Irish Talks: A bunch of toughs, a bottle of Guinness, aristocratic sex, and the odd de Valera lecture on Irish history

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The tale of the last time Ulster Unionists formally met republicans, 75 years ago, involves political drama, a great deal of violence, several bottles of Guinness and a certain amount of sex.

In 1921, with killings going on in both parts of Ireland, James Craig, prime minister of the fledgling northern state, courageously placed himself in the hands of the IRA to meet Eamon de Valera in Dublin. It was an awkward encounter, not least because a duplicitous British official had told each man that the other had requested the meeting.

De Valera recalled: "I said after the first few moments' silence, `Well?' I then said, `I'm too old at this political business to have nonsense of this kind, each waiting for the other to begin', and I started putting our case to him."

De Valera launched into one of his legendarily protracted reviews of Irish history, Craig later recounting that after half an hour he "had reached the end of the era of Brian Boru". The meeting came to nothing, Craig judging de Valera "impossible".

A series of more promising meetings took place the following year between Craig and Michael Collins.

Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, brought them together, later recording: "They met in my room at the Colonial Office which, despite its enormous size, seemed overcharged with electricity. They both glowered magnificently but after a short, commonplace talk I slipped away upon some excuse and left them together. What these two Irishmen, separated by such gulfs of religion, sentiment, and conduct, said to each other I cannot tell."

Churchill sent them in for lunch not only mutton chops but also several bottles of Guinness, apparently ignorant of the fact that Collins did not like porter. Even without its lubricating qualities, however, Craig and Collins unexpectedly succeeded in reaching agreement on a number of issues.

According to Craig, he asked Collins "straight out whether it was his intention to have peace in Ireland or whether we were to go on with murder and strife, rivalry and boycott and unrest in Northern Ireland". Collins, he reported, "made it clear that he wanted a real peace, but hoping to coax her [Northern Ireland] into a union later".

Within days, however, the accord was swamped by escalating violence. Two further meetings were held, the second producing a detailed agreement headed by the statement: "Peace is today declared." Once again, however, the tide of violence swept the agreement aside as the south degenerated into civil war.

The element of sex in the tale came from the exotic Anglo-Irish Londonderry family. Craig was accompanied at the final meeting by Lord Londonderry, a member of his cabinet, who also met Collins privately and later enthused: "I can say at once that I spent three of the most delightful hours that I ever spent in my life."

Londonderry may not have known that his wife had formed a close and apparently sexual attachment to Collins. In a passionate letter Collins wrote to her, he said of her husband: "I contrast myself with him, my uncouthness with his distinction, my rough speech with his unconscious breeding and the worst of it is I like and admire him and feel that he is brave and honest."

The 1920s meetings contain many echoes of modern politics but seem to offer few lessons apart, perhaps, from the general point that busy politicians should keep an eye on their wives.