Long War, Long Negotiation – The Brendan Duddy Papers

By Hugh Vaughan

‘He’s having an affair’, my sister declared. She was airing her suspicions that our neighbour Brendan Duddy, high-ranking Derry Republican, was engaged in an illicit liaison with Bernadette, his aide-de-camp. In fact, Duddy was indeed engaged in a secret liaison – but with MI6 –  in his role as intermediary between the IRA and the British Government. He kept notes and a diary of these meetings, records which were given to the National University of Ireland, Galway in 2009.

The collection has been archived and placed online. Its website states,

Throughout twenty years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland a secret channel of communication linked the IRA to the highest levels of the British government. At the heart of this channel was a single intermediary, Brendan Duddy. His house was the venue for secret negotiations between the British Government and the IRA throughout 1975. He managed the intense negotiations over the Republican hunger strikes in which ten men died (1980-1981) and he was at the heart of the contacts (1991-1993) that culminated in a secret offer of a ceasefire that was a precursor to the public IRA ceasefire of 1994.

This ongoing contact laid the foundation for the current power-sharing executive, now under immense pressure to survive. The recent election in NI, triggered by the resignation of Martin McGuinness (who passed away recently from a rare heart condition) saw the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein gain almost equal numbers of seats, toppling the long unionist dominance: only 1200 votes separated the two parties. Writing in The Irish Times, Dr. Eamon Phoenix said,

The resulting loss of a Unionist majority at Stormont for the first time has shocked Unionism to its core.

The video below was created by NUI Galway about the background to the archive of the Duddy Papers:

Martin McGuinness

On one occasion, during the years of Duddy’s role in providing a secret channel of communication between the IRA and the British Government, McGuinness, then a Chief of Staff of the IRA knocked on his door. Duddy and his wife had just finished a roast dinner with their guest Michael Oatley, a British MI6 officer who had secretly kept in contact with Duddy for almost 20 years, and was about to retire. Just before his retirement, Oatley received a call from Duddy who suggested he come to Derry to meet someone. Oatley described the discussion with McGuinness as like talking to a ranking British officer from the SAS. Duddy was known as ‘the Contact’, while Oatley’s replacement was given the name ‘Fred’.

Brendan Duddy

Brendan Duddy was a Derry business man – a fish and chip shop owner – a Republican but also a passionate pacifist. He felt there had to be a way to forge an accord between the IRA and the British Government instead of the continuing brutal violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. He set out to develop ‘a back-channel’ between them.

During 1993 a series of messages between the ‘back-channel’ and the British Government led to a message stating ‘the conflict is over’. It was supposedly from the IRA, asking the British Government to help lay the plans for a negotiated settlement. But McGuinness felt that ‘the Contact’ or ‘Fred’ had overstepped their remit. It led to Duddy being ‘interrogated’ by four leading Republicans, most likely with McGuinness  as the main questioner. Duddy felt that if he hadn’t convinced them he was genuine in his attempts at developing a path for peace, and not acting as some sort of British agent, he would not have left the interrogation alive. The link/back channel was also used for a ceasefire in the late 70s and during The Hunger Strike of 1981. This event (the hunger strike) prompted Sinn Fein to move towards electoral politics. Margaret Thatcher, the UK Prime Minister at that time, thought the IRA was playing their last card over the prison issues.

The Duddy interrogation is recreated in my novel Cillefoyle Park
where any storylines are recreated from real events. The protagonist, Dermot, a social activist and barman, is ‘the Contact’. His character is based on a prominent Derry socialist, Eamonn McCann. (Incidentally, McCann lost his seat at the recent election, the only seat he held as a political activist since the 1960s.) The whole enterprise of the ‘back-channel’ in the book falls apart due to an IRA Supergrass, (again based on an actual Supergrass who also wrote a book about his experiences and was found dead in October last year, alone in a flat in England.) The meetings take place in an office in Cillefoyle Park. In the novel I have attempted to show life in 1970s Derry, at the height of the Troubles, from various perspectives: a teacher trying to keep his own family out of harm’s way while teaching the children who were in the IRA; Dermot, the social activist, fighting for civil rights but a reluctant ‘back-channel’ contact; and a disillusioned IRA man who becomes a Supergrass.

Interestingly, on a recent Irish radio interview, McCann, a leader of a housing campaign for Catholics in Northern Ireland that led to the Civil Rights movement, stated that the Aboriginal movement in Australia and the Black Civil Rights movement in America were among his inspirations.

The terrifying confrontation between Duddy and the IRA is reflected in the research of Niall Ó Dochartaigh of NUI Galway, who analyses Duddy’s role as the ‘back-channel’ using Duddy’s documents and his many interviews with him. The Derry meetings, of course, took place in the fog of war: it was not just messages being passed back and forth. Duddy listened to his contacts for the merest hint of change in the British Government stance so he could advance a peaceful solution. He tried to influence the outcome by attempting to help them think their way out of the war. In his words,

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.

Ó Dochartaigh identifies the role of ‘the Contact’ as being analytically separated out from the role of the two sides who are seen as distinct and bounded entities; his role is to devise messages and strategies and then put them in the post for delivery to the opponents. The fact that formal records are often dominated by those short written communications that are then passed from one side to the other, encourages historians and analysts to focus on the delivery of messages, and can obscure the hundreds and thousands of hours of human interaction, changing human relationships and dialogue which generate these pieces of paper.

Such messages can sometimes be jointly devised to facilitate movement at both ends of the communication chain. As Ó Dochartaigh further explains, this should not obscure the fact that this intersection can also be a space of deceit, of penetration, of surveillance, of manipulation, and a struggle for advantage, a space of ambiguity, obscure intentions and acts of bad faith. It was a case of building trust with all parties, bit by bit. The issues of who doesn’t want peace, or wants peace on their own terms are also explored by Ó Dochartaigh. But that space can also provide an interactive cooperative process, the building of trust leading to the reshaping of relationships between those involved. The Duddy Papers provide a significant insight into the role of a mediator in this cooperative process, illustrating that an individual at the centre of such contact can significantly become more than an intermediary.

Duddy’s role was brought to light by the efforts of Peter Taylor, a BBC reporter in the 1990s but it was in a 2008 BBC documentary, The Secret Peacemaker, that Duddy was actually identified. O’Dochartaigh’s research and Taylor’s work formed much of the research for Cillefoyle Park, as well as McCann’s writings and his books. Finally, the quote below comes from the CAIN website, Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – a valuable resource – based at the University of Ulster. It reflects the complexity and idiosyncrasy of the Northern Irish conflict, that Brendan Duddy and Dermot were trying to address. McCann muses,

One of the strange things about Northern Ireland which recently occurred to me is that Catholics and Protestants in the North have never been more alike. The cultural background of people on the Shankill and the Falls has never been as close to one and other as it is now. That’s part of the globalisation of culture, the Americanisation of world culture, as well. While there are still distinct elements to the cultures of the two communities, nevertheless they share an awful lot.

Hugh Vaughan

Hugh was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems.  He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, focusing on living in the North West of Ireland during the Troubles. Hughmvaughan.com