Northern Ireland deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, refused to elaborate on his claim this week that “some of these dissident [republican] groups, I know for a fact, have been involved in discussions with both the Irish and the British government in recent times.” As Martina Purdy noted, he’s off on “his August holidays” after dropping the “verbal grenade” – or “black propaganda” as Des Dalton of Republican Sinn Féin called it.
The Sunday Times journalist who last weekend reported that attempts where being made to have those discussions, John Mooney, told UTV
“I believe that the British security services are attempting to engage in conversation with dissident paramilitary groups. I am not sure whether those talks have progressed very far but certainly those attempts have been made,” he told UTV on Friday.
“Any contacts I have with those organisations, they say they are not interested in any political debate unless it involves a British withdrawal. So any sort of communication or talks are really inappropriate at the moment. In so far that these groups aren’t politically mature enough to engage in this process.”
A source close to dissident republicans told the BBC that there had been recent meetings with government intermediaries which focused on a dispute at Maghaberry Prison.
It is understood that in the course of those meetings, it had been mentioned that dissident bomb attacks were “not doing the prisoners’ case any good.”
Conservative MP Patrick Mercer said he would “not be surprised” if there were “covert conversations” between dissident groups and government bodies associated with the intelligence agencies.
However, he added that this was different from an official government policy of talking to dissident groups.
As Henry McDonald noted on the Guardian’s Politics Blog, “Because it was Martin McGuinness who said it, commentators and observers of Northern Irish politics have been getting overexcited.”
Given the success of the previous process, including the clandestine talks between McGuinness and MI5 operatives in Derry, the rather simplistic conclusion is drawn that talks will once more yield similar results: a total cessation of violence.
There are, however, several reasons why the two situations are radically different, particularly on two key fronts. First, in 1993 the British faced a united, coherent movement – the Provisional IRA.
The twin dominating characters in that organisation were McGuinness and Adams, who exercised almost full control of their membership.
Secondly, the British state had a comprehensive insight into the strategic thinking inside that movement. Given the number of high-powered agents working for the British state within the PIRA and Sinn Féin there was more than enough intelligence to indicate to London that there was a significant “peace party” within the provisionals.
Indeed, many of these agents were engineered into place at top levels of the movement to advance the agenda of the “peace faction” inside the PIRA and Sinn Féin.
But there’s something else to keep in mind, as Brian Rowan mentions in his Belfast Telegraph article
These things are always deniable — they have to be for all sides.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening.
Politicians can’t sit across the table from the “terrorists”, and the dissident groups will not want to be seen to be in dialogue with the enemy, in this case “the Brits”.
“If you are involved in conversation you are going down the same bloody road the Provos did,” one source said — the Provos who are accused by the dissidents of “selling out”.
So, all of this is meant to be hush-hush, out of sight and out of hearing.
The more that is out in the open, the more the chances of success are reduced. [added emphasis]
And that’s something that Martin McGuinness is also very well aware of…