MI6 and the IRA: A hearth where ceasefires were kindled

Brendan Duddy’s home was a secret meeting place for MI6 agents and IRA chiefs of staff

In the small room in the house in Derry, there is space only for a sofa and a few chairs, a television, and the fireplace. It is old – there are tiles missing – but it must never be replaced. "I used to say, I hate that fireplace, we have to change it," says Margo Duddy.

Her late husband, Brendan, always prevented her.

“He would say no, ‘that’s the one they used to put the coal on’.”

“They” could have meant anyone from an MI6 agent to the IRA chief of staff.

For two decades, Derry businessman Brendan Duddy acted as a "secret peacemaker", the unknown intermediary between the IRA leadership and the British government who facilitated the back-channel negotiations that helped bring about the shortlived IRA ceasefire of 1974 and, 20 years later, the ceasefire of August 1994.

“This is a wee cosy room, so that’s why my father brought them in here,” says Duddy’s son Larry. “There are a lot larger rooms in this house but that’s not what he was about.

“It was about bringing them together, getting them sitting talking to each other so that they could see they didn’t have two heads. And having a cup of tea, putting turf on the fire and having a chat and breaking down barriers that way. That’s how he got them together.

“Did the ceasefire start in this room? I would say it most definitely did.”

Duddy's role as a businessman was the perfect cover. From the late 1960s, civil rights campaigners would gather in his fish and chip shops; in 1972, Duddy's friend Frank Lagan – who was also Derry's chief of police – approached him ahead of an anti-internment march and asked him to tell the IRA there could be no guns in the Bogside that afternoon.

Helicopter over house

The day would become known as Bloody Sunday. Thirteen people were shot dead by British paratroopers, and a 14th died later. For many, it was a turning point.

The following year, Duddy met the MI6 officer Michael Oatley, who would later become a personal friend.

Oatley asked Duddy to pass on a message to the IRA from the British government, which would lead to the first ceasefire in 1974. “I would come home from school every day,” explains Duddy’s daughter Paula. “If there was a helicopter, the British were in the house and if the helicopter wasn’t there but there was a beat-up old 1970s car parked outside, the IRA were in the house.

“I remember standing listening at the hatch, and knowing that whatever was being talked about you didn’t talk about, and not knowing what it was but knowing it was really important that it continued,” she says.

Margo says she vividly remembers Oatley, Provisional IRA founder Billy McKee and former IRA chief of staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh sitting on the stairs at various times.

“When Michael Oatley was here, I had to sit with his bodyguard until the meetings were over, and keep an eye on him. He was lovely, but he always had a wee case with him, and I never knew what was in it.”

Duddy’s granddaughter Sara also grew up in the house. “In the early 1990s when I was a teenager there would always be people here and there would always be talking. You would have no clue who these people were but you knew they were somebody, and you just didn’t say anything.”

She recalls her grandfather taking her aside and explaining his role. “You knew he’d been doing something, and knowing him he could only have been doing that because that was his nature and that was his personality.”

In 1990, Duddy brought Oatley back to Derry to meet Martin McGuinness; the contact between the British government and the IRA he facilitated laid the foundations of the 1994 ceasefire. “He believed the IRA were open to starting the dialogue for the peace process even though all these horrible things were happening,” says Larry.

Shankill bomb

Duddy and SDLP leader John Hume were personal friends; they had grown up nearby, and in the early 1990s Hume spent many Saturday afternoons in front of the Duddy fireplace.

“I remember hearing on the radio about the Shankill bomb [in 1993] and I had to come in and tell them,” says Larry. “It wasn’t easy – it felt like you took a step forwards and you were knocked back a hundred yards.”

“But that’s the same day,” interjects Shauna, “that my daddy went, ‘right John, you’re going to have to listen to me. It needs a politician to deliver [peace] to the people.”

Brendan Duddy died in 2017. Michael Oatley was among those who attended his funeral.

“When I think about it now,” says Larry, “and I wonder how many people are walking about now who would be dead if the peace process hadn’t happened.”

The lesson, says Duddy's son-in-law Eamonn Downey, is that peace must be worked at. "If you don't work at peace all the time, things start to slip, and you don't know in this country where you'll end up," he says.

“What people think now about dissident republicans is exactly what most people thought about the IRA back in the 1970s, but somebody had to talk to them.”

Should there be dialogue now? “Of course. They’re not doing to go away off their own bat.”

Shauna stresses the importance of economics. “Look at the deprivation in those areas. Those young boys have to have something to hold on to, and unless there is some sort of economic fix then where else have they got to go?”

Eamonn wonders where the next Brendan Duddy is going to come from.

“Brendan always said in the public life there were the John Humes or whoever for the public to see and hear, and all the time behind that there was another parallel communication which was Brendan, the British and the republican movement,” he says.

“The top layer never knew the bottom layer even existed, but it was the bottom layer where most of the movement was being made, and that layer’s not there anymore.”