On that alleged back channel between DUP and Sinn Fein

Despite the DUP’s denials, the rumours continue on the ‘back channel’ story. Personally I have little to add, except to say that I recall that one point around the time of the Leeds Castle talks, meeting senior members of both the DUP and Sinn Fein on the same day. Both seemed to go out of their way to make it clear to me that neither party had any means of talking to the other other than through people like me. It was odd, and I marked it at the time, but thought it signified little other than strange coincidence that both should have the same line. In lieu of something harder, it still signifies nothing. But Frank Millar in the Irish Times has been going through Jonathan Powell’s book with a forensically fine toothed comb. Powell talks in rather definite terms about a ‘private back channel’.

TONY BLAIR’S former chief of staff is standing by his claim that Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness was his party’s “point man” in a secret “back channel” to the DUP opened as early as 2004.

Jonathan Powell makes the claim in his book, Great Hatred, Little Room , recording that the contact was confirmed by Mr McGuinness at a meeting in late April or early May of that year.

DUP MPs Gregory Campbell and Jeffrey Donaldson denied the claim yesterday, insisting that the British government had been the only “conduit” before the parties opened face-to-face negotiations last March leading to the restoration of powersharing at Stormont. Mr Donaldson acknowledged that he had spoken to Sinn Féin while still a member of the Ulster Unionist Party but said these contacts had had to be abandoned after he joined the DUP.

However, one senior DUP source appeared inadvertently to confirm knowledge of previously denied secret contacts between the two sides. Asked by The Irish Times about persistent speculation that two named, unelected members of the DUP had first established contact with Sinn Féin as early as 2003, the source replied: “That would be wide of the mark.”

At the same time senior British sources close to the former prime minister also confirmed their understanding that two DUP MPs met with Sinn Féin during the final night of the negotiations at St Andrews in Scotland in October 2006.

In his book Mr Powell records a meeting with Sinn Féin in Clonard Monastery in Belfast prior to a planned “brainstorming” session by the Sinn Féin leadership: “At one point in the meeting [Gerry] Adams said he needed to go to the toilet and McGuinness followed him out of the room. When they came back they said they had decided to tell me that they were already in contact with the DUP through an intermediary. I was very dubious that this contact, which passed through a journalist and which we already knew about, would lead anywhere, but since it was our aim to get the DUP and Sinn Féin to talk directly to each other I welcomed it.”

Giving his impressions of an ensuing two months of shuttle diplomacy between the parties, Mr Powell later records: “Inch by inch the shuttling made progress, although it was clear Adams was more sceptical than McGuinness about the prospect of things working out with the DUP. [Peter] Robinson and [Nigel] Dodds continued, meanwhile, to be firm, calm and rational negotiators. McGuinness had a lot invested in the process, not least because he was the point man in Sinn Féin for the private back channel.”

At a later meeting including Tim Dalton, permanent secretary of the Irish Department of Justice, Mr Powell says Mr Adams passed him a piece of paper saying that “he had inadvertently hinted at their contacts with the DUP in conversation with Tim and he hoped I would not raise the subject in front of him”.

© 2008 The Irish Times

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty