As a child in the 1970s I lived only a hundred miles from Belfast; but for people in Ayr (in south-west Scotland), Northern Ireland and its Troubles might as well have been Mars. Who would want to go there? Nobody we knew. But there was plenty of traffic the other way. Northern Ireland’s Protestants would come across the water to holiday on the Ayrshire coast. We dreaded the visits of my mother’s embarrassing cousin, let’s call him Henry, who had married a Northern Irish woman and gone to live in Belfast. Henry had been shot in the leg by the IRA as he came out of a pub, which gave him a limp and turned him into a booming anti-Catholic bigot. Henry would pay us occasional, unexpected and scary visits, the worst being the time he spotted my Glasgow Celtic pennant and exploded in a fit of uncomprehending anger: how could a Protestant household contain such an abomination? After this incident my parents kept us in a state of readiness: if Henry appeared on our doorstep, we were to grab our shoes and coats, and apologetically head off for an urgent engagement – driving around town for twenty minutes or so until he was safely out of sight. But while we could see why the Provos might want to take a potshot at my mother’s cousin, in all other respects we subscribed to the stock view that the IRA was barbaric, its cause atavistic and beyond reason.
We were at best only half-right. In the light of Niall Ó Dochartaigh’s startling book on back-channel negotiations between the UK government and the IRA leadership between the 1970s and the 1990s, it’s now clear that British public opinion significantly misread the Provisional IRA – though no more than the IRA’s rank and file supporters misunderstood their own leadership. The IRA was not, as the British media painted it, entirely dogmatic and inflexible. In fact, it was always keeping an eye out for the possibility of a negotiated exit. There had been a recent precedent, in its unilateral decision to end its 1956-62 campaign. Ó Dochartaigh’s tone is antiseptic throughout, and he says little about the lives wrecked as a consequence of the callous deliberations of the IRA leadership. Yet it’s hard not to feel wistful: so many lives on both sides were lost for a cause – a united Ireland – that, despite its strident rhetoric, the IRA didn’t wholeheartedly pursue, and that was always, it seems, up for negotiation. Did IRA volunteers do time in jail, did their comrades die, in combat or in hunger strikes, for the compromise deal that was at the forefront of IRA strategy for three decades from the early 1970s?
Others beyond the IRA leadership also bore responsibility for the continuing carnage. Did the British government not perceive – or did it fail to believe in – the IRA’s openness to negotiation? Is that why it allowed promising opportunities in the mid-1970s to lapse? The atrocities were so traumatic, the excoriation of the Provos so loud, that in the din, as Ó Dochartaigh notes, ‘it was often difficult for people to hear what they were saying.’ But the IRA’s ‘long war’ from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s was, it transpires, far from inevitable. Indeed, in Ó Dochartaigh’s dauntingly revisionist interpretation of the Troubles, the continuing conflict becomes far less easy to explain than the much desired peace that took decades to arrive.
The politics of Irish Republicanism were neither categorical nor static. In December 1969 the IRA split into two factions. The Official IRA led by Cathal Goulding – known as the ‘Stickies’ – turned to Marxism, soon concluding that the Protestant working class was not so much an obstacle as part of a class-based solution to the problem of bourgeois Ireland. In 1972 the Officials declared a ceasefire, and began a long march towards radical democratic politics, becoming the Workers’ Party in the early 1980s. Outraged that the Officials had jettisoned traditional republicanism, the Provisionals, now the dominant faction, waged their own war against the British. Meanwhile, another physical force splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, broke away from the Officials in 1974. Yet, as Ó Dochartaigh reminds us, the Provisional IRA leadership itself was not of one mind: it included flexible pragmatists such as Dave O’Connell, and hardliners, most prominently the chief of staff, Seán Mac Stiofáin. The Provisionals’ policy (formulated largely by O’Connell and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh of Sinn Féin) concentrated not on Irish unity, but on much vaguer notions of British ‘withdrawal’. Did this mean actual withdrawal or would a declared intent to withdraw be enough? Indeed, might withdrawal be compatible with nominal British sovereignty or even continued Protestant supremacy in the North? It isn’t clear that British politicians appreciated these nuances, though some officials, including Michael Oatley, the MI6 man on the ground, certainly did. The principal IRA objective was an invitingly lowish hurdle, and should have been seen as such: ‘an acknowledgment of the right of the Irish people to determine their own future without interference from the British government’. The Provisionals’ Éire Nua plan of 1971 envisaged a federal Ireland reconstituted on the basis of its four ancient provinces, within which Ulster – not the truncated six county statelet, but its nine historic counties – would have its own parliament. But this vision was a starting point for negotiation rather than the IRA’s last word on the subject. Ó Dochartaigh traces the steps by which the IRA might have conceded continuing partition: British recognition of Irish self-determination would allow the IRA in turn to recognise the self-determination of Ulster Protestants within Ireland.
Was peace long delayed as a result of Protestant stubbornness? Unionist constipation should never be discounted, though it’s far from the whole truth to assert that they kept up an unthinking veto. While many of the mainstream leaders of Ulster Protestantism conformed to caricature as unimaginative defenders of their laager, others, including Desmond Boal, a close collaborator of the Democratic Unionist Party leader, Ian Paisley, were willing to explore the idea of a federal Ireland. Paisley was quick to retreat from this, but did not denounce his friend. (Indeed, Paisley’s reputation as an irreconcilable afforded him some opportunistic licence: he had briefly contemplated an all-Ireland deal with a de-Catholicised Republic shorn of its 1937 constitution.) Most imaginative of all were Ulster’s loyalist extremists, who in the 1970s considered the idea of an independent Ulster with a Bill of Rights for the Catholic minority. Dominion status for Northern Ireland was another possibility, floated initially in the late 1940s by maverick Ulster unionists but surfacing in the mid-1970s in Whitehall.
The Troubles were not, as we once assumed, an irremediable ethnic conflict. Violence, Ó Dochartaigh contends, is a bargaining tool, just like negotiation. Shifts between talks and conflict, or military escalation and negotiation, can be sudden, seamless and driven by logic. Ó Dochartaigh focuses on three main phases of negotiation between the British government and the Provisional IRA, in 1972, 1975 and from 1991 onwards, but right from the start of the Troubles in 1969 there had been a co-operative choreography of protests and policing at street level between British officialdom and the IRA, in the interests of minimising bloodshed and disorder. On rare occasions collusion of this sort was authorised from the top of the British government. In July 1972 the IRA was given advance notice of Operation Motorman, allowing them to pull out weapons and men before more than twenty thousand British troops attempted to regain control of barricaded republican areas. Much to the chagrin of the British commander, Robert Ford, the IRA was thus enabled to fight another day – and a bloodbath was avoided. During the early years of the conflict the main tendency of this contact switched from operational discussions to high-level engagement aimed at a settlement.
The first attempt at negotiation was the most incongruous: a team of six IRA negotiators picked up by helicopter on 7 July 1972, flown by the RAF to a military airfield in England, then driven in limousines to meet the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Willie Whitelaw, in the grand Cheyne Walk home of his junior minister, Paul Channon. Unsurprisingly, it did not go well, and not just because of ideological differences, or the class gulf between toffs and scruffs. For a start, the hardline Mac Stiofáin had excluded from his team the flexible and imaginative Ó Brádaigh, the excuse being that he was notionally a member of Sinn Féin rather than the IRA, and had then proceeded to hold the floor himself: a performance far from uncommon on such occasions, aimed less at wooing adversaries than at safeguarding one’s own reputation. The standard line is that these talks broke down because of the IRA’s inflexibility, although a Sinn Féin statement at the time avoided mention either of Irish unity or British withdrawal, which seems to indicate some attempt at compromise. Subsequent repositioning – as the parameters of political acceptability shifted, both in mainstream politics and within the IRA – has obscured what really happened at Cheyne Walk.
Secret contacts continued through an intermediary, a Catholic businessman called Brendan Duddy, who owned a fish and chip shop in Derry and was a friend of Ó Brádaigh. Duddy became the key intermediary between the Provisionals and the British government, which from the 1970s acted through MI6 (and later MI5), all the way, albeit intermittently, to 1993, when the secret back-channel came to light. Duddy – it is his archive which provides much of the cloak-and-dagger element in Ó Dochartaigh’s story – wasn’t just a ‘postman’, delivering messages between state and insurgents. Rather, he became an independent-minded force for peace.
The most promising opportunity for a prompt conclusion to the conflict came during the ceasefire called by the IRA in February 1975. The British prime minister, Harold Wilson, was directly involved in contacts with the IRA, sometimes bypassing not only his cabinet but also Merlyn Rees, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The successful loyalist strike of the previous year, which had brought down the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, was a crucial turning point: Wilson had denounced the Protestant workers as ‘spongers’, and O’Connell, the main IRA strategist, recognised that the estrangement between Ulster loyalists and the British state had transformed the situation. Wilson was now prepared to contemplate British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, something that horrified the government of the Irish Republic. At this point, Ó Dochartaigh unmasks a hidden ‘struggle’ on the British side: Wilson, Rees and the Northern Ireland Office were ranged against commanders in the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, threatening the peace efforts. Duddy’s diary entry for 27 October 1975 assessed the IRA position: ‘If there is a peaceful way out they will take it.’ In the end, internal resistance, both within the UK state and the IRA, stalled talks.
Wilson’s retirement in April 1976 and Jim Callaghan’s replacement of Rees at the Northern Ireland Office with Roy Mason marked a major change in policy. Mason treated Northern Ireland as a straightforward security problem and the IRA as common criminals. His policies led to a sharp reduction in violence, but tackled symptoms rather than underlying causes. The ‘long war’ had begun. Whatever the horrors of the Thatcher years – her uncompromising stance towards the hunger strikers, her near assassination in the Brighton bombing of 1984 – it was during the latter stages of her premiership that the shift back towards negotiation began. Circumstances had changed: Sinn Féin was now a serious electoral force, and the Thatcherites were troubled by the ongoing costs of a fortified, garrisoned Ulster. Peter Brooke, who became Northern Ireland secretary in 1989, initiated the tortuously slow pavane that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, with a speech in November 1990 in which he announced that ‘the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.’
Plenty of obstacles – including by now a political taboo about negotiations with terrorists, which Thatcher claimed she would never countenance – lay between Brooke’s change of language and serious talks with the enemy. Ó Dochartaigh provides an intricate account of the way Duddy and – to a degree – his new MI5 handler ‘Fred’ took the initiative, sometimes glossing communication between the two sides with their own spin. By a delectable irony, it took a few white lies and one massive deception to forge trust between the British government and the Provisional leadership. Duddy was primarily responsible for the message of February 1993, purportedly from Martin McGuinness: ‘The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.’ This fake message ‘broke the logjam’, not least because it ‘echoed’ a very recent speech made by McGuinness.
The back-channel was eventually exposed in the media in the autumn of 1993, jeopardising a vital strand of talks between the British and Irish governments. The peace process was on the verge of unravelling. An embarrassed Patrick Mayhew, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, announced that the British were only negotiating with the IRA because of McGuinness’s ‘conflict is over’ message. An indignant McGuinness denied responsibility; nobody in Ireland ‘with a titter of wit’, he said, would believe he had drafted or sent such a message. The Irish government weighed in, condemning the UK government’s hypocrisy. What prevented the derailment of the intergovernmental talks was the frank relationship between the British prime minister, John Major, and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds. ‘It went all right – I chewed his bollocks off and he took a few lumps outa me,’ Reynolds announced casually after he and Major had emerged from an hour-long one-on-one meeting. On 15 December 1993 the British and Irish governments jointly issued the Downing Street Declaration, which said – twenty years after it was first a possibility – what the IRA wanted to hear: that both governments recognised the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination.
British-Irish relations have soured since in the wake of Brexit, which has also destabilised Northern Ireland’s quasi-peace. Ulster loyalists – angered by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which requires an EU trade border in the Irish Sea – have issued threats to customs staff at ports. There have also been outbreaks of loyalist rioting, with petrol bombs thrown in various parts of the province, including Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Belfast’s Sandy Row. Here even the politics of Covid have a sectarian tang. Unionists denounced the attendance of prominent members of Sinn Féin at the funeral parade for the IRA’s former intelligence chief, Bobby Storey, in breach of lockdown rules. Twenty years of comparative peace has done little to heal Northern Ireland’s divisions. The working-class population is still largely segregated, in some places by giant peace walls, and the parties of the sectarian extremes – Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party – have since the Good Friday Agreement eclipsed more moderate embodiments of nationalism and unionism.
Despite all this, the cultural distance between the peoples of Northern Ireland and mainland Britain has diminished in recent years. It’s not that they’ve become like us; rather we’ve begun to resemble them. Over the past decade Britain has turned into a semi-skimmed Ulster – it doesn’t have the armed men or the peace walls, but it is a place nonetheless of identity-based tribes, closed minds and, in the years before lockdown, the beginnings of social segregation. When rows over Brexit or Scottish independence got too much, it was easier to take a vow of reticence in mixed company or, safer still, to restrict invitations to those who you knew agreed with you. Such prudent manoeuvring takes us towards the self-censoring codes of Seamus Heaney’s Northern Ireland, a ‘land of password, handgrip, wink and nod’. Britain is unlikely to become wholly Ulsterised, but identity politics are here to stay – with Leave and Remain becoming dangerous proxy causes in Northern Ireland for unionists and nationalists respectively.