The IRA and British government hold secret meetings (1972)

In 2003 the BBC published this account of secret meetings between the Provisional IRA and government officials. The report draws on Cabinet records released to the public under the 30-year rule:

“What happened when Gerry Adams and other republican leaders met the government in 1972? Documents finally released to the public reveal all. Despite protestations to the contrary over the years, the British Government constantly maintained open channels with the IRA during the worst of the Troubles. The first major meeting of 1972 when an IRA delegation including Gerry Adams was flown into London is among the most well known. But documents released under the 30-year-rule reveal for the first time the details of official reaction at the time – and confirm that Mr Adams had an earlier longer meeting with two officials which had given the government hope of a breakthrough amid conflict.

Officially, there was no chance either wing of the IRA would be allowed into proposed multi-party talks, on the table during the violence of 1972. But in secret, MI6 pursued contacts with the IRA as part of attempts to see if they could be persuaded into a ceasefire. These secret contacts, also conducted through leading members of the nationalist SDLP, began to bear fruit.

On June 18th, Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw met SDLP MPs John Hume and Paddy Devlin who said they believed the IRA was willing to talk if the government released Gerry Adams, the 23-year-old republican activist held under internment. Viscount Whitelaw agreed and the meeting was on. According to the papers, the historic meeting took place at the home of Colonel MW McCorkell at Ballyarnett, near the border with Donegal. Representing the government was Frank Steele, described in the papers as a government official but known to be an MI6 agent, and Philip John Woodfield of the Northern Ireland Office. Representing the IRA were Daithi O Conaill (described as David O’Connell in the papers) a senior republican strategist, and Gerry Adams.

According to his own account, Mr Woodfield opened the meeting by setting out what the government believed to be the IRA’s terms for a ceasefire: An end of “harassment” of republicans by security forces [and] a meeting with the Secretary of State once the ceasefire was in place. While he refused to offer political status, Viscount Whitelaw was prepared to suspend arrests of republicans and searches of homes…

According to his notes, Mr Woodfield and Frank Steele had agreed beforehand to try and have a “normal conversation”. It was a strategy which seems to have helped the meeting last for almost four hours. “There is no doubt whatever that these two [O Conaill and Adams] at least genuinely want a ceasefire and a permanent end to violence,” wrote Mr Woodfield. “Whatever pressures have brought them to this frame of mind, there is also little doubt that now the prospect of peace is there, they have a strong personal incentive to try and get it. They let drop several remarks that the life of the Provisional IRA man on the run is not a pleasant one.”

Mr Woodfield said the appearance and manner of the men was “respectable and respectful… They easily referred to Mr Whitelaw as the ‘Secretary of State’ and they addressed me from time to time as ‘Sir’,” he wrote. “They made no bombastic defence of their past and made no attacks on the British Government… Their response to every argument was reasonable and moderate. Their behaviour and attitude appeared to bear no relation to the indiscriminate campaigns of bombing and shooting in which they have both been prominent leaders.”

On June 26th, the IRA called a “bilateral truce” and talks followed on July 7th 1972. Arriving at the secret meeting at Cheyne Walk in London were Sean Mac Stiofain, the then IRA chief of staff, Daithi O Conaill, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Seamus Twomey and Ivor Bell. The well documented meeting was a disaster. Sean Mac Stiofain effectively demanded the withdrawal of British security forces and the right for “Irish self determination”, the end of Northern Ireland as the IRA saw it, within a few years.

“Mr Mac Stiofain was very much in charge,” reveals the prime ministerial briefing. “He made it clear that the crucial item was the declaration of intent. If that was got right, the rest would follow. So it was only worth talking about that.” Viscount Whitelaw said the demands could not be met because they breached his obligations to act in accordance to the will of the people of Northern Ireland…

While there had been optimism after the first meeting, there was now a sense of failure. “The Secretary of State admitted to being emotionally exhausted by the afternoon’s work,” the papers recall. “He was clearly depressed at the outcome of the meeting and found the experience of meeting and talking to Mr Mac Stiofain very unpleasant.”