The Secret IRA Meetings: Communications 'go back some years': Mayhew insists he has told truth but Government's credibility hangs on Commons statement today

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The Independent Online
THE FOLLOWING is an edited transcript of yesterday's press conference held by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who said:

''The Government's position has long been made perfectly clear by the Prime Minister and by myself over a long period of time - that nobody has been authorised to undertake talks or negotiations on behalf of the Government with the IRA, with Sinn Fein, with any organisation that undertakes terrorism, undertakes violence for political purposes. That has remained the case and it is the case today. We received at the end of February a message coming from the leadership of the IRA, which . . . said 'the conflict is over' and it said that they needed advice, and that's to say British advice, as to how it could be brought to a close.

'I have certain responsibilities and first and foremost among those is the responsibility for every single life in Northern Ireland. It was necessary to decide what, if any, response should be made to that.

'A response was sent, and an important feature of that response was this. The position of the British Government in dealing with those who espouse violence is clearly understood. This is why the envisaged sequence of events is important. We note that what is being sought at this stage is advice and that any dialogue would follow an unannounced halt to violent activity.

'The request for advice which we received at the end of February, came by a channel or chain of communication that has been in place for some years and that channel of communication has been the means of communicating, in each direction, messages. I wish to say now that nothing that has followed the communications of February and the reply that I have mentioned, nothing on the part of the British government has stepped outside that policy, to which we attach very great importance, and I may say that that exchange of communications has continued not only just up to July, as I see has been suggested, it has continued up to and including the first week of November. I shall, if I am permitted to make a statement tomorrow in the House of Commons, explain these matters. I intend also to place in the Commons library all the communications that since that date in February have taken place in consequence of it. And then I shall be entirely content to have the matter judged both by Parliament and by the people of Northern Ireland as to whether there has or has not been a worthy response to a statement received in February from the leadership of the IRA claiming the conflict is over.'

'I am satisfied that what I have said has represented the truth, namely that nobody has been authorised to conduct talks or to carry on negotiations on behalf of the British government with Sinn Fein or the IRA.'

Interviewer: 'Did you have the impression at that stage, Secretary of State, that this was an unconditional end (to violence) that would be talked about?'

Sir Patrick: 'Yes. I did. I certainly did. The message said: 'The conflict is over but we need your British advice as to how to bring it to a close'. Any unconditional, any invitation to bargain, would have been dismissed out of hand.

'There is a chain of communication and I have made that perfectly clear. I am not prepared to enter into a discussion or a description of the character of that chain, who makes up its links. To do so could enganger lives and I am not prepared to do so.' Interviewer: 'Do you accept that you deceived the people of Northern Ireland?'

Sir Patrick: 'No, I don't. I accept this; that had I neglected to take on the basis that it was serious, the message from the IRA leadership that violence was at an end, that the conflict was over, I would have failed in my duty to them and that is, in my opinion, what matters.'

Interviewer: 'If you got your message so clearly in February- March from the IRA, why are you still using this line of communication, right up to the first week of November, when bombs are still going off and when people are still being shot in Northern Ireland?'

Sir Patrick: 'I will tell you why, because on 2 November a further message was received by the same chain and that message invited a reply and a reply was sent on 5 November. That reply made precisely the same point that there can be no dialogue at all without a permanent end to the violence and there will be no dialogue at all without a permanent cessation.

'I have seen accounts that officials have had face-to-face contact with IRA members. I understand that there was one occasion at the beginning of, I think '92, it may have been the end of '91, where a particular person who was not just an independent intermediary, did conduct an unauthorised meeting.

'Martin McGuinness, I see, has spoken of such an occasion. There was one other occasion of which we have recently learnt where there was an unauthorised meeting, face to face, and whatever resulted from it has not formed part of any communication subsequently sent by the British government.'

Interviewer: 'Could you tell us what the difference in principle is between talking to somebody and writing to somebody?'

Sir Patrick: 'Well if you talk to somebody, you actually use the mouth, don't you? If you write . . .' (Made writing gesture with hand.)

Leading article, page 13

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