Is the British government talking to dissident republicans? Martin McGuinness's claim to that effect produced an interesting exchange between the DUP's David Simpson and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson at a select committee meeting last Wednesday. (Watch it about 10 minutes into the video here).
Simpson: Was the Deputy First Minster correct in his assessment in the fact that the Government is engaged with dissident republicans.
Paterson: The Deputy First Minister is privy to many things in Northern Ireland. He's not privy to my exact movements. I can absolutely categorically assure you there have been no meaningful discussions, serious negotiations with these groups. I've said that on the record. I've said that with you all looking me in the eye now. I have had no negotiations with these people.
That prompted independent Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon to wonder what counted as meaningful discussions. Such scepticism is understandable given the history of back-channel negotiations in the North.
A very apposite discussion of that record took place last month at the Falls Road Library in Belfast, where former BBC security correspondent Brian Rowan interviewed McGuinness and loyalist William 'Plum' Smith before an audience which brought together a remarkable array of significant figures from the paramilitaries, the security forces, the media and the Northern Ireland Office.
Rowan opened by recalling a previous interview with McGuinness in the early 1990s:
You said that the you were absolutely convinced that the British wanted to talk to the republican leadership. You said that republicans could make that as easy as they possibly could. I have to say that the thought that was running through my mind during that interview was 'your backside', because I couldn't see that through all that we were looking at at that stage.
What Rowan didn't know back then was that McGuinness had met with MI6 officer Michael Oatley in 1990. Ironically, according to McGuinness, during that initial contact "The whole message was one of discouraging republicans and making us believe that there was no prospect whatsoever of negotiations happening with the British Government." Nevertheless, the very fact that the meeting had taken place led him to reach the opposite conclusion.
Developments were also happening within loyalism at around the same time. In 1991, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) emerged and the loyalist organisations instituted a ceasefire to coincide with the Brooke talks on a political way forward.
'Plum' Smith denied indignantly a suggestion from veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie that there might have been a 'hidden hand' behind the CLMC. Its emergence did, however, presage a more coherent loyalist response to the peace process than might have been expected. According to Smith, it also led loyalists towards greater political involvement:
Not one unionist politician gave any credit whatsoever for that ceasefire. They gave no credit whatsoever for people attempting to calm the situation to try and move forward. That's when loyalism said they're not speaking for us. In future, our own people will speak for us, and that's when political loyalism started to move out of the shadows.
It was two years later, in November 1993, that some of the behind-the-scenes contacts emerged into the open, as Brian Rowan recounted:
Eamonn [Mallie] got hold of a document from [DUP MP] Willie McCrea. I think there's a story to be told somewhere about how Willie McCrea got that document, but he got the document which proved the the British government were in contact with the republican leadership. There were many many denials in that period. Eamonn and I were involved in a couple of conversations with people who told us that you [McGuinness] were the key player at the republican end, that it had been cleared by the British, but Eamonn got the document, the smoking gun that proved that this contact had happened.
Rowan went on to recall a comment that perhaps informed Owen Paterson's reception on Wednesday:
I think even that day, Willie McCrea said that it saddened him to say that he believed the republican leadership on this issue could be believed ahead of the British Government. It was words to that effect.
However controversial at the time, such contacts ultimately served as the foundation for the peace process, providing what is today a widely-cited, if contentious, formula for resolving conflicts from the Basque country to the Middle East.
The good-humoured gathering at the Falls Road Library, part of West Belfast's annual Féile an Phobail festival, was a striking illustration of what has been achieved. Not least because many of those present would have been trying to kill each other a few decades ago.
Yet it is clear that not everything in the garden is rosy. The meeting concluded with a passionate denunciation from McGuinness of a dissident bomb in Derry the previous night. He also criticised those involved in rioting in Belfast during the marching season the previous month.
As Féile an Phobail ended, some nationalist youths were defying Sinn Féin by building a giant bonfire at the bottom of the Falls, in a reversion to the kind of anti-internment commemoration that the festival was intended to replace.
Most people I met during the festival regarded such activities as the work of politically insignificant 'hoods'. Others, however, suggested this was partly putting the best face on things for outsiders, and that mainstream republicans were privately alive to a small but significant undercurrent of disaffection that represents a political challenge for Sinn Fein in its heartlands, even if its unlikely to become an electoral threat.
The need to address that problem may explain why Sinn Fein is, in public at least, keener on talking to the dissidents than Owen Patterson is.
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