The unseen hand in the Northern Ireland peace process

The unseen hand in the Northern Ireland peace process

Former priest Denis Bradley played a pivotal role as a facilitator between the IRA and British intelligence


I FIRST met Denis Bradley in the canteen of the BBC in Belfast. He was a member of the Broadcasting Council. He invited me to visit and stay over at his house when I next was in Derry.

So I turned up at his Derry office with a bottle of Shiraz and a big hello. He said he had to go to Boots first before going home, for Mary had just had a baby. And he didn’t like that wine. Too rich and fruity.

Denis had been a priest until he met Mary and, like many before him, found that love and domesticity had a value that living with men in black did not.

He was respected for still receiving communion alongside his wife at the same church in which he had been serving it.

What I did not know for many years of our friendship was that Denis was a resource to others wrestling with the challenge to change their ways and dealing with much bigger problems than I brought to him myself.

For as I turned up at the front door, perhaps to moan about the collapse of a relationship, Martin McGuinness might be leaving by the back.

Denis had a secret job at that time. He was one of a three man contact group for exchanging messages between the IRA army council and British intelligence services.

It was this contact group that got the peace process under way in the 1990s.

McGuinness and another IRA hard man, Old Bailey bomber Gerry Kelly, had agreed to meet with two British officials but they had called it off because only one of the British officials had turned up. That one was Robert McLarnon of MI5.

Denis Bradley insisted then on taking McLarnon to McGuinness’s house. This was before there was a ceasefire, simply an explorative step towards agreeing one, and, had McLarnon as blithely walked into the Bogside without Denis, he would likely have been taken away and shot.

Denis says in a book about his role that, on that night, he was more afraid of McGuinness’s mother.

The book, Peace Comes Dropping Slow (Merrion) has numerous stories about the work done by Denis Bradley and the others in the contact group, businessman Brendan Duddy and Noel Gallagher.

The three men preserved their secret for twenty years while others were attempting mediation by different routes, some of them perhaps as decoys.

While only a few knew about the contact group, many, even unionists, knew about Fr Alex Reid who acted as an emissary for Gerry Adams from the late 1980s, often delivering handwritten unsigned notes from him to the secretary of state, Tom King.

In one of those notes Adams asked for his bodyguard Cleeky Clarke to be issued with a legal pistol, as a confidence building measure. Clarke didn’t get his gun. Nor does anyone suppose he didn’t already have one at hand.

The British told McGuinness that if the IRA called a two-week ceasefire a meeting would be set up, perhaps in Norway, at which the British would suggest terms for a peace deal, on the understanding that a united Ireland was ultimately inevitable.

The IRA agreed to that and the British then withdrew the offer, slowing down the whole process, most likely because of difficulties John Major’s government would have faced if news of the arrangement had got out.

Instead Major said that it would turn his stomach to talk to terrorists, something the terrorists knew was a lie.

There were hairy moments in the work of the contact group.

Brendan Duddy, at a sensitive time in the negotiations feared that the IRA would kill him and Denis Bradley sought assurances from McGuinness - for what they were worth - that they had no intention of doing that.

In later years, Denis Bradley led the way in Catholic support for the reformed police service when he became vice chair of the Policing Board. For that he got whacked across the head in a pub by a republican who had not accepted the peace deal.

Offered police protection he reasoned that his best protection was continuing to live a normal life regardless.

Denis knew he was walking moral tightrope. While still a priest he was reviled by a British army chaplain, who had come to dinner, for not simply giving over to the army all the information he had on the IRA. Fr Denis put him out of the house but still agonised over the moral compromises of maintaining a friendship with Martin McGuinness.

He brought experience from counselling and therapy into sensitive and secret political negotiations.

The British account of the peace process says it started when they received a letter from Martin McGuinness saying that the war was over but that the IRA needed British help to end it.

It was Denis Bradley who wrote that note. He did so on behalf of the contact group, making their own assessment of McGuinness’s thinking.

McGuinness was not too happy about that note and disowned it, but he got a peace and a political career out of it.

As a therapist working with addicts Denis Bradley had helped others out of deep dark ruts too. It’s what he did.

 Malachi O’Doherty’s latest book How To Fix Northern Ireland (Atlantic) has just been released in paperback.