With the United Kingdom’s right-wing press whipping itself up into a frenzy over the alleged sympathy of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for the Irish Republican Army during the thirty years of conflict in the UK-administered Six Counties, I thought I’d bring a bit of rationality to the subject. As I have pointed out before, it is Britain’s inability to accept the history of the war in the north-east of Ireland, its beginning, middle and end, which is the greatest flaw in contemporary British politics and culture. The people of Greater England simply cannot accept that the “Troubles” came to an end with, in the words of the IRA in the 1970s, “an honourable settlement“. Just as the conservative and nationalist right of UK politics must pretend that the country achieved some sort of military victory over Irish republicanism where none existed, so too must they attack Corbyn for the perceived sin of wanting a negotiated peace. A policy aim which successive governments in London privately sought from the 1970s onward, while publicly claiming to be on the perpetual cusp of a victory over the insurgency.
Below is a very short summary of the secret wartime communications, talks and negotiations between the Republican Movement and the United Kingdom from the 1970s to 2000s. Under the leadership of the Conservative and Labour parties, the UK repeatedly entered into covert backchannel deals with the IRA, while arguing otherwise to its own citizens (and occasionally, to fellow members of the same government). Of the six British prime ministers from 1969 to 1997, five engaged in talks with the Irish insurgents, directly or indirectly. These included Edward Heath (Conservative), Harold Wilson (Labour), Margaret Thatcher (Conservative), John Major (Conservative) and Tony Blair (Labour).
Talks between the leaders of Britain and the Irish Republican Movement 1969-1997
1969, August 14: Troops from the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire, British Army, occupy the centre of Derry.
1969, August 15: Troops from the Royal Regiment of Wales, British Army, deploy on the Falls Road, Belfast.
1969, August 16: The Central Citizens’ Defence Committee (CCDC) meets for the first time, chaired by Jim Sullivan, Brigade Adjutant and Acting Officer Commanding, Belfast Brigade, Irish Republican Army. Its purpose was to coordinate the activities of various local self-defence groups (CDCs) which had sprung up in nationalist enclaves during the previous summer. Many regarded the CCDC as the public face of the IRA, including the British Army, though it soon included many non-republican politicians and community leaders.
1969, Late August: Contacts between the Irish Republican Army and the British Army are initiated via the CCDC in Belfast.
1969, Late August: Lieutenant-colonel Frank Kitson, later Commander-in-Chief United Kingdom Land Forces, requests a meeting with the Belfast Brigade HQ Staff, Irish Republican Army. His offer is rejected because of his controversial military record during Britain’s anti-colonial wars in Africa and Asia. As Brigadier Kitson, the officer was to become the UK’s main counter-insurgency strategist during the first decade of the Troubles, the originator of “pseudo-gangs”, concentrations camps and torture centres.
1969, September 6: Jim Sullivan, as chair of the CCDC, meets with Major-General Tony Dyball, Chief of Staff to General Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army’s General Officer Commanding and Director of Operations in Northern Ireland. The pair agree a “treaty” to maintain street barricades in nationalist districts of West Belfast, albeit replaced with British Army barriers and jointly guarded by soldiers and members of the local CDCs (i.e. volunteers of the IRA). When news of the agreement is reported by the Sunday Times newspaper in London, rioting erupts in unionist parts of the city. In the event only a handful of improvised barricades were removed and replaced with the new British Army ones.
1969, September 11-16: The British Army begins the construction of a demarcation strip or “peace line” along the edge of the most embattled nationalist districts in Belfast.
1969, Late September: A British Army intelligence officer meets with representatives of the IRA in Belfast and demonstrates to them the basic handling techniques for a submachine gun. Both sides use the encounter to discover each others motivations.
1971, January: Officers of the British Army and the Irish Republican Army hold secret talks in Belfast. Agreement reached that the IRA can police certain districts without UK interference. The understanding breaks down when the British Forces are pressured into raiding nationalist enclaves in February.
1972, January: Irish Labour Party politician, Dr John O’Connell TD, approaches the Conservative Party government of the United Kingdom, offering to act as a conduit for messages from the Irish Republican Army. A tentative series of meetings with officials for the UK embassy in Dublin and Home Office in London, authorised by Conservative Party Home Secretary Reginald Maudling MP, are scuppered by the British Army’s Bloody Sunday Massacre in the city of Derry.
1972, March 10: The Irish Republican Army announces a three-day ceasefire to coincide with a secret meeting between its representatives and senior members of the Opposition Labour Party in the UK. This is facilitated by Dr John O’Connell TD of the Irish Labour Party.
1972, March 13: British Labour Party leaders, Harold Wilson MP (future UK Prime Minister), Merlyn Rees MP (future UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), Joe Haines (Labour press officer and journalist) and Tony Field fly to Ireland to meet IRA leaders Dáithí Ó Conaill, Joe Cahill and John Kelly at a hotel in Dublin.
1972: Peter Hain, a leading anti-apartheid campaigner in Britain, visits the north of Ireland on a fact-finding mission and meets two representatives of the Irish Republican Army in Derry. In 2005 the then Labour Party MP was to become the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the cabinet of Prime Minister Tony Blair MP.
1972: The Whitelaw Negotiations
1972, June 13: The Irish Republican Army publicly offers a one week suspension of operations to facilitate peace talks with the UK authorities. William Whitelaw MP, the governing Conservative Party’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, rejects the offer. However go-betweens push for formal meeting between the opposing sides.
1972, June 20: Secret meeting takes place in Derry between representatives of the Irish Republican Army and the United Kingdom. On one side is Dáithí Ó Conaill, the Quartermaster General, and Gerry Adams, Officer Commanding the Belfast Brigade. On the other is Frank Steele, an officer with the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6, and Philip John Woodfield of the Northern Ireland Office (acting on behalf of William Whitelaw MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the UK’s Conservative Party prime minster, Edward Heath MP). Matters discussed include the position of IRA volunteers in British custody, with demands that they be recognised as political prisoners. Woodfield argues that that IRA inmates already have that recognition through their “special category” status, and the matter is dropped. A ten-day bilateral ceasefire is agreed.
1972, June 26: The Irish Republican Army announces its ten-day bilateral ceasefire with the British Forces.
1972, June-July: Retired British Army General Sir John Hackett, former head of the UK Forces in the Six Counties, begins personal contact with Dáithí Ó Conaill of the Irish Republican Army.
1972, July 7: Leaders of the Irish Republican Army flown from Ireland to Britain in a military transport aircraft. A secret meeting takes place in London between representatives of the Irish Republican Army and William Whitelaw MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, acting on behalf of the UK prime minster, Edward Heath MP. The event is nicknamed the “Whitelaw Talks” or the “Cheyne Walk Talks” after the home of Paul Channon MP, the junior Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office. IRA negotiators include Seán Mac Stíofáin, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Séamus Twomey and Ivor Bell.
1972, July 9: The truce breaks down within days of the secret talks in London as British Army troops attack nationalist refugees, victims of Loyalist pogroms, attempting to occupy empty houses in the Lenadoon district of West Belfast. The incident leads to the “Battle of Lenadoon”, a sustained six-day engagement between the Irish Republican Army and the UK Forces.
1972, July 31: The British Forces launch Operation Motorman, a military plan to seize control of “liberated” or “no-go” districts in the cities of Belfast and Derry under the control of the Irish Republican Army. Forewarned of the attacks, including a tip-off from the SIS/MI6 officer Frank Steele who feared a bloodbath, the IRA simply withdrew from the barricaded areas, robbing the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary of the opportunity to “finish” the IRA once and for all.
1973, May: Derry businessman Brendan Duddy is approached by Michael Oatley, an officer with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service or MI6, who is seeking to open a line of secret communications with the Army Council or military leadership of the Irish Republican Army. Oatley is the replacement for Frank Steele. Duddy is on friendly terms with Martin McGuinness, Brigadier of the Derry Brigade, IRA.
1973, September: British Army General Sir John Hackett meets Philip John Woodfield of the Northern Ireland Office acting on behalf of William Whitelaw MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Advocates for direct peace talks with the Irish Republican Army. Hackett is threatened with charges of treason and his contact with Dáithí Ó Conaill ends.
1974-1975: The Ceasefire Negotiations
1974, December 10: The “Feakle Talks” take place, a meeting between representatives of the Irish Republican Army and senior Christian religious leaders in Ireland (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and others). The leaders of the Republican Movement at the discussions include Ruairí Ó Bradaigh, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Séamus Twomey, Billy McKee, Máire Drumm, JB O’Hagan and Séamus Loughran. The church representatives agree to take the details of an IRA peace offer to the British government.
1974, December 18: Merlyn Rees MP, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, meets with the clergymen from the “Feakle Talks”. In response to the meeting Rees, with the approval of the UK’s Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson MP, indicates a willingness to enter into talks with the Irish Republican Army. This is communicated via backchannels.
1974, December 20: The Irish Republican Army announces a Christmas and New Year “suspension of operations” to run from December 22 until January 2.
1974, December 22: The Irish Republican Army’s “suspension of operations” comes into effect. Covert negotiations with the British government continue. The UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees MP, responds by releasing twenty political prisoners and paroling fifty others. British officials prepare for meetings with the IRA.
1975, January: British officials request formal meeting with representative of the Army Council of the Irish Republican Army, via Brendan Duddy in Derry. Ruairí Ó Bradaigh holds talks with Michael Oatley, SIS/MI6, and James Allan of the Northern Ireland Office. Later discussions are joined by senior IRA officers, Billy McKee and Séamus Twomey.
1975, January 2: The Irish Republican Army announces that the Christmas and New Year “suspension of operations” will be extended by another fourteen days.
1975, January 15: Merlyn Rees MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with the approval of Prime Minister Harold Wilson MP, orders the release of twenty-five political prisoners. This is seen as a confidence-building gesture towards the Irish Republican Army.
1975, January 17: The talks are stalemated and the Irish Republican Army ceasefire is ended. However, the negotiations resume over the following days.
1975, February 8: A forthcoming bilateral truce between the Irish Republican Army and the British government is announced by the IRA.
1975, February 10: The Truce comes into effect. Intense talks follow between both parties, involving members of the Northern Ireland Office, the Cabinet Office, the British Army, SIS/MI6 and the Security Service or MI5. Incident centres are established to co-ordinate the activities of the Irish Republican Army and their UK counterparts (the press in Britain decries them as “IRA police stations”).
1976, January 23: The twelve-month negotiated ceasefire between the Irish Republican Army and the British government breaks down. The UK Forces use the truce and immediate post-truce period to accelerate counter-insurgency operations and intelligence gathering. Intermittent contacts between the IRA and UK continue for several more months.
1977, February: Douglas Hurd MP, the Conservative Party’s future Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Home Secretary under prime minister Margaret Thatcher MP, meets Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison in Belfast. He is accompanied by a BBC reporter who arranged the meeting. The discussions are approved beforehand by the Opposition leader in the UK, Margaret Thatcher MP, and the Conservative Party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Airey Neave MP. The governing Labour Party’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason MP, also gives his approval.
1978, March: Using secret intermediaries, the Irish Republican Army offers a ceasefire and peace talks to Merlyn Rees MP, Britain’s Home Secretary, and Jim Callaghan MP, the UK’s Labour Party prime minister. The Republican Movement urges an end to the conflict on the basis of an “honourable settlement“. Offer is rejected. Backchannel communications are frozen.
1980-1982: The Hunger Strikes’ Negotiations
1980, October-December: British intelligence and civil service officials enter into talks with representatives of the Irish Republican Army. The backchannel communications are led by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) – chiefly the veteran intelligence officer Michael Oatley – and members of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
1981, March-April: British intelligence and civil service officials step up talks with representatives of the Irish Republican Army. The communications are now shared with the Prime Minister’s Office in Number 10 Downing Street.
1981, May-July: The UK premier, Margaret Thatcher MP, personally approves the aims and wording of the negotiations. The principal backchannel link is the Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, codenamed “Soon”.
1982, October-November: Backchannel communications are frozen.
1983, February: British Labour Party politician Ken Livingstone visits the Sinn Féin MP, Gerry Adams, in Belfast.
1983, July: Gerry Adams MP invited to London by UK Labour’s Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn MP.
1984: Gerry Adams MP invited to the Palace of Westminster, London, by Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn MP.
1986-87: Gerry Adams MP, president of Sinn Féin, and Tom King MP, the governing Conservative Party’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, enter into secret correspondence, carried by intermediaries. With the approval of Prime Minister Thatcher, King lays out the UK’s position for negotiations.
1987, November-December: Michael Oatley, the chief SIS/MI6 negotiator for the UK, attempts to reopen talks with the Army Council of the Irish Republican Army in the wake of the revelations that the IRA has been undergoing a substantial rearmament programme, using supplies from Lybia. After some initial discussions the proposed talks are rebuffed by the Army Council as it draws up plans for increased operations against the British Occupation Forces in the north of Ireland.
1988, February: Sir James M. Glover, former Commander-in-Chief of the UK Land Forces, admits during BBC television documentary that the Irish Republican Army cannot be defeated. Despite the ensuing political controversy he stands by the claim, seen by some as an overture to a perceived “peace camp” within the Republican Movement.
1988, March: The secret discussions between the Republican Movement and the British government come to a temporary halt in the wake of a renewed military offensive by the Irish Republican Army.
1989-1998: The Peace Process Negotiations
1989: With the approval of prime minister Margaret Thatcher MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke MP, and senior civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office begin work on a new negotiations’ policy with Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army, to be implemented the following year.
1989, December: In a carefully coded message to the Republican Movement, Peter Brooke MP admits that a “military defeat” of the IRA would be difficult to envisage, during an interview with the Press Association.
1990, June-August: Backchannel contacts between the UK and the Republican Movement are renewed.
1990, September 19: Following the Irish Republican Army’s attempted assassination of Sir Peter Terry, a former Air Chief Marshal of the British Armed Forces and Governor of Gibraltar, the British premier Margaret Thatcher MP admits in an unprecedented interview that the IRA was engaged in “guerrilla warfare” and was “acting under what they regard as rules of war”.
1990, October: Businessman Brendan Duddy arranges a meeting between Michael Oatley, the SIS/MI6 officer, and Martin McGuinness, a senior member of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army in the city of Derry.
1990, November 9: Under the direction of Margaret Thatcher MP and the Cabinet Office in London, Peter Brooke MP delivers the “Whitbread speech”, a copy of which was passed in advance to Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. Made in London, the speech stated that “the British Government has no selfish or strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland“. This was the UK’s most public overture to the Republican Movement in two decades and judged by many to be the beginning of the Irish-British Peace Process of the 1990s.
1991-1993: The Derry backchannel is joined by two other interlocutors: Denis Bradley, a former local priest turned community leader, and Noel Gallagher, codenamed “Tax”. The latter is a trusted friend of Derryman Martin McGuinness, GOC of the IRA’s Northern Command, a member of the GHQ Staff and Army Council, and vice-president of Sinn Féin (Gallagher also acts as an intermediary for the Irish government in Dublin and Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds TD). The UK Security Service, the SS or MI5, strongly opposes the contacts with the IRA when they are revealed within the British government, in particular the involvement of the SIS-MI6. They are later joined in this opposition by the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch and the British Army’s Intelligence Corps.
1991, April: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1991, June: Michael Oatley, the SIS/MI6 officer, is replaced by an individual calling himself “Fred”, but whose real name may have been Colin Ferguson or Robert McLarnon (or McLaren). He identifies himself as an intelligence officer with Britain’s Security Service or MI5 acting on behalf of Peter Brooke MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the UK’s new Conservative Party Prime Minister, John Major MP.
1991, August: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1991, September: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1991, October: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1991, November: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1992, January: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1992, January 11: The establishment Times newspaper in London publishes a leaked document offering a “depressingly realistic” assessment of the Irish Republican Army by General Sir John Wilsey, the General Officer Commanding British Forces in Northern Ireland. In a secret presentation to colleagues and officials the British commander admitted that the “defeat of the IRA is not on the horizon” and that it was better led, equipped, resourced and more secure than at any time in its history. The newspaper article went on to state that the organisation was a “highly disciplined and political, motivated guerrilla army”, rubbishing government claims to the contrary as simplistic “propaganda”. The leak was widely assumed to be another overt signal from London to the leadership of the Republican Movement indicating a genuine change of policies in Downing Street and Whitehall.
1992, May: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership. British team now answering to the new Conservative Party Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew MP.
1992, October: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1992, December: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, January: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, February: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, April: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, May: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, June: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, July: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, August: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, September: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1993, December: Covert negotiations between the UK and the IRA leadership.
1994, April 6-8: Temporary cessation of hostilities by the Irish Republican Army as part of secret negotiations with the UK.
1994, August 31: The Irish Republican Army announces its penultimate ceasefire after three years of intense negotiations between itself and the British government.
1996, February 9: The Irish Republican Army ends its 1994 ceasefire, resuming limited military operations in the Six Counties and the UK under a policy known as TUAS (Tactical Use of Armed Struggle). Intermittent communications with the UK government of Conservative Party Prime Minister, John Major MP, follow.
1996, November: Tony Blair MP, the leader of the UK Opposition Labour Party, and Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam MP, use a meeting in London between Sinn Féin and Labour members Ken Livingstone MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP and Alan Simpson MP, to investigate the Republican Movement’s position on future peace talks.
1997, July 19: The Irish Republican Army announces its final ceasefire, to come into effect on July 20, following pre- and post-general election negotiations with the UK Labour Party leader and newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair MP.
(2005, July 28: The Irish Republican Army announces a formal end to the conflict.)