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


  • fair_deal

    SF being ‘allegedly’ coy about contacts doesn;t fly with the public record, explain this:

  • jone

    Has anyone asked RTE about who the back channel was?

  • fair_deal, didn’t Robinson meet with Alec Reid, Adam’s ‘message boy’, in talks in Duisburg on 14th-15th October 1988 in the early days of the peace process? I know you’re not party to many DUP secrets but it’s in the public record here and here.

  • fair_deal


    IIRC Reid’s interview about it he said he was not there on behalf of Republicans and hadn’t told them about he was going. Plus talking to someone who will be talking to someone else is impossible to avoid in NI. Every few weeks I would talk to people who would talk to SF members of varying seniority, most people who are politically active or work in particular jobs would be the same. I’ve met Reid on half a dozen occassions. However, this claim goes well beyond that.

    It makes out a channel was deliberately opened and maintained over a number of years.

    Also considering McGuinness’s public claims then why would anyone then a) continue with such a ‘secret’ back channel after such bad faith or b) establish a back channel with someone who was show to be happy to go to the media on such issues.

    The question has to be asked after over 4 years of this stuff (even if the who changes) why is no one in the media prepared to face the challenge put out by Robinson in 03, name names.

  • fair_deal, journalists, as you know, are very reluctant to name sources so Robinson is playing a joker on this one.

    I’ve never AFAIK met Reid but I’ve met several of his Redemptorist colleagues.

    Why do you suppose Reid was at that secret gathering, well away from the prying eyes of the media? Would you expect Martin Mansergh to have a fairly clear understanding of what took place in Duisburg in 1988, one year into the Process?

  • fair_deal


    “are very reluctant to name sources”

    Sorry that kite doesn’t fly. No one is being asked to reveal sources. After Martin McGuinness says publicly it is happening there is no need to name sources.

    The challenge was to name those who were supposed to be involved that is different from naming sources.

  • fair_deal

    Why was Reid there? To give his political perspective. Reid has stated his role Mansergh can say what he wishes.

  • fair_deal, perhaps the DUP ‘joker’ should go public rather than issue fake challenges …

    Here’s an apt quote from Mansergh:

    “There is a long and honourable Republican tradition in Tipperary, stretching back 200 years, which is a source of strength to this day. The closest colleague I ever had was a genuine patriot priest, Fr. Alex Reid from Clonard Monastery in Belfast, brought up in Nenagh, a contemporary of Michael O’Kennedy. By setting its sights high, Tipperary has much to contribute nationally, and will benefit locally from so doing.”

    If you think of Reid as the SF ‘delegate’ at Duisburg you’ll probably be pretty close to the mark. All of the ‘delegates’ will have been giving their political perspectives on a possible way forward. Do you acknowledge that Peter Robinson was one of them?

  • fair_deal

    Nothing fake about the challenge. Just a challenge no one has been prepared to accept since 2003.

    Do I acknowledge PR was at Duisburg? Yes. I never said otherwise.

  • The contradictions between the public and private faces of the DUP have come home to roost.

    I recall a Paisley senior diatribe directed at Cedric Wilson being hurriedly withdrawn from the DUP website when I set it alongside a Paisley/McHugh exchange in the less public confines of the Agriculture Committee. “I don’t speak to Gerry Adams or his ilk” bombasted the Doc following an effort by Adams to shake Wilson’s hand.

    Yet back in 1988 we had Robinson in dialogue with one of the ilk in Duisburg and another of the ilk in South Africa in 1997.