British promise of Irish unity ‘unauthorised’
British promise of Irish unity ‘unauthorised’


Efforts to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement have been complicated by a former MI5 agent’s claim that a promise of British support for a united Ireland helped convince the leadership of the Provisional IRA to agree to a ceasefire in 1994.

The MI5 spy said he had defied orders to meet IRA leaders in March 1993 after talks had been called off by the British government.

The BBC’s Peter Taylor told a documentary that he has been trying to find the spy for almost 30 years. He said that what the spy said during the talks was not authorised by the British government, but the meeting encouraged the IRA to declare a ceasefire and move towards the process that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The minutes of the meeting had been published by Sinn Féin in 1994. They confirm that the spy said: “The final solution is union… this island will be as one.”

“Those words are so controversial and so important,” says Taylor in a BBC documentary ‘The MI5 Spy and the IRA: Operation Chiffon’.

“To Unionists such words would be seen as the ultimate betrayal.”

The journalist says he wanted to hear what was actually said from the spy’s own lips, but to do that he would have to track him down.

The codename for the talks operation was “Chiffon” and it was designed, according to Taylor, to get the IRA to call a ceasefire and embrace the political process.

“It was a seminal meeting that I believe in the long term culminated in the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago,” the veteran reporter says in the documentary.

Set up in 1991, Operation Chiffon worked as a secret ‘back channel’ of communication between the leaders of the IRA and the British government. The spy was known to the IRA as “Fred” but his real name is Robert.

In the documentary, Robert reveals to Taylor that his face-to-face talks with the IRA on 23 March 1993 had not been authorised by the British government.

“I was... on my own, dealing at one remove with the IRA’s leadership in the most crucial matter affecting Irish and probably British politics. I knew I had to succeed, and only consistency and patience would achieve this.” He said that for years, he felt guilty for doing what he did.

“Yes, I misled the prime minister so I misled the Queen as well. It was a hard and really very unpleasant thing to have on your conscience. I felt very alone.”

Despite Britain officially cancelling the meeting, the spy resolved to go ahead, defying his boss, the head of MI5 in the north of Ireland, who had ordered him not to go. He was worried that by not turning up for the meeting, the embryonic peace process would be put in jeopardy.

During the meeting, Martin McGuinness asked what the intentions of the British were, believing that Robert was speaking as he had presented himself - “the British Government Representative”.

Robert said that the goal was ultimately to unify Ireland.

His exact words were noted down in minutes written by Gerry Kelly: “The final solution is union. It is going to happen anyway. The historical train - Europe - determines that. Unionists will have to change. This island will be as one.”

The spy has now told Taylor that he had no authority to make such a claim.

“Those words are so incendiary and so important because they appeared to indicate that, behind the scenes, the British government had a policy - that it wasn’t divulging at this stage - to work towards Irish unity,” explains Taylor.

Speaking to Taylor in February, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly described the meeting as a “seminal moment”.

“We were told he was a British government representative. We just took him at his word - that’s what he was there for, he would represent the British government and therefore we were talking to the British government,” says Mr Kelly.

“It gave hope there was a possibility of a peace process through meaningful talks. I think he [Robert] did the right thing and he can claim to have been part of history,” he said.

Meanwhile, former participants in the peace process have been giving interviews and attending events in the lead up to the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10.

In one interview, former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams described the agreement as the most important Irish political event in the past 100 years.

“It’s a rather complex agreement. Interestingly enough, it’s an agreement to a journey without agreement on the destination,” he said. While acknowledging that it did not guarantee a united Ireland, Mr Adams, 74, said he believed it could happen in his lifetime.

In the interview, Mr Adams insisted the IRA had enough support to continue its armed struggle, if it wanted, but the peace process presented an alternative way forward.

The former Sinn Féin leader said: “We realised that the IRA could have continued for ever, because it had the base of support that it had, and it had obviously the capacity.”

Asked if it could really have continued “forever”, he replied: “Oh yes. For as long as it deemed it necessary, and had there not been the initiatives taken to present the alternative.”

The failure of the agreement to deliver a pathway to a united Ireland, such as the promised referendum on Irish unity, has been blamed for the continuing armed campaign by the New IRA and other groups, but Mr Adams said he believed he would see a united Ireland.

“It will come in phases. We’re actually in a process of change,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’ll live on until I’m 100 but certainly I’d like to think if I live long enough, that I will grow old in a free, united Ireland.”

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