Disbelief in Britain's words . . and in peace: Mayhew stumbles, the documents don't match, and British credibility in Ireland reaches a new low . . and in Belfast, some hold on to the new hope, but the mood among many is doubt and a bloody foreboding

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THE OLD Sir Patrick Mayhew was a big, bluff character with a genial twinkle in his eye and a ready smile. Some in Belfast thought him perhaps a little patronising, but in general he was accepted as a man of rectitude and straight dealing, as indeed befits a former Attorney- General.

The new Sir Patrick Mayhew made his first appearance at a Stormont Castle press conference last Sunday. Pale, tense and unhappy, he stumbled through his explanations of why he had been in protracted contact with Sinn Fein and the IRA.

His audience was not a receptive one, for it consisted of journalists who had heard him repeatedly deny such contacts. Absolutely untrue, he had insisted. His press officer had scoffed at one such report from the journalist Eamonn Mallie: 'It belongs more properly in the fantasy of spy thrillers than in real life.'

Sir Patrick, asked by Mallie how he would react if somebody produced evidence of such contacts, had chortled condescendingly: 'I should be very interested to see it.'

The production of that evidence last weekend - by Eamonn Mallie - introduced us to the new, grim, non-chortling Sir Patrick. The press conference was unimpressed by his performance. 'We have witnessed you being extremely nervous,' one woman journalist told him with Belfast directness. 'I think we noticed you swallowing, and your syntax has gone to pieces several times.' He made a hurried, graceless exit after his ordeal, leaving his glasses behind.

He was, by all accounts, deeply apprehensive about how the House of Commons would treat him the next day. As it turned out he need not have worried, for it was understanding and there was hardly a breath of criticism. For tactical or other reasons, Labour, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP gave him an easy ride.

The only really outspoken critic was the Rev Ian Paisley, who was escorted out after calling the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland a liar. Afterwards a Catholic woman doctor said: 'I never thought I'd feel sorry for Paisley, but I did then. They threw him out for telling the truth.'

Sir Patrick justified his actions by emphasising several key points. The context of the exchanges was that, in February of this year, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein had contacted the Government with the message: 'The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.'

The Government had a duty to respond to that message, he said, to loud support from the Conservative benches behind him. In the contacts that followed there had been no talks or negotiations: messages had been sent in written form. There had been two meetings with Sinn Fein, but these were unauthorised.

Everything communicated in private had been consistent with the Government's publicly stated positions. To demonstrate this, Sir Patrick said, he was placing in the Commons library all consequent messages received and dispatched by the Government.

Sinn Fein denied each of these substantive points at a series of press conferences where Gerry Adams's body language, radiating cool confidence, was in marked contrast to Sir Patrick's edginess. Sinn Fein said the present series of contacts had begun not this year but in 1990; that Martin McGuinness had never sent such a message; that the meetings had been authorised; and that real negotiations had taken place.

But at this stage the issue seemed to be fading. Sir Patrick's secret contacts had been revealed, and while in Ireland there was much head-shaking and talk of perfidious Albion, he had been exonerated by Parliament. The IRA and Sinn Fein were contradicting him, but then they would, wouldn't they?

Then new points emerged. Sinn Fein issued some documents before Sir Patrick issued his, and comparison of the two versions showed that vital parts had been altered by one of the parties. Someone was engaged in large-scale deception: forging, omitting and doctoring documents. Each accused the other of fabrication.

One point of central importance was whether Martin McGuinness actually had asked for advice on how to bring the conflict to a close. Sir Patrick told the Commons that he had, but there was scepticism in Ireland that McGuinness, with his reputation as a militaristic hardliner, would have acted in such a way. Furthermore, the message was supposed to have come in February, yet the conflict is clearly not over: the killings and bombings have continued.

A key paragraph in a document sent by Sir Patrick to the republicans on 19 March touched on this point, but he and Sinn Fein published different versions of the text. Sir Patrick's version read: 'We note that what is being sought at this stage is advice, and that any dialogue would follow an unannounced halt to violent activity. We confirm that if violence had genuinely been brought to an end, whether or not that fact had been announced, then dialogue could take place (our italics).' This offered strong support for the assertion that Martin McGuinness had indeed asked for advice.

The republican version said: 'What is being sought at this stage is advice. The position of the British government is that any dialogue could only follow a halt to violent activity. It is understood that in the first instance this would have to be unannounced. If violence had genuinely been brought to an end, whether or not that fact had been announced, then progressive entry into dialogue could take place (our italics).'

At first the claim and counter-claim on the issue of advice could not be resolved satisfactorily, but the phrase 'progressive entry into dialogue' unexpectedly offered a vital clue as to which version was accurate.

AMONG THE material published by Sir Patrick was a later message in which the republicans told him: 'We need clarification of the phrase 'progressive entry into dialogue'.' This apparently innocuous phrase now assumed great importance, since it did not appear anywhere else in the exchanges. The Government said it had published all consequent exchanges: how then did it explain its absence?

When asked on Tuesday to account for this, a Northern Ireland Office spokesman said: 'We are checking this out.' On Wednesday afternoon, in response to the same query, the spokesman said: 'The only thing we can say at this stage is that the matter is being examined carefully.'

The response, when it eventually came, was unexpected. Late on Wednesday night, too late for News at Ten or the first editions of the newspapers, Sir Patrick announced that a number of errors had come to light. There were 22 of these, which, he said, had been caused by typographical and transcription errors: 14 were in the key 19 March document and eight in the section mentioning advice and dialogue. He said that 'transcription was mistakenly made from a late draft'.

One of the amendments Sir Patrick announced was that the phrase 'progressive entry' should be inserted into the text. The other amendments meant that Sir Patrick's document was now identical to the republican version; but the forced admission of errors amounted to a success for Sinn Fein.

It was another blow to the Government's credibility, leading in Ireland to more head- shaking and more talk of perfidious Albion. Mr Paisley accused the Government of fabricating documents, adding: 'They made the changes so quickly they made very obvious mistakes that have exposed the fabrication.'

There remain serious weaknesses in Sir Patrick's lines of defence. He said the Government did not negotiate, but his own version of events contains details of intricate toings and froings. Martin McGuinness has given a lengthy account of a web of contacts stretching back to 1990. Of his meetings with officials he said wryly: 'They were authorised meetings which became unauthorised meetings when they were caught out.'

What particularly concerned the Irish government was Sinn Fein's assertion that the British Government had been passing on detailed briefings about last year's confidential inter-party talks in which Dublin was involved. The republicans produced a Government document to back their claims, which among other things showed that the Northern Ireland Office hoped to manipulate the independent chairman: 'The idea is to ghost-write his report,' it explained.

In other words, it seemed Britain had been passing on to Sinn Fein and the IRA confidential information on the Dublin government and the constitutional parties. This prompted the Irish government chief whip, Noel Dempsey, to talk bitterly of the British 'dealing from the bottom of the deck'. The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, made a personal complaint to John Major when they met in Dublin on Friday.

The hard fact for the Government is that the revelations mean it is now widely disbelieved, by both Unionists and nationalists, in both north and south. A great deal of damage has been done to its credibility and worse may be to come, for Sinn Fein has more documents up its sleeve. Mr Paisley, who in his own way is a master of exegesis, is promising a pamphlet underscoring the inconsistencies in the Government's documents.

The fact is that, even after 22 changes to them, these documents still do not fit or read like an authentic record of events. In a 10 May message to the Government, for example, the republicans state: 'We wish now to proceed without delay to the delegation meetings.'

These 'delegation meetings' are mentioned nowhere else in the Government's record, which once again seems incomplete. Sinn Fein's explanation for the phrase is that the British offered it two weeks of talks, involving six-strong delegations from each side, in which the British would seek to persuade it that the IRA campaign of violence was unnecessary. Sinn Fein says the IRA offered a two-week ceasefire to facilitate this, but that the idea was not followed through.

THE PROBLEM for the Government is that such an exercise, while an intriguing notion, would clearly have violated its stated point of high principle of not negotiating until the campaign had stopped, not only temporarily but permanently.

The Government's position is that the republicans were proposing a complete cessation of violence. Sinn Fein says a ceasefire of only two weeks was on offer, and that the Government excised the phrase 'even though it may be of a short duration' from its document.

The Government's documents tend to support Sinn Fein's version, for the republican message talks of the IRA making 'a gesture' to facilitate delegation meetings 'so that we can both explore the potential for developing a real peace process'. The republicans were hardly likely to describe such a momentous step as the permanent ending of their campaign as 'a gesture'; and if they had ended the violence before the meetings, there would have been no need to speak of developing a peace process.

Three weeks after this message, the Government says it received another, repeating that the IRA had placed on the table the offer of a total cessation. The republicans say this message is a British fabrication intended to bolster Sir Patrick's point that he would not contemplate negotiations during a temporary ceasefire. Yet the next British message in the sequence actually contains the phrase: 'The reasons for not talking about a permanent cessation are understood.'

In just over a week the Government has been forced to reverse its position and admit contacts, and forced to change its documents. The saga is by no means at an end: almost certainly, more revelations lie ahead.

If even half of what the republicans claim is correct, a truly appalling vista is being revealed: ministers lied to Parliament and public about their contacts, and are lying still about the real extent and nature of these; passed information on the Irish government to terrorists; and have published concocted documents as part of a continuing cover-up.

At the moment the Government's mood seems to be one of relief that the immediate storm has been weathered without ministerial casualties. Efforts are being made to get back to business as usual.

In Ireland the criticism has been relatively muted, but the authorities should not delude themselves that things can ever be as they were. The fact that a mixture of politeness and tactics is holding back a storm of protest does not mean that the British Government's credibility has not taken the most severe blow imaginable.

* * * * * * * *

THE DUKE OF YORK pub is in Commercial Court, a narrow alley off Belfast's Donegall Street. On its walls are framed caricatures of journalists and lawyers who once drank there but are long dead (one of the lawyers murdered by the IRA), and of some of the barmen who served them in the blissful days before the Troubles. One ex- barman's image is missing: that of Gerry Adams, who swapped his apron a quarter-century ago for the leadership of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political section.

Gerry Adams is seldom, if at all, discussed openly in the Duke of York, political talk being hazardous. Nevertheless, with exchanges involving him taking place between respected political leaders on both sides of the Irish Sea, Ulster folk are having to re-examine their attitudes to change.

I talked to some of them last week, businessmen and professionals, in the course of which the subject of Mr Adams came up in a gloomy corner of the Duke of York. Here, a Catholic lawyer who has been studying the current 'peace process' with an increasingly jaundiced eye, remarked: 'Whatever happens, Gerry Adams can't lose.'

Highly successful and respected in both the Protestant and Catholic communities, the lawyer feared the process would 'fizzle out' and be followed by 'more nakedly sectarian' warfare. 'Loyalist car bombs in (Catholic) estates such as Ballymurphy will make people turn back to the gun,' he predicted. 'It will be a publicity coup for the IRA.'

Despite the treacherous fissures opening up as a result of allegations of lies and forgery on the part of the British Government and its terrorist interlocutors, his dejection seemed surprising. Yet few of the others consulted were unreservedly optimistic.

Two miles away, with his back to a leaded window, Gordon Beveridge, vice-chancellor of Queen's University, suggested that the Japanese word kaizen would push things in the right direction. 'It means, whatever you do today, do it better tomorrow,' he said. Dr Beveridge, a Scottish Protestant, believes it is time for Ulster's business leaders to 'stand up and say we all have to do something for peace and stability; then everyone, every day, must do something for peace and stability.'

But kaizen is not that simple, with so many 'peacemakers' engaged in subterfuge. On 22 November, almost a week before details of secret exchanges between the British government and the IRA became known, Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, hosted a private dinner in Belfast for Protestant politicians, among them Peter Robinson (Ian Paisley's number two) and John Taylor, MP and former bulwark of the Unionist establishment before Britain decided, in 1972, to rule the province directly. All the Protestant politicians told their host they would never trust the oath of a British minister. Events since then will not have diminished their (or their constituents') scepticism.

'What happened after Shankill Road (the IRA bombing which killed 10) and Greysteel (a loyalist reprisal which killed seven) was a widespread and tangible fear,' the Catholic lawyer said. 'People who'd thought they were inured to violence were suddenly shocked into saying: 'Jesus] This can't go on]' But this impetus, this determination to bring it to an end have all just slipped away. (Catholic) people think the moment has passed, (and) I think the pendulum has swung in favour of the Unionists.'

If he is right, not all Unionists seem aware of it. They observe confidence in the Catholic community, bolstered by demographic change (with Catholics now 42 per cent of the population, Ian Paisley is urging Unionist women to 'get out and breed'), and by anti-discrimination laws which have dramatically enlarged the Catholic middle class.

In a new book about Catholics in Northern Ireland (In Search of a State), Fionnuala O'Connor says that, from the least to the most political, the two communities are convinced that one can gain only at the other's expense: 'The alienation voiced by a large variety of Protestants over the past year - dread of British disengagement mixed with protest at political and economic advances for more numerous Catholics - merely confirms Catholic conviction that the essence of Unionism is a desire for supremacy, not accommodation.'

Few Catholics, Ms O'Connor believes, are disposed to 'empathise' with Protestant fear. 'Decades of Unionist assertions on behalf of 'the people of Ulster' - as though Catholic nationalists did not exist - make it difficult for Catholics to take seriously the now frequent complaints by Unionists about nationalist insensitivity.'

In Britain, some may think the current peace initiative will transcend all this; the Belfast bourgeoisie is less certain. A Catholic shopkeeper in Peter Robinson's constituency told me he was preparing to sell up and get out: the penny finally dropped the other night when a police Land-Rover appeared outside the shop at closing time to make sure he was safe from loyalist paramilitaries. 'I'd rather be ruled from London than by the Unionist crowd here,' he said. 'In nationalist- controlled town councils, such as Derry and Newry, you will find Unionist mayors. But Unionist-controlled councils can't countenance a Catholic mayor. I can't see them agreeing to any compromise.'

Asked if he thought Northern Ireland's status was about to change for ever, a Protestant businessman, Robert Calvert, boss of an office design and equipment company, manifested confusion. 'There will be some continuing euphoria that a way out of the conflict is actually being discussed,' he said. 'People are desperate for good news. But John Major should be careful not to concede more than he ought to . . . (otherwise) it would create a loyalist backlash and disappoint middle-of- the-road people. It might be better to have a devolved parliament than develop a new relationship with the Irish Republic.' Otherwise 'the place might be torn apart'.

Mr Calvert is 61, politically uninvolved, 'sickened' by Mr Paisley, and calls Ulster's intercommunal friction 'a 20th-century shame'. He sympathises with the Catholic leader John Hume's efforts to make the island of Ireland capable of being shared 'by us all'. He paused. 'And of course the wind of change is blowing all over.' He paused again. 'Perhaps a settlement would help business confidence. I think we're going to have to realise what side our bread is buttered on.'

There is an even more accommodating Protestant outlook. 'Most of the Protestant working class didn't realise what had been going on,' said a Harland & Wolff draughtsman. 'They saw no problem in the fact that the shipyard was dominated by the Masonic Order and Orangemen who ensured that Catholics didn't get promoted - if they got jobs at all.'

He believes that, aside from small groups of extreme loyalist paramilitaries, today's Protestant employees can adapt to an Anglo-Irish-Unionist deal offering 'fair play'. 'There is no tension, no hostility, no discrimination in the office today. And we have a mixed football team. People in Northern Ireland are just going to have to accept change. Though there are bigots about.'

Edmund Curran, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, an evening newspaper whose well-integrated staff and liberal outlook eclipse a sectarian past, is less sanguine. 'I don't think there is a basis for a change in Northern Ireland's status,' he said. He accepts that, although an 'Irish dimension' is essential to a solution, the one sought by Dublin (a British statement of intent to leave Northern Ireland at some future date) would have consequences 'too terrible to contemplate'.

Unionists, he feels, had put themselves 'on the hook': by saying they would 'never, never accept' the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, they have made it hard for themselves to enter a new pact essentially similar to the old one but more acceptable than alternative solutions being bruited about.

Mr Curran's office building, up the street from the Duke of York, has more than doubled in size since the Troubles began, its huge extension optimistically sheathed in glass. He predicts Unionists will be given a British parliamentary Select Committee to oversee Northern Ireland's affairs, a restoration of some pre-direct rule powers, and an 'Irish dimension' consisting of a revamped Anglo- Irish treaty to promote such cross-border enterprises as tourism. 'It doesn't look as if enough is going to be given to satisfy the Irish government.'

Further up Donegall Street, opposite a funeral parlour, is the Irish News, a morning newspaper whose traditional sympathies (nationalist) have also been diluted by a mixed staff and modern outlook. Its chief executive, James Fitzpatrick, suspects that the 'peace process' is 'permanent'. He too believes there will be some form of democratically elected assembly in Northern Ireland, but is unsure that Unionists would tolerate nationalist involvement in its executive decisions. 'The mood, in the business community at least, is 'Let's get peace and sort out the political problems afterwards',' he said.

The fact that many are disinclined to be named when asked to guess the future may be a reflection of the secrecy that has surrounded the 'peace process'. A Catholic, prominent in labour relations, said his 'Unionist friends' expected 'sufficient safeguards' to the union with Britain. A Protestant civil engineer could see little evidence that either side would compromise sufficiently for peace: 'I think Britain is probably manoeuvring for eventual withdrawal,' he said.

There are some who contemplate peace with mixed emotions. 'There is a resigned pessimism in the professional classes that the end of the Troubles will mean the end of a nice little earner,' the Catholic lawyer said. 'Lawyers, an increasing number of them Catholics, have made fortunes from all sorts of hearings - property damage, personal injury, discrimination. Doctors have profited enormously from medical- legal spin-offs. Accountants have benefited from consequential loss claims and the like. Builders, glaziers - they all live in the suburbs or the country, physically untouched by the Troubles. And will the paramilitaries want to give up their lucrative protection rackets which pay for six-week holidays in Australia?'

He could not see a quick solution. 'The last time I believed in the magic-wand theory of politics was when I read Aladdin,' he said as we left the Duke of York, unable to imagine a settlement that would place Gerry Adams behind its bar again, polishing glasses.

Leading article, page 20

(Photograph omitted)