Brendan Duddy: a life in the shadows

In this extract from ‘Deniable Contact’ - the first full-length study of the secret negotiations and back-channels that were used in repeated efforts to end the Northern Ireland conflict - Niall Ó Dochartaigh reveals the key role played by Derry businessman Brendan Duddy who was the primary contact between the IRA and the British government on several occasions over two decades.

Friday, 28th May 2021, 1:48 pm
THE SECRET PEACEMAKER... Brendan Duddy in the Bogside in 2008.
THE SECRET PEACEMAKER... Brendan Duddy in the Bogside in 2008.

On a sunny afternoon in May 1997, less than a year before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to large-scale violent conflict in Northern Ireland, I found myself at a funeral in Derry’s City Cemetery.

I was in the company of a local businessman with an intense manner who had phoned me out of the blue earlier that day and asked me to come to talk with him in his house. Now he was pointing out senior republicans among the mourners. There was Martin McGuinness, reputed to be a senior figure in the IRA, and beside him Mitchel McLaughlin, one of Sinn Féin’s most prominent public representatives.

The businessman was Brendan Duddy. I had never heard of him before he phoned me that morning in Magee College where I was working as a researcher. I agreed to call to his home on Derry’s Glen Road. I had just published a book on the escalation of violence in Derry in the first four years of the Troubles. Duddy had phoned me because he liked the book, he said.

Duddy, pacing around the room as he spoke, did most of the talking. He spoke for three or four hours that day. And, yet, by the end of the afternoon, I was unsure why he had contacted me - something was being left unsaid. We agreed to talk again.

A few weeks later, I left Derry to take up a lectureship in my hometown, Galway. Over the next few years, my attention turned to other things, teaching large numbers of students in packed lecture theatres and, not least, becoming a father for the first time.

Six years later, as the Saville Inquiry on Bloody Sunday neared the end of its public hearings in Derry, I began work on a second edition of the book that had interested Duddy. I phoned a friend from university to ask advice on sources. ‘Have you heard of Brendan Duddy?’, he asked. I explained our meeting in 1997 and that I hadn’t spoken to him since. ‘Call him’, he said, ‘he has a story to tell.’ I phoned. Duddy immediately said that he remembered me, and he invited me to come up to the house. There, our conversation again involved some circumlocution, but he hinted that he had been involved in behind-the-scenes contact between protagonists from opposing sides.

The Saville Inquiry had revealed secret contacts in Derry between RUC Chief Superintendent Frank Lagan and civil rights activist Brigid Bond, and through her to Malachy McGurran, the most senior Official IRA figure in Derry. I hoped that Brendan Duddy might hold the key to understanding how these lines of communication worked around the time of Bloody Sunday. And, so, those back-channels - the conduits between local actors - were the focus of most of my questions.

When we next met, Duddy said little by way of direct reply to my questions about local agreements to keep the peace. Rather, he made an extraordinary claim. He had acted, he told me, as the main intermediary between the British government and the IRA over a span of more than twenty years, hosting secret talks in the small sitting room beside his study during the 1975 ceasefire, negotiating the fine details of a possible solution to the 1981 hunger strike - one of the most fraught episodes of the Troubles - and acting as intermediary again in the 1990s.

I was not sure if I could believe him. I knew from other sources that Duddy had played a covert role of some kind, but I had assumed it concerned local networks in Derry. Still, his repeatedly expressed concern to put his version of events - the ‘truth’ - on record inclined me to believe him. He was determined that historians of the Northern Troubles and the peace process would have a fuller picture of what had taken place behind the scenes. Pride seemed to be a factor, too: having worked in the shadows, he was concerned that others would write him out of the story as there was no public record of the role he had played.

But how could I be sure that he was telling the truth? I started combing through histories of the IRA for details. I re-read BBC journalist Peter Taylor’s 1997 book, ‘Provos’, which described an anonymous ‘Contact’, a secret intermediary between the British government and the IRA, who had played a crucial role in the peace process of the early 1990s. Was Duddy the ‘Contact’? I relayed my suspicion to a well-networked friend in Derry. He made soundings and sent back word that the Contact described by Taylor was not Duddy but rather a composite figure - a number of different people had played the role attributed to the Contact, he told me. If this was the case, it would diminish Duddy’s significance and call his credibility into question.

I arranged to interview Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, the former Sinn Féin President, at his home in Roscommon, about his role in the back-channel in 1975. Ó Brádaigh was elderly, but his recollections were sharp, and he had a reputation for being scrupulously truthful - if he chose to speak about a matter. When I mentioned that I had been talking to Brendan Duddy, he betrayed no recognition of the name and he declined to comment when I said Duddy had told me he was the Contact mentioned in Taylor’s book. But contra what I had been told in Derry and consistent with Taylor’s book, he was emphatic that the Contact was a single individual, not a composite figure. The role of intermediary had to be carried out by a single individual, he insisted, otherwise wires would get crossed and clarity would be reduced. He emphasised, too, that the intermediary had to be available at any time of the day and night and be ready to act at a moment’s notice. I knew from my inquiries in Derry that Duddy had certainly carried out some of the actions attributed to the Contact by Taylor. Ó Brádaigh’s confirmation that a single individual had carried out all of those activities now inclined me to accept that Duddy was, indeed, the figure described in Taylor’s book.

My meetings with Duddy continued over the next few years. Then, one day in 2007, when we were talking in his study, he turned in his chair and slowly slid back the thin wooden door of one of those cabinets below the bookshelves. Inside were several box folders and some old hardbound A4 desk diaries. He had kept diaries during secret talks that had taken place in his house in 1975 and 1976. He took out a box folder and opened it up. Inside were faxes and scribbled notes and typed statements passed secretly between the British government and the republican leadership in the 1990s, along with a typed diary he had kept at the time. There was also a faded and scuffed hardback notebook - he would call it the ‘Red Book’ - his rough handwritten record of the frantic late-night phone negotiations during the 1981 Hunger Strike in which ten men had died.

I was stunned. For more than twenty years, he had kept almost every scrap of paper relating to his role as intermediary, throwing everything into a large box. Duddy had created his own archive, albeit one with more eclectic and obliquely connected materials than those in the state archives, but an archive nonetheless. A receipt from a Häagen Dazs café in London for coffee and dessert illustrates the character of Duddy’s collection: he saved it because it provided a timed and dated record of a meeting with a former MI6 agent in a specific location. Both sides were reluctant to exchange written documents and some of the most important materials in the collection are cryptic, scribbled notes of telephone conversations.

After giving me an opportunity to look over the papers, Duddy asked what I thought he should do with the archive. I was conscious of the value of what I had seen: here was a contemporary record of the flow of information through the back-channel, including details unlikely ever to surface in the state archive or, indeed, in republican sources. I told him that I thought it deserved a place in a national institution. Shortly afterwards, I let him know that my own university in Galway would be happy to receive the materials.

A year later, Duddy phoned me to say that he had decided to deposit his papers in Galway. I began to read through them and, based on my reading, I went back to Derry several times in the course of 2009 to interview Duddy about his many years of work as an intermediary - the interviews lasted for hours.

Those long interviews with Duddy, who was then in his seventies, are testimony to his almost inexhaustible energy. His diaries, and the official British records of contact with him that have been released in recent years, show that he would talk with MI6 officers or republican leaders for up to six hours at a time, in person or on the phone, patiently, endlessly, into the night, sometimes until 3am or 4am.

Physical and mental stamina are among the most important qualifications of an intermediary. Brendan had been an accomplished middle and long-distance runner in his youth, and he remained a runner all his life, completing marathons in his fifties and keeping up a daily training regime into his seventies. He brought the toughness, determination, and discipline of a long-distance runner to the role.

Driven by a determination to see an end to violence, and by a conviction that no settlement that excluded the republican movement could succeed, Duddy’s work as an intermediary had involved the insistent exercise of power and influence. He had set out to occupy what he identified as the most important space in the conflict - that between the British government and the IRA. And there, he exerted, in secret, the kind of influence that a powerful politician exerts in public.

When I had phoned Brendan Duddy in 2004, I had been interested in the intimate, local, and everyday character of back-channel contact in a small city in the midst of a violent conflict. His revelations had turned my attention to secret machinations at the highest level of the British state, and the highest level of the IRA.

Duddy had positioned himself between those, on opposing sides, with the power to make decisions. From the earliest stages, this channel provided a direct line from the IRA leadership to the British Prime Minister.

He had first acted as an intermediary between the British government and the IRA in late 1972, and his role finally came to an end in November 1993. He had learned at a very early stage to keep his expectations low. ‘There was no such a thing really as giving up or being disappointed’, he told me, ‘[It] didn’t matter what the day was or what the circumstances was [sic] or what the story was, that was the day’s work and then you went into another day’s work . . . [I learnt] to go in with no expectations of results.’

He had approached the role of intermediary as he would the running of a marathon - moving forward without allowing his thoughts to stray ahead to a distant finishing line he might never reach, to go on relentlessly, to run without racing.

When Duddy communicated an IRA offer of a ceasefire to the British government in May 1993, opening the way to the IRA cessation of violence in August 1994, the finishing line came into view and his race finally came to an end.

○ Deniable Contact: Back-channel Negotiation in Northern Ireland, by Prof. Niall Ó Dochartaigh, is published by Oxford University Press. For more, see https://global.oup.com/