Long War, Long Negotiation - The Brendan Duddy Papers 

“He’s having an affair”, my sister declared. She was talking about Brendan Duddy and Bernadette, his aide-de-camp, in his role as intermediary between the IRA and the British Government. My sister saw them often together. Duddy kept notes and a diary of these meetings since the 1970’s which were deposited in the New 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The collection has been archived and placed online, its website states, ‘Throughout twenty years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland a secret channel of communication linked the IRA to the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 that is now under immense pressure to survive. It also laid the foundation for my book - Cillefoyle Park. The book utilises the papers for a fictional account of the negotiations for a ceasefire and life in Derry in the 1970s - the peak of the violence, the fight for a university, the civil rights movement, an IRA Supergrass and the activities of social campaigner - Eamonn McCann.

A recent election saw the two polar extremes, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein of the Northern Irish conflict gain almost equal number of seats, toppling the unionist dominance. Only 1200 votes separated them Dr. Eamon Phoenix wrote, ‘The resulting loss of a Unionist majority at Stormont for the first time has shocked Unionism to its core’. Martin McGuinness, who passed away recently from a rare heat condition, resigned as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, over a ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal, forcing the election.

On one occasion during the years of Duddy’s role, McGuinness, then a Chief of Staff of the IRA knocked at on his door. Duddy had just finished a roast dinner cooked by Bernadette for Duddy and his wife and Michael Oatley, a British MI6 officer who had secretly kept in contact with Brendan 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 said the discussion with McGuinness was like talking to a ranking British officer from the SAS. Duddy was known as ‘the Contact’, Oatley – ‘Mountain Climber’. Another agent ‘Fred’ took over when Oatley retired.

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 developed a back-channel between them.

During 1993 a series of messages between the back-channel and the British Government led to a message ‘conflict is over’. Supposedly from the IRA, and asking the British Government to help lay the plans for a negotiated settlement. McGuinness felt the ‘the Contact’ or ‘Fred’ overstepped their remit. It led to Duddy being ‘interrogated’ by four leading Republicans, McGuinness was the main interrogator. Duddy felt, if he hadn’t convinced them that 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 was also used for a ceasefire in the mid-70’s and as stated before, during The Hunger Strike. This event 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 interrogation is recreated in my book, ‘Cillefoyle Park’. Many storylines are recreated from such 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, after gaining one in the previous election, the only seat he held as a political activist since the 1960’s.) The whole enterprise of the back-channel in the book falls apart due to a IRA Supergrass, again based on an actual Supergrass who also wrote a book about his experience and was found dead in October last year, alone in a flat in England. The meetings, take place in an office, in my fictional Cillefoyle Park, hence the name of my book. I have attempted to show life in 1970’s Derry, at the height of the Troubles, from various prospectives; a teacher, trying to keep his own family out of harm’s way while teaching the children of the IRA. Dermot, the social activist, fighting for civil rights but a disinclined 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 American were an inspiration. This is weaved into the discussions with the Contact and Mountain Climber in my book. Dr. Niall Ó Dochartaigh notes, ‘By 1968 the development of low-level collective action around housing had helped to build the strong networks and tactical experience crucial to the success of the civil rights campaign in the city’.

The terrifying confrontation between Duddy and the IRA reflects the research of Ó Dochartaigh in Galway, who analyses Duddy’s role as the back-channel using Duddy’s documentation and his many interviews with him. Was Duddy an intermediator or mediator? 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 could influence the outcome. He was trying to help them think their way out of the war. As Brendan Duddy discreetly commented: ‘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, devising messages and strategies and then putting them in the post for delivery to their 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. I tried to reflect this process – trying to create a path for peace – in Cillefoyle Park.

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 and in Cillefoyle Park. 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 an intermediary in this cooperative process, illustrating that an individual at the centre of such contact can significantly become more than an intermediary.

Duddy’s role came to light by Peter Taylor, a BBC reporter in the 1990’s but it was in 2008 the 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, including McCann’s writings and his books. Finally, the quote below comes from the CAIN website, a valuable resource - Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland based at the University of Ulster. It reflects the complexity and idiosyncrasy of the Northern Irish conflict, that Brendan 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.’

Watch Brendan Duddy discuss his role as Intermediary

Hugh Vaughan was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in the 1970’s Derry at the height of the Troubles and this is his second novel.

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© Hugh Vaughan 2020