It is remarkable, in an age of sophisticated back channels and espionage replete with digital and satellite communications, how a modest domestic background figured so significantly in the moves which eventually led to the ceasefires – and all the more effectively for it. The problem was how to establish trust when contacts had to be deniable, were often dangerous and were frequently interrupted by another piece of violence. Key contacts were often made in Derry, presumably because the town never really shook off the character of a no go area and was easy to get in and out of across the border. “Hume-Adams” is rightly thought of as a breakthrough between politicians almost like a link across continents, even though Hume’s house and the regular IRA HQ in Derry were 400 metres away and Martin McGuinness’s home is even closer. Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell recounts how he was picked up from outside the Strand cinema and taken off for tea and biscuits with McGuinness
The essential groundwork was laid for all this by Brendan Duddy who died yesterday, a Derry cafe owner who established his own credentials through courage and conviction and never wavered through thick and thin with his MI5 interlocutors from the early 1970s to the mid 90s . His identity was revealed with his consent by the leading journalist and historian of the sharp end of the Troubles, Peter Taylor
In early 1991, Michael Oatley, the British official who had secretly kept in contact with Brendan Duddy for almost 20 years, was about to retire. Just before his retirement Oatley received a call from Duddy who suggested he come to Derry to meet someone.
Duddy’s confidante and neighbour, Bernadette, who had played a vital role in smuggling IRA leaders across the border during the 1975 ceasefire, cooked dinner for the three of them and Duddy’s wife, Margo. Dinner over, there was a knock at the back door and in came Martin McGuinness. Duddy had known McGuinness since the late 1960s when he used to deliver beefburgers to Duddy’s fish and chip shop. He remembers that McGuinness “used to chat up the girls behind the counter and had absolutely no interest in politics”.
Oatley and McGuinness talked by the fire in Bernadette’s back parlour for two hours. Oatley said it was “rather like talking to a ranking British army officer of one of the tougher regiments, like the Paras or the SAS”. He found McGuinness “a good interlocutor”. Duddy was amazed: “It was at that moment that deputy first minister Martin began to emerge.” Weeks later Duddy got a series of phone calls from someone claiming to be a businessman wanting to create jobs in Derry. The caller was persistent. In the end he agreed to see him. As his visitor talked, Duddy’s eyes glazed over until he produced a letter, from the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Brooke, introducing the “businessman” as Michael Oatley’s successor.
Duddy’s reaction was instinctive. “At that moment, I knew it – the conflict was all over.”
The Brendan Duddy archive has been deposited in the National University of Ireland, Galway sponsored by the historian Niall Ó Dochartaigh . “He’s having an affair ,” a neighbour declared, suspicious of Brendan’s close contacts with Bernadette, his regular go -between for setting up direct contacts.
O Dochartaigh recalls today how the Duddy archive was established.
“Our conversations would continue well into the evening, in the book-lined office, in the kitchen as we waited for the kettle to boil, in the hallway. In a way I was reliving the experiences of the British and Republican interlocuters with whom he would speak for hours on end. Recalling his conversations with the senior MI6 agents he dealt with he told me ‘…in one four hour dialogue with anybody you want to mention, Michael [Oatley], Rob [Browning], any of them, there would be half a sentence that mattered and you trained yourself to listen for that half sentence . . .and it was that half sentence which made the difference, either way.’
“It was two years before he allowed me to start recording these interviews and even longer before he began to talk about sensitive issues, such as the hunger strikes.
“And then, during a conversation in his office in 2008, he paused to lean over and slide
back one of the cabinet doors that were built in below the bookshelves. He explained to me for the first time that throughout the twenty years of his work as an intermediary he had held on to documents.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London