Operation Chiffon by Peter Taylor review – how they talked their way out of the Troubles

<span>Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur The Troubles Archive/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur The Troubles Archive/Alamy

In late November 1993, the Observer published a front-page story that astounded many of its readers and triggered political tremors across the UK, Ireland and beyond. Under the headline “Major’s secret links with IRA leadership revealed”, the newspaper reported that the British government had been engaged in secret back-channel communications with senior republicans, with prime minister John Major’s approval.

IRA bullets and bombs had killed 33 people that year alone. Four of the victims were children aged between three and 13. Weeks earlier, Major had told MPs that it “would turn my stomach” to sit down and talk to the organisation.

It was by then well known that in 1972 the British government had flown a group of IRA leaders, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, to London for talks with the then Northern Ireland secretary William Whitelaw. Now the Observer was reporting that the latest talks had been in progress “for many months”.

Here Peter Taylor, the veteran author and documentary-maker, makes clear that these talks had been in progress not for months, but decades. Through intermediaries, the two enemies had been quietly passing messages and position papers to each other for much of the Troubles.

Operation Chiffon, as the communications came to be known on the British side, also chronicles the extraordinary risks that the go-betweens sometimes took, and the ways in which they frequently redoubled their efforts to achieve peace through dialogue at those times when the carnage was at its most unspeakable and their chances of success seemed most remote.

These talks were often at an impasse. The British wanted the IRA to end its violence before they would commence direct negotiations; the IRA knew that without its bullets and bombs, it had very little with which to bargain.

The back-channel talks always appeared more promising when the route they followed was simple: the most senior civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office would talk to a single MI6, and later MI5 officer, who would speak with Brendan Duddy, a businessman who owned a number of shops and restaurants in County Derry. Duddy would talk directly with McGuinness. The response would then be passed back along the chain.

Despite its simplicity, there was always the risk of misunderstandings. Duddy, concludes Taylor, “was occasionally prone to a degree of exaggeration”. At key moments, it was unclear whether McGuinness was speaking with the authority of the IRA’s decision-making body, the army council.

For their part, the British, while stressing that there could be no withdrawal without the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, would use deliberately vague language. They told the IRA that they were prepared to discuss “structures of disengagement”, for example, while withholding their reservations about the century in which they believed that might happen.

Nobody could foresee that 23 years later the train would hit the buffers of Brexit

“Ambiguous phrases were very much the currency we were involved with,” one of the MI6 officers, Michael Oatley, tells Taylor. The point, he adds, was to encourage the IRA to believe that its aspiration of a united Ireland might be possible through peaceful means and that the British government could help.

Sometimes this eagerness to encourage would lead the British intelligence officers to break the rule that they could talk to the IRA only through intermediaries. Oatley had an unauthorised face-to-face meeting with McGuinness in 1991. Two years later his successor, an MI5 officer identified by Taylor only as “Robert”, also met McGuinness. It was an encounter that was initially authorised, and then prohibited after IRA bombs killed two small boys and injured 56 people in Warrington. Robert decided to disobey his orders and, in the interests of encouragement, told McGuinness: “The final solution is union. It is going to happen anyway. The historical train – Europe – determines that. We are committed to Europe… this island will be as one.”

Nobody could foresee that 23 years later the historical train would hit the buffers of Brexit.

Taylor recounts how Oatley readily admitted his rule-breaking to his political masters: it was, Oatley said, “very naughty of me”, but he was less than a week from retirement. When the second infraction was discovered, Robert felt obliged to resign from MI5.

By that time, however, McGuinness had passed a historic message to Robert, via Duddy, in which he said: “The conflict is over, but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.”

Subsequently, there would be a disagreement over the words that had been used, and Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, would accuse the British of duplicity and dishonesty. What is not disputed is that the message would help bring about the first formal meeting between British officials and Sinn Féin and, eventually, ease the path to the Good Friday agreement that brought the conflict largely to a close.

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, in 1998
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, in 1998. Photograph: Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images

Operation Chiffon is a deeply researched and highly readable book, as would be expected from a journalist of Taylor’s calibre. Through it, he locates the story of the back-channel communications within a broader picture of the conflict that claimed more than 3,700 lives. The undoubted hero of the story is Duddy. An energetic, garrulous and resilient man, he faced a number of harrowing interrogations on occasions when the IRA suspected his motives. Oatley and Robert faced dangers, but were crown servants, performing their duty, sometimes going above and beyond. Duddy could have opted for a quiet life; instead he chose to put it on the line in an attempt to end the violence.

The day after the Observer published its scoop, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary of the day, went to parliament to make a statement. He was deeply apprehensive. To his enormous surprise, MPs on both sides of the House of Commons gave him a rapturous welcome. They were deeply relieved to learn about the back-channel talks, and the efforts of the government and the IRA leadership to bring the killing to an end.

There would always be those on both sides of the Irish Sea who believed that no spoon was long enough to sup with the IRA. But the reception that Mayhew received suggests that political and public opinion was by then at least in line with the government – and quite possibly ahead of it – in believing it was time to talk about peace.

Ian Cobain is the author of Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island (Granta)

• Operation Chiffon: The Secret Story of MI5 and MI6 and the Road to Peace in Ireland by Peter Taylor is published by Bloomsbury (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply