IN the fall-out from yesterday's revelations about Prime Minister John

Major's secret links with the IRA leadership, it can easily be

overlooked that such conduits have been used by governments over the

Loading article content

past 21 years. Many of these unrecorded contacts have been made through

intermediaries. But several important occasions have been recorded.

In his autobiography a former Irish Minister, Dr John O'Connell,

recalls how in March 1972 he was approached by Irish republican leaders

to act as a go-between with Harold Wilson, then Leader of the

Opposition.

O'Connell, a Labour MP in Dublin, travelled to London to give Wilson a

document setting out IRA proposals for a ceasefire.

On March 13 Wilson met O'Connell in Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel.

O'Connell took Wilson to a rendezvous, where the IRA leaders were

already sitting at a long table.

Wilson, accompanied by Merlyn Rees, Joe Haines, and Tony Field, sat at

the other end of the table facing David O'Connell, Joe Cahill, and John

Kelly.

Nothing came of this meeting but it provoked angry reaction, not least

among the Irish Labour Party, when news of it leaked shortly afterwards.

However, the IRA's desire to have talks with the British Government

was more successful later that year.

In June 1972, two IRA members in Londonderry urged the chief of staff,

Sean MacStiofain, to offer a one-week suspension of terrorist operations

if the Northern Ireland Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, would agree to a

meeting.

On June 13 the IRA made its peace offer public. But Whitelaw said he

could not respond to ''an ultimatum from terrorists''.

On June 14 John Hume and Paddy Devlin, two leading members of Northern

Ireland's constitutionalist nationalist party, the SDLP, said that the

IRA offer was sincere. They called on Whitelaw to meet the IRA.

On June 20, 1972, two IRA members met with British Government

officials in Belfast to discuss a truce.

On July 7, 1972, a group of IRA leaders were flown to London in a

Royal Air Force plane.

They were MacStiofain, David O'Connell, Ruairi O'Bradaigh, Seamus

Twomey, and Ivor Bell.

Significantly, among them were two young IRA members who are now at

the centre of the current efforts of Sinn Fein to enter the political

dialogue -- Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

In London the IRA group was taken to the plush Chelsea home of Paul

Channon, Whitelaw's junior Minister. The IRA refused the offer of a

drink.

According to McGuinness the IRA wanted Whitelaw to provide a

declaration of Britain's intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

This demand was not met. The lesson drawn by McGuinness was that ''the

British don't give easily''.

The next dramatic attempt to reach a peace agreement with the IRA came

in early December 1974.

A private meeting was held in a hotel in the village of Feakle in

County Clare between eight churchmen and the IRA leadership.

But this meeting was interrupted when the IRA members received an

intelligence warning that the hotel was about to be raided by the Irish

police.

But after an 18-hour meeting to consider the case put by the churchmen

for an end to the violence, the IRA announced on December 18 its

intention to observe ''a temporary cessation of activities from midnight

of December 22 to midnight of January 2, 1975''.

This ceasefire was extended to January 16, but broke down despite

various meetings between one of the churchmen with Merlyn Rees, by then

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Later in 1975 a political row broke out when Rees denied that Britain

had given the IRA a commitment to withdraw their troops from Ireland.

Until yesterday's confirmation of more recent links between the

Government and the IRA, there had been repeated indications that

contacts were taking place.

A key figure in opening up dialogue with the IRA was the late Cardinal

Tomas O'Fiaich. His death in May 1990 was reported to have come just

when the IRA was considering a peace formula.

Subsequent talks were taken up by the Bishop of Derry, the Rev. Edward

Daly. These were parallel to the talks first undertaken in 1988 and

resumed this year by John Hume, the leader of the SDLP with Mr Gerry

Adams.

In April of this year Gordon Wilson the retired businessman, whose

daughter Marie was murdered by the IRA in the 1988 poppy day massacre in

Enniskillen, met the IRA. But he said the two-hour meeting was

pointless.