Businessman who doubled as ‘secret peacemaker’ between IRA and British
Obituary: Brendan Duddy – Born June 10th, 1936 – Died May 12th, 2017
Brendan Duddy was the first outsider ever to meet the IRA’s Army Council. Photograph: Trevor McBride
As a successful businessman, Brendan Duddy was used to being in the public eye, but his greatest achievement was for decades shrouded in the utmost secrecy.
Dubbed “the secret peacemaker”, for 20 years Duddy was the unknown intermediary between the IRA leadership and the British government who helped bring about the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and, ultimately, the Belfast Agreement.
“I wanted to show people that actually the world can be changed,” he said.
Educated at St Columb’s College, he – like many young men in Derry – got a job making record players in the Birmingham Sound Reproducers factory in the Creggan area of the city.
He met his wife, Margo, in St Eugene’s Cathedral in the city while she was praying the Stations of the Cross, and they were married there in 1959.
By now Duddy had opened a fish-and-chip shop with his parents in Cedar Street, and in 1962 he set up his own business in Beechwood Avenue. He loved the trade, he said, because: “I understand potatoes, I understand fish.”
The beef burgers were delivered by a young Martin McGuinness, whom Duddy remembered as polite, innocent, and with absolutely no interest in politics.
As the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the 1960s, another shop in William Street – the scene of frequent rioting – became a meeting place for campaigners such as John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Nell McCafferty and Eamonn McCann, who would talk politics over a plate of chips until the early hours of the morning.
The turning point for Duddy came, as for so many, on Bloody Sunday.
Ahead of the civil rights march, he was approached by Derry’s chief of police, Frank Lagan, who asked him to tell the IRA there could be no guns in the Bogside that afternoon.
Duddy was making his way towards Free Derry Corner when he heard the sound of the British Army’s first shots.
He recalled taking refuge in McCafferty’s house – which was packed with people, and Bernadette Devlin bringing news of the fatalities. He said simply, “it was terrible.”
The following year he met Michael Oatley, the MI6 officer with whom he would work for the next 20 years.
The British government had outlawed any contact with the IRA, but Duddy passed on a message for him to the IRA leadership – which led to their first ceasefire in December 1974.
He was the first outsider ever to meet the IRA’s Army Council – and later recounted overhearing the then chief of staff, Seamus Twomey, discussing whether or not he should be shot as an informer.
Subsequent talks between the British government and the IRA leadership took place in Duddy’s home in Derry, where cups of tea and bringing coal for the fire broke down barriers between the negotiators.
His determination to bring about change was demonstrated in other, more public areas of his life. In the 1970s, he was one of a number of people who set up a refuge for street drinkers known as the House in the Wells, as well as the Northlands treatment centre, and established a school for children from the Travelling community above his fish-and-chip shop.
In 1980, his connection with Oatley again proved a vital back-channel for secret negotiations during the first hunger strike, but one of his greatest regrets was that he was unable to bring an end to the second hunger strike the following year, in which 10 men died.
For the rest of his life he would keep the final communication from Bobby Sands, written on toilet paper and smuggled out of the prison just before he died after 66 days on hunger strike.
“If my passing is to mean anything,” Sands wrote, “may it mean peace and freedom for you and all of yours and may I be permitted to say how much we appreciate all the efforts you’ve done on our behalf.”
In 1990, Duddy brought Oatley back to Derry to meet McGuinness.
“It was like a couple wanting to get together to enter a courtship,” Duddy remembered, “and it was at that moment the deputy first minister Martin began to emerge.”
With Oatley now retired, Duddy – via another MI6 officer, Robert, – resumed his role as intermediary, at considerable personal risk.
He was interrogated by senior figures in the IRA for four hours, and at the end, they realised, Duddy said, that the time had come for them “to be doing their own business” and to talk directly to the British government.
That contact, facilitated by Duddy and Robert, laid the foundations for the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and, ultimately, the Belfast Agreement.
He continued to be a successful businessman in Derry, owning shops, hotel and restaurants, and in more recent years was instrumental in bringing about agreement between the Apprentice Boys and Bogside residents over parades in the so-called “Derry model”, which has been successfully used elsewhere.
The last time Duddy met Robert, the officer gave him a book inscribed with a line from the poet Virgil which read: “One day it will be good to remember these things.”
That day came in 2008, when he agreed to talk on the record to BBC journalist Peter Taylor. who revealed Duddy’s role in the peace process in the documentary The Secret Peacemaker.
When asked why he did what he did, Duddy replied, in a voice choked with emotion: “I had no choice.”
He is survived by his wife Margo and children Patricia, Lawrence, Paula, Brendan, Shauna and Tonya, as well as 21 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.