IRA did not want Sinn Fein involved in backchannel peace talks with British

David Young, PA
·3-min read

The IRA wanted to freeze Sinn Fein out of proposed backchannel talks with the British about ending the Troubles, according to state archives.

An internal Irish government communique reported that the IRA Army Council informed two prison chaplains in spring 1990 that it was prepared to enter exploratory discussions with the UK.

But the newly released paper said the IRA leadership’s least favoured approach to talks was to involve Sinn Fein figures.

The secret message relayed a view that certain Provo chiefs were not “particularly enamoured with the socialist views being espoused by the current urban-based leadership of Sinn Fein”.

The message from a senior Irish official to colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs has been made public after being kept under wraps in the National Archives for 30 years.

Adams – Power Sharing Executive Suspended
Gerry Adams was Sinn Fein president in 1990 (Haydn West/PA)

Rev Will Murphy and Fr John Murphy, who were chaplains at the paramilitary Maze prison near Lisburn, had been engaged in a two-year process to encourage loyalist and republican prisoners to move away from violence.

On May 4 1990, Brendan McMahon, head of the Anglo Irish Division updated the assistant secretary at the DFA, Dermot Gallagher, on the potential breakthrough with the IRA.

The correspondence said: “I had a conversation with Fr Murphy on 2 May who indicated that they had just concluded a series of intensive discussions with the IRA Army Council.

“Arising from those discussions, the two chaplains had a meeting on 1 May with the four Church Leaders. At that meeting, the chaplains reported that the Army Council had clearly indicated to them their willingness to seek an alternative to the campaign of violence and, with this objective in mind, are prepared to enter exploratory discussions with the British Government.”

Mr Murphy added, in parenthesises: “There is apparently no question at this stage of a ceasefire, though Fr Murphy felt that, in the event of any talks, there would, at the very least, be a reduction in the intensity of the current campaign.

“Arising from the discussion between the chaplains and the four Church leaders, it was agreed that the two primates (Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich and Archbishop Eames) will jointly approach the secretary of state to see whether the British Government would be prepared to enter into such talks.”

“It was hoped that the approach would be made the next day (3 May) or as soon as possible thereafter.”

Politics – Peter Brooke
Peter Brooke, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland (PA)

Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke sanctioned backchannel talks later in 1990 in a development seen as a crucial precursor to the peace process.

The communique from Mr McMahon relayed how the IRA wanted the talks to proceed.

“The Army Council’s preference is naturally for such talks to be held in public, though they accept that any talks would probably have to be conducted in absolute secrecy.

“The IRA’s third, and least favoured, option would be for talks involving Sinn Fein.

“Fr Murphy commented that one thing which has struck him in the course of this initiative is the noticeable difference between the IRA and Sinn Fein – with Army Council members referring to Sinn Fein as merely ‘the party which is the closest to our view’.

“Murphy’s impression is that not all of the Army Council are particularly enamoured with the socialist views being espoused by the current urban-based leadership of Sinn Fein.”

The newly published papers are contained in National Archives file reference number 2020/17/34.