for four hours if, eventually, there was a useful half-sentence he could take back to the other side. And he has suggested that McGuinness was aware of his tactics. In May 1993, for example, when the British government and the IRA were haggling over the ceasefire terms, McGuinness gave Duddy a written message from Sinn Féin to be taken to London. Duddy’s archive contains an account of what happened next:

The wording of the SF [Sinn Féin] note insisted upon by the hardliners of the AC [IRA Army Council] included: ‘even though it will be of a short duration’. Duddy told McGuinness that the words ‘short duration’ would not be acceptable to the British. McGuinness answered back ‘That is what I have got’ and Duddy said: ‘I’ll have to deliver this as a speaking note’ and McGuinness didn’t answer.

Fred’s ambiguities unravelled when news of his meeting with McGuinness and Kelly leaked to the press. Trying to justify it, Patrick Mayhew told Parliament that the British government had acted only after it received the message from McGuinness saying ‘the conflict is over.’ McGuinness reacted with angry astonishment: ‘Patrick Mayhew today read a text which he claims to be a communication sent by me to the British government in late February. I totally refute his claim. The text he read is counterfeit. No such communication was ever sent. It is a lie.’

Just as Major would never have authorised anyone to tell the IRA that Ireland would ‘be as one’, so McGuinness would not have used the words Fred came up with. When the story came out, the IRA was genuinely confused. Duddy was subjected to hostile questioning by the IRA’s senior leadership. A note he wrote shortly afterwards described how frightened he was: ‘I was interrogated over and over again for three hours looking for [indistinct] to prove my treachery. It was terrible total, paranoid, madness.’ For days afterwards, he said, ‘I was waiting for the knock on the door.’

And what happened to the spook who by going rogue helped to get the two sides talking? By the end of the year Fred was persona non grata. People close to the security services today say he is remembered as someone who didn’t do very well in Northern Ireland. His real name has never come into the public domain and it isn’t known whether he’s still alive. On Christmas Eve 1993 he wrote Duddy a generous, final letter. ‘You are unique. I have never met such a combination of courage, ingenuity and dogged determination never to give up in anyone else. Ireland has been better served by you than most of your leaders.’ Duddy’s role in the peace process has been justly fêted. But Fred also deserves recognition. While the British politicians and IRA leaders remained cautious and entrenched in long established positions, he found a way to tempt them into taking risks and eventually reaching agreement. Sometimes civil servants should break the rules.

[*] Bodley Head, 416 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 1 8479 2 229 8.