(by Henry McDonald, The Observer)
MARGARET Thatcher - who vowed in public never to negotiate with terrorists - used the secret "back channel" between the IRA and MI5 as far back as the 1981 hunger strike to offer republicans a deal to end the prison fast.
The link between MI5 and the IRA, the former Derry priest Denis Bradley, confirmed yesterday that Lady Thatcher also approved of the clandestine talks which led to the Northern Ireland peace process in early 1990.
Bradley said Lady Thatcher knew that a senior MI5 officer, Robert McLarnon, had been holding talks with him and the IRA leadership during the hunger strike. According to Bradley these contacts were resumed with the former Prime Minister’s full knowledge before she was deposed as Tory party leader in November 1990.
Speaking from his home in Derry yesterday, Bradley said: "I was actually in the room with Robert McLarnon and IRA leaders when a phone call came from a European summit during the hunger strike. Thatcher was at a European summit but kept in contact with us by phone. An offer was made to republicans to end the hunger strike; it was actually a better deal than the one they eventually settled for. At the time the republican movement was not in control, it was the prisoners who were in control and the leadership could not take on the prisoners. As far as I remember the offer was made after the second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, died. What we were being told was that this was the Prime Minister’s last offer on the hunger strike."
Lady Thatcher was holding a summit for European leaders at Chequers on May 12th 1981 - the day Francis Hughes died in the Maze.
On the 1990 talks, Bradley said Lady Thatcher was aware of that the "back channel" had been activated to explore if the IRA wanted to end their violence.
John Major gives a hint in his new memoirs that his predecessor knew about the talks when he writes that Peter Brooke re-opened the channel in 1990 - when Lady Thatcher was still Prime Minister.
"That’s undoubtedly true," said Bradley, "Maggie Thatcher knew it was going on because she herself had used this channel all the time particularly during the 1981 hunger strike."
Bradley takes issue with Major’s claim that Robert McLarnon acted on his own behalf when the first meeting was held between him, Bradley and the IRA leadership in Derry.
"John Devereux, who died later in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash, was meant to have accompanied Robert McLarnon to Derry for the meeting. Instead Robert came on his own. I was in the room when Martin McGuinness said ‘Was this authorised by the British Prime Minister?’ To which McLarnon said ‘Yes.’ If Major is saying that McLarnon came of his own volition then that’s baloney. What was happening was authorised but deniable."
The former priest whose close relations with Martin McGuinness and other republican leaders enabled him to maintain a channel of communication with the British government for over a decade before the peace process paid tribute to McLarnon.
"Robert McLarnon was one of the bravest men I have known. He pulled the peace process into being, he was a man of integrity and courage."
Last year The Observer revealed that Denis Bradley was the main conduit between the British government and MI5 to the IRA leadership for nearly 15 years. He is exasperated at Lady Thatcher’s current opposition to the peace process and her public conviction that she never talked to terrorists.
"Maggie Thatcher knew about the talks and used us in 1981. There is no way she was unaware about what we were doing," he said.
In Lady Thatcher’s own autobiography she said she was wrong to appease nationalists in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Today she is a bitter critic of the peace process and has condemned Tony Blair for release terrorist prisoners early even though she was prepared to indirectly negotiate with other terrorist prisoners back in 1981.