Crack BBC journo Peter Taylor’s film The Secret Peacemaker, about Brendan Duddy, the man who maintained secret communications between the IRA leadership and the British government from the early 70s to 1993, was a cracker; it provided rich detail about the practicalities of ending the war, the missed opportunities of the first ceasefire, and moreover it conveyed something of the weird atmosphere. Secret meetings with spooks and terrorists were held in a Thatcherite DIY conservatory, and it struck me that most media coverage of Northern Ireland was always urban; intellectually, I knew there had to be countryside, and that due to its latitude and geography it would look vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t prepared for it looking quite so much like the moors. And the killer detail is surely that Duddy knew Martin McGuinness from when he delivered fish to his dad’s chip shop.
But rather than the mood music, a real point which nobody picked up on: here’s something from Taylor’s summary of the film, as published in the Guardian.
But one of the great mysteries of the peace process remained. Who did send the famous “conflict is over” message? I pointed out to Duddy that if he didn’t send it and McGuinness didn’t send it, that only left “Fred”.Duddy was protective of the man he had come to admire. “I don’t want to say, as he’s a wonderful, honourable man.” The message was written in pencil in a hotel room in London. “It seems to me that message was to encourage the British government to actually believe dialogue was possible,” Duddy said. But the revelation of the messages and the unauthorised March meeting also marked the end of “Fred”. The government was appalled at how he had exceeded his brief, disobeyed instructions and almost brought the prime minister down. “Fred”, in Brendan’s words, was “court-martialled”. As he said goodbye, he gave Duddy a farewell present, a book inscribed with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “One day it will be good to remember these things.”
When I read this I double-took; did he really just say “the conflict is over” was actually sent by an MI5 agent exceeding his authority? You what? It was what I think of as an Embassy Phew, after the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent where Comrade Ossipon finally gets clued-in to the fact Verloc has always been a stool pigeon for both the plod and the Russians. Police! Embassy! Phew! The political equivalent of the sensation of a cricket ball not quite hitting your head.
You would have thought that this was front-page stuff; “Fred” ended the war in Northern Ireland and nearly disposed of John Major, at one stroke of his pencil, whilst also precipitating the interrogation of Duddy. Frankly, he deserves a knighthood for the first two out of those three; he may of course have got one. But there are some pretty gigantic constitutional issues here, no? I mean, did the spies deceive the prime minister? As usual, the limits of British political discourse are that it stops as soon as you get to the question of power.
Alternatively, it’s possible that the message was given to “Fred” by a third party; it’s certainly not impossible that he had other Republican contacts, a back channel to the back channel. Or perhaps, as it seems that whatever the facts about the message, it accurately described the IRA leaders’ thoughts, an intelligence source in the IRA clued him in? (If it was the near-legendary Freddie Scappaticci, you’d be forgiven for suggesting it was more of a back passage than a back channel.) After all, it would be surprising, had he simply made it all up, if the results had accurately matched the IRA’s intentions. That suggests strongly that if the message wasn’t received from someone, it was composed with extensive knowledge of the IRA leadership’s thoughts; which begs the question of exactly what the word “message” means.
Presumably “Fred” was required to report on what was said at the meetings as well as what the IRA told him to pass on; it’s not impossible that a text which contained his opinion of their intentions, or a summary of the conversation, was taken for a verbatim message. In which case, it’s possible that the IRA deliberately signalled its content to him in order to stay plausibly deniable; a virtual back channel within a channel. At which point, the brain reels.