No actual negotiations had taken place, it said, claiming that it had simply offered advice to the IRA after the terrorists sent a message 'that the conflict was over'.
Both Unionists and nationalist sources were last night treating the Government's version of events with scepticism. One nationalist source said: 'This admission had to be literally squeezed out of the British. Who knows what revelations have still to come?'
A statement from the Northern Ireland Office confirmed claims by Sinn Fein that high level contact had taken place. This had been denied by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who as recently as last Monday insisted that 'nobody has been authorised to talk or negotiate on behalf of the British government with Sinn Fein or any other terrorist organisation'.
Earlier government denials had been widely disbelieved in Unionist and nationalist circles in Belfast and Dublin, and the adjustment in the Government's public position could further undermine its credibility.
The Government was forced to admit that it received a message from the IRA leadership in February 'to the effect that the conflict was over but they needed our advice as to the means of bringing it to a close'. The Northern Ireland Office statement followed the leak of a document, published in early editions of a Sunday newspaper, which contained a transcript of an aide memoire, in the words of Sir Patrick, delivered orally to a Sinn Fein leader, Martin McGuinness, in March.
It emphasised that 'this process' is 'fraught with difficulties for the British Government' which was, nevertheless, 'prepared to tackle these and accept the risks'. But it adds that 'all acts of violence hereafter could only enhance these difficulties and risks, quite conceivably to the point when the process would be destroyed. If that were to occur, the British Government would consider that a potentially historic opportunity had been squandered.'
In what appears to be an admission that some form of negotiation might be taking place the document adds: 'We, on our side, are ready to answer specific questions or give further explanation.'
However the the Government last night argued that it was merely responding to the IRA's request for advice and it simply repeated what had been said publicly: there had to be a genuine end to violence.
The admission appears to confirm claims that secret contacts between the Government and the IRA's Army Council were stopped after pressure earlier this year from the Ulster Unionists.
The Government will now come under pressure to substantiate its assertion that the IRA had said its campaign was in effect over. It will also need to explain how the IRA went on, after receiving government advice, to carry out the Warrington and Bishopsgate bombings in the following months.
British and Unionist sources yesterday said that a go-between was used by British intelligence to make contact with IRA chiefs of staff. The talks are thought to have taken place between March and June after the February approach, and to have broken down at about the time when the Government entered its Parliamentary arrangement with the nine Official Unionist MPs.
The intermediary - described by one source yesterday as 'a do-gooder' such as a churchman rather than a politician or civil servant - sought to bridge some of the differences between the two sides, raising questions with government representatives and relaying answers.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, dimissed the Northern Ireland Office statement as an attempt to distract from the facts. He said the Prime Minister and the Ulster Secretary had lied about contacts with the IRA or Sinn Fein. 'More importantly in their desperation to protect their positions they are squandering an opportunity for peace.'
Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein leader, will claim today on BBC Television's On the Record that contact between the Government and his party is continuing - sometimes daily.
He recounts contacts going back to October 1990. This includes a meeting in Northern Ireland 'between a representative of the Foreign Office and myself'.
Unionist reaction will be watched closely. John Taylor, Official Unionist MP for Strangford, said: 'This information will be an embarrassment to Sir Patrick Mayhew. Every time he has spoken he has been playing with words. It discredits the standing of the Government.'
The news will also complicate preparations for the Anglo-Irish summit. Tensions over the agenda are believed to be the cause of Downing Street's refusal to confirm the date of the meeting pencilled in for Friday.
The SDLP leader John Hume yesterday told Mr Major that it 'should not be too difficult' for the Government to bring about an end to violence in Northern Ireland. Mr Hume told his party's annual conference in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, that he was convinced the IRA was serious about bringing about a lasting peace.
The leaked document
THE document, published by the 'Observer', is a transcript of an aide memoire which the paper says was delivered orally to Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness last March. It refers to a document, 'Annexe C'. The aide memoire said:
'The following instructions should be delivered orally to (deleted) when you hand over Annexe C in written form.
'In handing over this written message - and you need make no bones about the fact that it is a written message that you are handing over - you should emphasise to all the following points:
You should emphasise that this process is fraught with difficulties for the British Government, as must be obvious.
They are nevertheless prepared to tackle these and accept the risks that they entail.
But it must be recognised that all acts of violence hereafter could only enhance these difficulties and risks, quite conceivably to the point when the process would be destroyed.
If that were to occur, the British Government would consider that a potentially historic opportunity had been squandered.
The paper gives out substantive advice in response to the initial message. As it makes clear, we wish to establish whether this provides a basis for a way forward.
We, on our side, are ready to answer specific questions or give further explanation.
You should also emphasise to your interlocutor the British Government's acknowledgement that all those involved share a responsibility to work to end the conflict.
We agree on the need for a healing process. We wish to take a positive view of these developments and hope that it will be possible to continue to do so.
You should be aware that the above has been personally approved by SOSNI (the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew).
In fact all but the first sentence of the first paragraph is his own wording. In other words it is not negotiable.'
The Government's response
THE Northern Ireland Office statement read:
'The public should not be misled by this published text. No one has been authorised to conduct talks or negotiations on behalf of the Government with the Provisionals, Sinn Fein or any other organisation perpetrating or supporting violence for political ends.
At the end of February this year a message was passed on to the Government from the IRA leadership. It was to the effect that the conflict was over but they needed our advice as to the means of bringing it to a close. The Government obviously had to take that message seriously, though we recognised that actions, not words, would be the real test.
The Government had already made it publicly clear what had to be done by those who used or threatened violence for political ends. If they wanted to enter into talks or negotiations with the Government, there first had to be a genuine ending of violence.
The Government accordingly responded to the IRA's request for advice. The response reinforced and spelt out in a private message what the Government had consistently said publicly. There had first of all to be a genuine end to violence. It also repeated the constitutional guarantee.
The text now published (This is believed to refer to the publication of a leaked document on the Government's response to the IRA's overtures published in the Observer today) contains the wording of instructions given by the Government for the transmission of that response.
As the text makes clear, the response provided the advice that had been requested. It continues to reflect the Government's policy, which has again recently been made clear by the Prime Minister and by the Secretary of State.
The IRA have not delivered the ending of violence envisaged in their original approach. They have continued to inflict untold misery and grief upon the public. It is for them to explain this. There can be no excuse for such terrorism. Their duty is to end it at once.'
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