Obituary: Brendan Duddy
Chip shop owner and 'quiet hero' who was one of the most important negotiators of peace in the North
Brendan Duddy, who has died aged 80, was a fish-and-chip shop owner who, after clandestine talks with British MI6 agents, played a vital, though little-known, role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
As it turned out, Duddy's influence within the IRA helped lead to the ceasefire of 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. He was known as "a quiet hero of peace".
For almost 20 years, from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, Duddy, a Catholic, was part of a "back channel", holding secret meetings with Michael Oatley, a British MI6 operative known to the IRA as "the Mountain Climber", and IRA leaders. Every one of those meetings was extremely dangerous to both Duddy and Oatley. Duddy recalled one secret conference in a hotel, after which he heard IRA men in a room below him discuss vehemently whether they should kill him there and then.
As for Oatley, he was profoundly aware that he was considered "underground" and that the British government would be more likely to report his death as a "traffic accident" or something similar. After all, wherever he was, he was not supposed to be there. "I was extremely uncomfortable and often feeling great trepidation," Oatley explained to a friend. The British government professed to have a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and Duddy and Oatley were doing just that.
Both Duddy and Oatley were visionaries of sorts. The former, a pacifist, wanted a united Ireland and saw peace in the North as the only way forward. He was looking for a link to the British government and a way to understand the political motivations of the men of violence. Oatley simply wanted peace. He was a maverick who frequently did not even tell his own bosses at MI6 (SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service), to say nothing of prime ministers - from Harold Wilson to John Major - what he was doing. The IRA liked that, and came, via Duddy, to trust him.
Duddy, codenamed "Soon" by British intelligence, was a staunch Republican. The 1972 Bloody Sunday shooting of civil rights marchers by the British Army in his own town of Derry changed his life. He was angry but he was able to discern the bigger picture. He predicted: "There's a catastrophe coming, a war."
The following year, Michael Oatley, notionally a British "diplomat", was sent to Northern Ireland to, as he later recalled "make some sense of it all". Oatley's official title was assistant political adviser to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw.
In troubled Northern Ireland at the time, informed insiders - notably the IRA - knew that Oatley was an intelligence officer. That was not an easy label to live with, particularly when venturing into the IRA bastions of West Belfast and Derry.
Oatley was the first to admit that his MI6 predecessor in Belfast, Frank Steele, a former colonial officer and one-time travelling companion of Wilfred Thesiger, was a key unrecognised figure in the road to peace in Northern Ireland. It was Steele who put Oatley in touch with Duddy. Oatley recalled that, while trying to get IRA leaders to and from Northern Ireland and the Republic for talks, the IRA men would be buried under blankets in the back seat or the boot of cars. Border guards were tipped off.
In Belfast, and in a safe house in the mountains near Derry, senior IRA figures, such as Billy McKee and Ruairi O Bradaigh (president of Sinn Fein from 1970), began meeting Duddy and Oatley. In the early 1990s discussions were held at Duddy's own home in Glen Road, Derry, that included Martin McGuinness.
Oatley decided to adopt a negotiating method they characterised as a "bamboo pipe", an instrument you could blow into and hear back from, without anyone knowing who was at the other end.
Duddy's existence was concealed from Merlyn Rees when he took over as Northern Ireland Secretary in March 1974. But Oatley explained the bamboo pipe system to the permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland office, and is quoted by the diplomat Jonathan Powell in his 2014 book Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts: "The pipe is held by Brendan Duddy. I haven't said anything yet since we are not allowed to talk to the IRA. But if I go puff puff at one end then he can feel me going puff puff and if he goes puff puff back I can feel him, so we know we are there. Now we have this pipe, can we start putting bits of information down it to turn it into a relationship or a dialogue?"
The prime minister agreed and so a dialogue between the IRA and the British government began. Duddy was the most reliable intermediary the British had and so he soon became the main clandestine channel of communication to the IRA. After that period in the mid-1970s, culminating in the IRA's cessation of violence in 1975, the back channel sprang to life again at the time of the hunger strikes in 1980 (ultimately without success) and again in 1991, when the exchanges began which would lead to the 1994 IRA ceasefire.
Brendan Duddy was born in Derry on June 10, 1936, to Laurence Duddy and his wife Mary. After finishing school, and with a sound business mind, young Brendan opened a fish-and-chip shop, one of its specialities being beef burgers. Duddy introduced a delivery service, and one of his first delivery van drivers was a young Martin McGuinness, then a deeply committed young man, who would go on to lead the IRA. The bond between Duddy and McGuinness would last for the rest of their lives.
Shortly before his death, McGuinness recalled that Duddy's role in Northern Ireland had spread far afield. When McGuinness, on behalf of Sinn Fein, visited Colombia in 2014 as part of his consultation work, the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos told him that in their negotiations with Farc, the country's powerful Left-wing rebel group, they had codenamed their own back-channel negotiator "Brendan".
Duddy remained closely involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, quietly, for the rest of his life. At the same time, he built his fish-and-chip shop into a major business. The Duddy Group is now involved in bars, restaurants and hotels, including a planned new Holiday Inn in Derry and the Ramada Hotel in Port Rush.
The BBC investigative journalist Peter Taylor, who in 2008 produced a memorable documentary about Duddy, The Secret Peacemaker, described him as "the unsung hero of the Troubles".
"I don't think the part he played has ever been fully recognised and his place in history will be quite rightly secured," Taylor said.
"The fact we have a relative peace in Northern Ireland would not have happened without the remarkable efforts Brendan made. I'm sure that took its toll on him. He was a very fit, athletic, agile man. I think it took its toll in the long term and he did it at great risk to himself and his family."
Brendan Duddy is survived by his wife Margo and children Patricia, Lawrence, Paula, Brendan, Shauna and Tonya.
Brendan Duddy died on May 12.