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Denis Bradley: ‘Partition doesn’t work, never has worked, never will work’

The former priest, who played a key role in the peace process, reflects on the backchannel that enabled dialogue between the IRA and UK government

Denis Bradley has a lot to say in his usual easy, imaginative and contemplative way – on politics, policing, the past, on faith and other matters. But there is no escaping that the main thrust of his just-published book, Peace Comes Dropping Slow, is the backchannel: the secret line of communication between the British government and the IRA that accelerated moves towards silencing the guns.

As we chat in the sittingroom of his lovely old Victorian home in Derry, he is anxious to stress that there is a lot more besides in his memoir – and there is a lot more – but the meat of the book is that covert link that stretched as far back as the early 1970s, and an act of audacity on his part that propelled the peace process forward.

The big moment is February 1993 when Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief of staff who would become Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, conveyed a message through the backchannel of Bradley and Derry businessmen Brendan Duddy and Noel Gallagher, which supposedly read verbatim: “The conflict is over but we need your [British] advice on how to bring it to a close.”

Most people would accept that however McGuinness might indicate an IRA willingness to parley, it would not be through such words. Still, those were the words that ended up in front of prime minister John Major.

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“It would be tempting,” Bradley (now 78) writes in the book, “to claim that the letter was an especially clever subterfuge to get a match put to the fire, when in reality it simply reflected our desperation to get the fire lit.”

Just stoking the embers it took some nerve – and a degree of recklessness borne, as he says, out of “utter frustration” – to put such a gloss on whatever McGuinness actually had said. But Bradley has no doubt that ending the violence is where McGuinness and the majority of the IRA leadership wanted to take the organisation at that time.

“You learn how to read things,” he says. “The role of a good interlocutor or a good intermediary or a good interpreter is to ideally not speak too often but to make a move every so often, which is based on a reading of the situation that other people can’t read because they are in the situation.”

It resulted in a very tricky meeting about 10 days later between the MI5 agent known as “Fred” and, in the way of spies, also known as Robert McLarnon or Colin Ferguson, and McGuinness and Gerry Kelly with the backchannel triumvirate in attendance. The meeting was nearly aborted because the deal was that Fred would be accompanied by some other senior British representative. Bradley had to use his diplomatic skills to ensure the discussion went ahead.

Bradley recounts McGuinness taking out ‘scrunched-up pieces of paper’ from his clothing on behalf of the IRA army council and dictating the words to Bradley to be forwarded to ‘Fred’ and other spooks and senior politicians in London, while emphatically warning him: ‘Don’t be changing any of this.’

When it did he writes that Fred, who may have been acting without full authority, delivered a “tour de force” exposition that included a “journey through Anglo-Irish history”, culminating in his requiring a two-week ceasefire from the IRA to get peace talks under way.

Fred, who said he was speaking on behalf of Major, also promised that a week into a two-week ceasefire negotiations could begin in Scotland or possibly Norway and that the head of the Northern Ireland Office, the late John Chilcot, would join the discussions after a few days.

This in turn resulted in another meeting solely with the backchannel in which McGuinness conveyed the IRA’s willingness to hold a two-week ceasefire. Bradley recounts McGuinness taking out “scrunched-up pieces of paper” from his clothing on behalf of the IRA army council and dictating the words to Bradley to be forwarded to Fred and other spooks and senior politicians in London, while emphatically warning him: “Don’t be changing any of this.”

“There it was,” Bradley writes. “The two-week ceasefire demanded to allow for talks to begin. At that stage I wanted to stand up, clench my fist and shout ‘yes’, the way golfers and winning football managers do. I didn’t. I just smiled inwardly, and I think, although this might be retrospective and wishful thinking, I said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving.”

Of course, it didn’t run smoothly thereafter. Major’s Tory government had a slim majority and he was fearful of upsetting the nine Ulster Unionist Party MPs whose votes could keep him in office. The British response to the IRA overture therefore was dilatory and tantamount to rejection.

But the fire was lit.

Overlapping with all this were the secret negotiations between SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, while newly installed taoiseach Albert Reynolds, against expectations, decided to make peace in Northern Ireland his No 1 priority. The backchannel briefed both Hume and Reynolds on what was happening. And while peace, as per Yeats’s line and the book’s title, did come dropping slow, cumulatively it all led a year and a half later to the first IRA ceasefire of August 1994 and to the definitive peace agreement of Good Friday 1998.

Bradley believes that Hume, who was under fierce pressure for dealing with Adams, was unaware of the backchannel. He writes that his learning of that separate effort to make peace “was akin to a water hydrant being supplied to a dehydrated man in a very large and hostile desert”.

Privately, McGuinness let it be known that he received serious criticism from the ‘harder’ IRA men about the initial letter.Bradley says he had not heard of McGuinness sustaining internal censure but wouldn’t be surprised if he had. He chuckles and says: “I had no problem causing McGuinness grief.”

His interpretation of McGuinness’s words, he acknowledges, was indeed audacious but regardless he was “absolutely” convinced that was where McGuinness wanted to go. He also recalls – he thinks it was in 1989 or 1990, although in the book he more generally says it was the early 1990s – McGuinness coming to him and saying: “We need to make peace.”

Bradley notes too how the level of IRA violence in Derry, where McGuinness’s writ ran, diminished considerably around that time. “It’s said that Derry went on ceasefire about three years before everyone else went on ceasefire.”

One reason for writing the book, Bradley says, is to set the record as straight as possible. He wants the role of Noel Gallagher and himself to be equally as recognised as that of Brendan Duddy in terms of the backchannel. “I have a healthy ego,” he acknowledges.

Gallagher and Bradley get their place in the impressive academic book Deniable Contact by Niall Ó Dochartaigh, professor of political science and sociology at University College Galway. The book is based on the papers presented to the college by the late Brendan Duddy. Bradley feels that the main thrust of Ó Dochartaigh’s work is on Duddy.

In any case Peace Comes Dropping Slow is a different work to Ó Dochartaigh’s in that, as a player, it is written, as he says, “from the inside out rather than the outside in”. He writes with a philosophical depth and a graceful style that puts one in mind of the great Reading in the Dark, by fellow Derry writer Seamus Deane.

The book is reflective and revelatory, imbued with a warm humanity, and ties up a lot of loose ends around the backchannel. Bradley also captures the pressures and tensions – the intrigue and paranoia at times – and the jealousies and little vanities between himself, Gallagher and Duddy, and between some of the other main characters involved in the peacemaking.

He particularly wants Gallagher’s part in the backchannel recognised. He says his friend could be difficult and awkward but that they are “like brothers”. Gallagher, he says, came into his own when dealing with Albert Reynolds and briefing him on how republicans were thinking, which helped in the shaping of the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, a vital part of the prelude to the ceasefires.

While living in Derry city for most of his life, Bradley actually is a native of Donegal, born in Illies near Buncrana on the Inishowen peninsula. The two areas are in any case intertwined. “Donegal has always been the salvation of Derry. It embraces us all and humanises us a bit,” he says.

He had a happy childhood, his mother running a guesthouse in Buncrana, his father driving a bus for the then Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company. He was youngest of a family of eight, his sister Frances dying in childhood.

He was a boarder at Derry’s St Columb’s College. One of his young teachers was Hume, who was inspiring and didn’t use corporal punishment, common at the time. The book nonetheless recounts a few verbal scraps the pair had in later life, although there was mutual respect.

Bradley says nobody was more surprised than himself when at the end of school he decided to study for the priesthood, ending up at the Irish College in Rome.

Much of his work in Derry was in the largely working-class Long Tower parish. While a priest he also worked as a counsellor and set up shelters for the homeless and treatment centres for alcohol and drug addiction.

He was a curate during the worst of the Troubles and much of his parish work was dealing with ‘the litany of killings’ in his small neighbourhood, or trying to prevent killings

He was one of the priests on Bloody Sunday and was in Glenfada Park, in and from where concentrated shooting resulted in four of the 14 victims being killed. He remembers grabbing one of the soldiers, who pushed him aside, but isn’t certain whether it was Soldier F, who is charged with two murders and five attempted murders – the only soldier to be charged.

He remembers too being “frogmarched” away by paratroopers when the shooting finally ceased until an officer intervened and ordered: “Let the padre go.” He’s hated the word “padre” ever since. He recalls the shock and the silence and later sitting quietly in people’s houses “by the coffins of those who had been shot”.

Bradley was a curate during the worst of the Troubles and much of his parish work was dealing with “the litany of killings” in his small neighbourhood, or trying to prevent killings. There are a number of such stories in the book that, like his account of Bloody Sunday, may haunt the reader as they haunted the priest.

In one he tells of a gun battle between the IRA and British army in which three soldiers were wounded and two teenage republicans, Colm Keenan and Eugene McGillan, were shot dead. Bradley was called out to say the prayers of the dead over the two young men.

The following day a young British officer, a captain he thinks, called to the parochial house wanting to speak to Bradley about the shootings. He was convinced he had shot either Keenan or McGillan. “It was the first time he had killed someone, and he wanted, needed, to talk about it. I listened and he talked. He was very distressed about the shooting.”

Similarly, on another occasion a British army bomb disposal soldier was killed in an explosion and again Bradley was called to pray over the “disjointed” body. He did not learn the name of the soldier until the Lost Lives book about the dead of the Troubles was published. He still regrets that he did not do more to find out the man’s name and perhaps to tell his family he was there with him shortly after he died.

Soon after that killing he was approached to speak to another distressed young man. “He spoke very quietly and hesitantly and told me that he had set the bomb,” he recalls. “He had made bombs before, he continued, but he didn’t think they had killed anyone. I sat with him for an hour, talked and drank a cup of tea. He was very shocked and emotional, but then so was I. I have no memory of what we talked about; I think there were long silences when we just sat and said nothing.”

He didn’t need convincing about the horror and futility of violence, but such incidents reinforced the need to try to end that violence, which resulted in his long association with the backchannel.

There were happier moments. One day a young English teacher, Mary Wilson, called asking for advice on how she might head off to Africa to do voluntary work. You could do such work, he told her, nearer to home assisting with his drug and rehabilitation projects. She accepted the challenge.

“I fell head over heels in love with her,” he says cheerfully. They are married 43 years, and have three children – Laura, a specialist cancer nurse in Manchester; Eoin, a political adviser to the Scottish National Party; and Tom, a financial adviser in Derry – and four grandchildren.

To his great relief Eoin and Tom are, like himself, diehard Derry City fans. Golf also is an escape.

As much as anybody, Bradley is appalled at the sins of the Catholic Church but faith is important to him and so is the future direction of the church. He would still be a priest if he had had permission to marry.

He likes Pope Francis but worries about elements in the church who don’t and want to take the church back to a more conservative place. He feels too that the absence of faith is creating a societal malaise. “I think that’s beginning to be seen. If you are living in a world that is free of the transcendental it’s a weird, weird, weird world.”

His time as a priest and his dealings with the media gave him the confidence gradually to become a public figure, engaging in journalism with the likes of The Irish Times and the Irish News, which he still does, and also doing regular TV and radio work.

[His work as the first vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board] led to threats and attacks, the most serious of which was a dissident assault in 2005 in which he was battered by a masked man wielding a baseball bat while he was watching a soccer match in a pub in Derry

With the former Church of Ireland archbishop Robin Eames, Bradley headed the Consultative Group on the Past, which in 2009 provided the template for all future and so-far failed attempts to deal with the legacy and continuing trauma of the conflict.

Fifteen years on, legacy remains unresolved, with the latest legislation from the British government rejected by the Irish Government and most parties. Bradley says that if the British and Irish governments, acting in unison, had grasped this problem it could have been resolved years ago, and still could be settled.

His time as the first vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, formed in 2001 as part of the Patten proposals on police reform, with Prof Sir Desmond Rea as first chairman, proved more successful, although there was a price to pay.

Bradley and Rea, who quickly overcame an early spat between them, helped drive the agenda in gaining widespread backing for the newly created Police Service of Northern Ireland, with Sinn Féin in 2006 finally endorsing policing and joining the board.

But this work led to threats and attacks, the most serious of which was a dissident assault in 2005 in which he was battered by a masked man wielding a baseball bat while he was watching a soccer match in a pub in Derry.

The city rallied behind him. He recalls: “We had a couple of boys who came here one day to tell me who it was that did it. I didn’t want to know. Some things are better not known. It’s a bit like Confession, you just have to learn to forget.”

As for the dissidents: “I wish they would go away, they are neither good to themselves, nor to anybody else.”

Overall, Bradley says he is optimistic for the future and believes unionism should engage in a debate with nationalism on what comes next. He favours a united Ireland over time but a “unity that is resolved, not one that is imposed”.

“Partition doesn’t work, never has worked, never will work.”

He concludes that two of the main political lessons he has learned in a long and eventful life is that true progress is made only when the British and Irish governments work well together and “that if you don’t deal with the extremes then you don’t deal with the issues”.

Denis Bradley’s Peace Comes Dropping Slow: My Life in the Troubles is published by Merrion Press