Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ireland's OWN: History (foto: The Horse of the People)

Ireland's OWN: History (foto:Appeared in Ireland's Own -The Horse of the People-)

Secret Talks — Father Alec Reid and Gerry Adams*

"To say that Father Alec Reid is the unrecognised inspiration of the Irish peace process would be an understatement. Long known as a confidant of the Sinn Féin leader, Reid is accorded in most accounts the role of message carrier for Adams during the odyssey to peace, but the full story reveals him to be a much more substantial figure, who initiated, devised and nurtured many of the ideological innovations that made Gerry Adams's journey possible. Passionate about his project, secretive, trustworthy, but at times gullible and naïve, Reid persisted at times when others in the British and Irish governments were close to giving up — his reward was the IRA cease-fires and the political settlement that eventually came more than a decade after his bid to save Tommy Cochranes's life.1 To those who support his efforts he is the unsung and largely unrewarded hero of the peace process; to those who do not he is the crafty Wolsey to Adams's Henry VIII.

"To British civil servants who had secret dealing with Reid in later years, the Catholic priest seemed a curious choice for a go-between for Adams…

"Reid contended that the Church would bring a special flavour to the effort arising from its extraordinary, centuries-old influence over Irish society. This, he would say, would bestow a moral authority and stature on the enterprise that would both legitimise it and add to the pressure on republicans to respond positively. Reid's third point followed on from this. He argued that the Church's role in providing a neutral setting for the process would never give cover to any other political parties who were talking to Adams and his colleagues. "The point he made, and John Hume grasped this particularly well was that if there was a leak, responsibility could be shifted onto the Church," recalled an Irish participant.

"Had news of Reid's 1982 overtures to Adams leaked out at the time, there is little double that in the prevailing climate the Irish political and media establishment would have been aghast at the revelation of any contact between the Church and the Provos. But the news would have shocked many republicans as well. The hunger strike scars were still were still fresh when Reid approached Adams and the memory of the role played by the Church still rankled with rank-and-file Provos. During the prison protest, republicans had bitterly accused the Catholic hierarchy of betraying the hunger strikers and of kowtowing to the Thatcher government. The Church's stance, they claimed, had been supine and had encouraged Thatcher to take an unbending line on the prison protest, contributing in no small measure to the ten hunger strike deaths…

"By 1985 and 1986 small glimpses of the secret diplomacy were occasionally visible, and with hindsight it is possible to discern the direction in which the talks were heading at this time. Three elements went together to make up the embryonic peace strategy. One was a proposal to forge an alliance of Irish nationalists that would replace the IRA's violence as the cutting edge of the republican struggle. The second was the idea that a conference should be held to which all shades of opinion in Ireland would be invited and which would hammer out a political settlement. The third was a declaration of neutrality from the British, a statement that said they had no desire to impose a settlement on anyone in Northern Ireland and would be content to accept whatever political representatives could agree in negotiation. Taken together the peace strategy outlined a way in which Adams could accept the principle of consent in relation to the political future for Northern Ireland while being able to say that none of the core republican doctrines had been abandoned or compromised.

"The tip of the iceberg soon became visible. Gerry Adams first broached the idea of a pan-nationalism at Sinn Féin's November 1984 Ard Fheis when he called for "a firm, united and unambiguous demand from all Irish Nationalist parties" for an end to the unionist veto. This he said would create a new situation in which future arrangements could be worked out in "business-like negotiations" with all the parties of Ireland. A few months later, in February 1985, during the course of a radio current affairs program, Adams asked the SDLP leader, John Hume, for talks to establish "a united nationalist approach" to the British. In March he again called for a "united and dogmatic Irish nationalist approach" to the North. These were all clues to the direction of the still-secret diplomacy. Cardinal O Fiaich meanwhile was treading similar ground. In January 1984 the Catholic primate urged the convening of a political forum either in Belfast or in Dublin where "representatives of all sides" could meet to discuss the future of the North. Three times in 1985 he called on the British to indicate that they would not be staying in Northern Ireland forever and in the meantime to use their good offices to "try to bring Catholics and Protestants together."

"It was very tentative stuff, and only those who were privy to what was going on behind the scenes could be aware of its real significance. The rest of Ireland, distracted by the ferocity of the IRA's campaign, dismissed the comments either as irrelevant or as deliberate distractions. The idea that the SDLP, Fianna Fáil, or any other constitutional nationalist party would want link up with the Provisionals at that time or that the British would somehow aggress to such far-fetched proposals was simply unimaginable.

"It was also an impossible concept for most Provisional activists and supporters to grasp, at grassroots or even a leadership level. The common IRA/Sinn Féin view of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil, the hatred at the core of their relationship, had been expressed in a bitter statement by the IRA prisoners at the end of the 1981 hunger strike — the same statement that had so bitterly excoriated the Catholic Church. Attitudes had changed little since then. Fianna Fáil, and the other Southern parties, the prisoners had said, were "accessories to the murder" of the ten hunger strikers for failing to confront Thatcher, while the SDLP was merely "an amalgamation of middle class Redmonites, devoid of principle, direction and courage." The enmity between the Provos and the Irish establishment was deep and seemingly unbridgeable.

"Even if Gerry Adams had wanted to confide in his senior colleagues, it is highly questionable whether he would have received a sympathetic hearing. Most IRA activists at this point believed unwaveringly in the armed struggle and tolerated electoral politics only because it seemed to offer, as Adams and others had told them it would, a way of increasing logistical support for the IRA. Had they thought that the political path down which Adams had taken them would lead into negotiations that threatened to dilute dearly held republican beliefs, most would have seen it as treachery.

"So it was that the diplomacy of Father Alec Reid and Gerry Adams was kept a tightly guarded secret even from IRA Army Council. Although Adams was slowly to win over key members of the council to his strategy with the passage of time and did confide in a small group of advisors around him in Belfast, his enterprise with Reid was never discussed or formally approved by the body charged with deciding IRA policy and strategy.

"What the reaction of IRA leaders would have been had they been fully aware of the ideological territory being traversed by the still-secret peace process can only be guessed at…

"The history of contacts between the IRA and the British government was, by 1986, a long but unhappy one. British ministers, including the then Northern Ireland secretary, William Whitelaw, had met a delegation of IRA leaders, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, in London as far back as June 1972 during the IRA cease-fire. In 1975 there were further contacts, although this time no British politicians were directly involved, and instead the talking was done between British officials and representatives of the Army Council. The talking in both cases ended in angry recrimination. In 1972 the cease-fire was abandoned within days of the contact amid IRA accusations of British bad faith, while in 1975 Adams and others alleged that the British had tricked the IRA into the cessation in order to buy time to devise the IRA's defeat. Officially the Army Council was in 1986 so hostile to the notion of a cease-fire that it was committed never to talk to the British again, unless it was about their withdrawal from Ireland.

"All this meant that when Gerry Adams decided to open a dialogue with the British about the burgeoning peace process, he chose Father Reid to act as his go-between and representative. The Redemptorist acted as a sort of clerical cutoff providing cover to all involved, both Republican and British, and it was a task he performed with diligence and discretion when, finally, the moment came for Adams to move.2 Precisely when the pair made contact with the British government is not known, but the evidence strongly suggests that sometime in 1986, courtesy of Father Reid, a highly secret line of communication was opened between the Northern Ireland secretary, Tom King, and the Sinn Féin leader.

"In the intervening years both the British and the Sinn Féin leadership have, for reasons best known to themselves, gone to considerable lengths to persuade the outside world that the first contact between them did not take place until much later, in 1990, when British intelligence made contact with the IRA and commenced a dialogue with Martin McGuinness. But both parties have been extremely economical with the truth about the full extent of their dealings with each other.

"As can now be revealed for the first time, confirmation that Gerry Adams was in indirect conversations with the British government as early as 1986, or at least 1987, has been given in interviews with the author by two former British Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland who conducted these dealings with the Sinn Féin leader. One was Tom King, who came to Belfast in September 1985, just before the Hillsborough Agreement was signed, and the other was his successor, Peter Brooke, Secretary of State between 1989 and 1992, a figure whose term of office is most identified with the emergence of the first public clues about the secret diplomacy that lay behind the peace process. Both men have since been elevated to the British House of Lords."

*From Moloney, Ed. The Secret History of the IRA. WW Norton & Co, New York. 2002. pp 225, 232, 238-39, 246-47.

Notes (from Ireland's OWN)
1 Tommy Cochrane was a UDR sergeant kidnapped by the IRA and killed when loyalists failed to exchange, and then killed, kidnapped Republican Joe Donegan.
2 Reid was a Redemptorist. Redemptorists are Jesuits bound by a vow of poverty who work with the poor and working class, and have a strong influence in West Belfast.

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