Margaret Thatcher's government opened top-secret contacts with the IRA and Sinn Fein in 1990, four years before the IRA cease-fire, according to her former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke.
Government accounts of the secret link have always implied that the key sequence of contacts began in 1993. Ministers main-tain that the contact began in earnest only in February of that year, following a message from Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness that the conflict was over.
But now Peter Brooke has revealed that, as Northern Ireland Secretary, he was involved in the decision to open the contact in 1990, only six years after Mrs Thatcher had herself been the victim of the IRA's failed assassination attempt at Brighton.
In February 1994, as Gerry Adams visited America, Lady Thatcher, as she had become, criticised President Clinton saying: "No democracy should have any truck with terrorists."
It was in 1990 that Sir Ian Gow, the Tory MP who was one of Mrs Thatcher's closest friends, was the victim of an IRA assassination. The IRA killed dozens of people and set off hundreds of bombs before the contacts came to a halt late in 1993.
According to the official account, the confidential channel used to convey messages between the government and the IRA had been in existence for years, but the key sequence of contacts was triggered off only in February 1993 by the alleged message from Mr McGuinness. The present Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, has described this as the initial originating message.
Mr McGuinness is insistent that he sent no message to this effect, and Mr Brooke said he knows nothing of any such message. Mr McGuinness's claim that the talks began as early as 1990 has now been borne out by Mr Brooke's revelation.
According to Mr Brooke, the sequence of contacts opened in 1990 following a recommendation from John Deverell, then MI5's most senior officer in Northern Ireland. Mr Deverell later died in a Chinook helicopter crash in Scotland.
Mr Brooke confirmed his role in interviews for a book on the peace process and for a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary to be broadcast this week. Sir Patrick Mayhew has declined to take part in the programme.
Mr Brooke's revelation means that contacts with the IRA were going on throughout the IRA's intense bombing campaign in Britain which included the mortar attack on Downing Street in February 1991 and the huge City of London bombings in 1992 and 1993.
In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, incidents in this period included the "human bomb" attacks which killed five soldiers and the Teebane crossroads attack of January 1991, in which eight Protestant workers died.
Republicans have said that the principal reason for the collapse of the IRA ceasefire in February of this year was the fact that the British government denied Sinn Fein entry into talks without their setting preconditions such as the decommissioning of weaponry. Republicans say that, ironically, they had more talks with the government before the cessation, while the IRA campaign continued, than they did during the cease-fire.
t The IRA have claimed responsibility for the bomb which exploded in London on Wednes- day night. The bomb caused broken windows in The Boltons, an exclusive square in Earl's Court, west London, but there were no injuries.
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