In this article, renowned journalist PETER TAYLOR says Brendan Duddy deserved the Nobel Prize
There are certain moments in my 45 years of covering the conflict that are indelibly imprinted on my memory.
One of them is from 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement, when I was standing by a public telephone in the middle of the new shopping mall in the centre of Derry.
I had a mountain of coins ready to feed into the slot. I thought I had finally discovered the identity of the person who hitherto had only been referred to as ‘The Link’ in the secret back channel talks between the British Government and the IRA that ran intermittently from 1973 to 1993.
This was the moment when I would discover whether I was right or wrong. His name was Brendan Duddy and I was now about to ring his office. The phone rang. Someone answered. I gave my name and waited whilst I was put through. I fed more coins into the slot in case my time ran out. Brendan came on the line.
“I’ve been waiting to hear from you,” he said to my astonishment. That was the beginning of a relationship with Brendan and his family that lasted from that day to the sad moment yesterday when Brendan was laid to rest.
To my surprise, he agreed to meet me at his home that evening. We sat and talked for several hours in the tiny parlour with a smouldering peat fire in the corner, where he had secretly hosted the MI6 officer, Michael Oatley, and IRA leaders in the talks which led to the 1975 cease-fire and established a channel of trusted communication which remained available for over 20 years and, eventually, ushered in the peace process.
Over a bottle of Irish whiskey, he told me a story that could have come straight out of the pages of an airport thriller. I woke up the following morning with a dreadful headache, scarcely believing the extraordinary story Brendan had told me the night before. He only did so after I had assured him that I would never broadcast or write anything about what he said until he thought the time was right. It was to be almost another 10 years before he gave me the green light that led to my BBC2 documentary, ‘The Secret Peacemaker.’
During the years when his name was not known, Brendan became referred to in some sections of the media as ‘The Mountain Climber.’ Other sections used the same codename to describe Michael Oatley, who was introduced to Brendan in 1973 by his MI6 predecessor, Frank Steele. The reality was that both deserved the sobriquet. Both were climbing the same mountain with the same aim – peace - to try and persuade the IRA to end its campaign and concentrate on an exclusively political route to achieve its long fought for goal of a united Ireland.
Others on all sides climbed the mountain, too – including his wife Margo, his remarkable family and close friends like Bernadette Mount who smuggled IRA leaders across the border. All supported him through every step on his perilous ascent.
Brendan was the man in the middle. The IRA believed it had been tricked before, in the 1975 ceasefire that Brendan helped negotiate. Building trust after it took the best part of another 20 years, not helped by the trauma of thhunger strikes that Brendan did his best to resolve, again via Michael Oatley.
He once showed me a ‘com’ - a miniscule communication written on toilet paper, smuggled out of the H Blocks of the Maze prison - and sent from Bobby Sands just before he died after 66 days on hunger strike.
It read: “To you and yours. May I be permitted to say a last goodbye. If my passion is to mean anything, may it mean peace and freedom for you and all of yours. And may I be permitted to say how much I appreciate all the efforts you’ve done on our behalf.”
Brendan broke down as he read it to me. He helped resolve the first hunger strike but the settlement - an agreement to let prisoners wear their own clothes - fell apart once neither the letter nor the spirit of the understanding was observed by the prison authorities.
The prisoners were not allowed to wear their own clothes but clothes providedby the prison bought, I recall, from Marks and Spencer. This was the impasse that triggered the second hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine of his comrades.
It was a dangerous journey that Brendan undertook, from being interrogated at a posh house outside Dublin by the IRA leaders, Seamus Twomey and Billy McKee, at an Army Council meeting on New Year’s Eve 1974, to being interrogated by four senior IRA/Sinn Fein leaders upstairs at his home in 1993.
By this time, Michael Oatley had retired and been replaced by an MI5 officer, generally referred to as “Fred,” who helped bring the back channel process to a successful conclusion, although not without the controversy of a letter wrongly attributed to Martin McGuinness informing Prime Minister, John Major, that “the conflict is over.”
Brendan’s legacy - and an aspect of the legacy of Martin McGuinness, too - is the part they played in helping bring about the peace we enjoy today. It’s ironic that both passed away within weeks of each other, marking the end of an era and the transition from war to peace. Brendan’s contribution to that evolution is incalculable and is only just being belatedly - and rightly - recognised. John Hume and David Trimble deserved the Nobel Peace prize - but Brendan Duddy deserved it, too.