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Senior Sinn Féin and unionist politicians set up ‘secret group’ to discuss deadlock in peace process

State papers: UUP leader David Trimble was seemingly unaware of meetings being held in 2001 with members of his own party

A small group of senior Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionist Party politicians set up secret meetings in Stormont during 2001 at a time when progress in the Northern peace process was hopelessly deadlocked over decommissioning, demilitarisation and policing reform.

The minister for enterprise Reg Empey told a senior Irish government official in May that year that he and fellow UUP MLA were meeting privately each week with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly in Stormont.

In a conversation with the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the late Dermot Gallagher, Mr Empey described having a good personal relationship with Mr McGuinness despite the UUP and Sinn Féin being embroiled in a prolonged and bitter dispute over IRA decommissioning.

The existence of this secret group came as a surprise to senior figures in the government and in civil service, although it emerged from efforts by taoiseach Bertie Ahern during talks to get the peace process back on track in March that year. It also seemed that UUP leader David Trimble was not aware that the meetings were being held.

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Mr Gallagher was acutely aware of the sensitive nature of the information. After circulating the note to senior figures in government and in the civil service he followed it up with another note several days later warning colleagues not to talk publicly about the secret group.

Saying the note had a wider circulation than he had expected, he urged that “the existence of the small, private Sinn Féin/UUP group, mentioned in paragraph 7 of the report, is kept strictly to ourselves. It would be unfortunate and very unhelpful indeed if there was any reference whatsoever to it by colleagues.”

In their conversation Mr Empey told Mr Gallagher that he liked Mr McGuinness and worked well with him. He said that a small group (Mr McGuinness, Mr Kelly, Mr McGimpsey and Mr Empey) were meeting most Thursdays.

“Empey is at present preparing a strictly private paper for the group on UUP concerns and requirements.”

However, the UUP politician added he was “deeply disappointed that McGuinness failed to even hint to him in advance that he was going to make a statement to the Bloody Sunday tribunal, acknowledging his IRA rank in Derry in 1972. “The timing of this, just before the elections, was very unhelpful to the UUP. In particular, it enabled anti-agreement unionists, who had been fairly quiet in recent months, to become active again. The Assembly was now faced with a divisive motion on the issue, while the families of those killed or injured by the IRA in Derry at that time, or whose premises were destroyed, were asking questions.”

Mr Empey was also severely critical of the Sinn Féin tactic of bringing issues to the wire before doing a deal. “He had pleaded in vain with Martin McGuinness on a number of occasions to try and resolve outstanding issues when things were quiet and calm, rather than waiting until the parties were up against a deadline, and a crisis had, inevitably, developed,” said Mr Gallagher.

Mr Empey said that he presumed that the IRA approach on decommissioning arose in significant part from its fear of further splitting the organisation.

In a separate example of Mr McGuinness’s persuasive powers, an Irish diplomat based in the United States said the Sinn Féin politician had also struck up a good relationship with Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine, the two leading figures in the fringe unionist party, the Progressive Unionist Party, which reflected some of the thinking of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The diplomat, Tom Russell, reported on a conversation he had with Mr McGuinness at a dinner in Washington.

“Hutchinson remarked that McGuinness was one of the few people to talk to him or to Ervine in the building. McGuinness’s comment was that some care should be taken to make them feel part of the process and to keep them involved. They needed to be able to show the followers that the process had delivered something for them.” (National Archive files: 2023/155/25 and 2023 155/23)

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