By Dominic Casciani
BBC News at the National Archives
Ministers encouraged links between rival paramilitaries at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Talks: IRA members met UDA
Papers released after 30 years at the National Archives show ministers supported talks between the IRA and loyalist Ulster Defence Association.
The talks led nowhere, but officials hoped they would strengthen the hand of politically-minded figures.
Historians have recorded such contacts were explored, but official involvement has until now remained largely secret.
In one of the 1974 documents, the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Merlyn Rees, told Prime Minister Harold Wilson some unnamed leaders from the Provisional and Official wings of the IRA had met UDA members.
Andy Tyrie, the loyalist organisation's leader, had organised the talks without the knowledge of many of his supporters, said Mr Rees.
"A recent conference of the three groups, attended by over 60 of their members, produced indications from politically-inclined Provisional leaders (particularly the Belfast ones) that they wished to find an opportunity of halting the terrorist campaign," said Mr Rees.
He went on: "Senior members of the other two organisations indicated some understanding for the Provisionals' point of view and some willingness to collaborate in propounding solutions which might permit them to stop.
"There was a certain amount of camaraderie. There are to be further meetings."
'Modest unattributable support'
Mr Rees said the meetings were taking place in utmost secrecy, but the government was providing "modest unattributable support" through channels the documents does not explain.
These channels may have been clergymen who later helped broker the IRA's failed 1975 ceasefire.
Mr Rees said: "It is not clear how far the leadership of each group feels committed to a programme of discussion and compromise or how far each group can expect to be backed by its rank and file.
"The Officials are probably the most enthusiastic, the Provisionals less so, and the UDA merely willing to experiment.
"The existence of the programme certainly strengthens the hands of those in each group who wish to move away from terrorism and there is direct evidence of this in relation to the Provisionals."
The recent collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement amid the Ulster Workers' Council strike had demonstrated the power of loyalist paramilitaries to influence events in Northern Ireland.
At the same time, there were rumours some loyalists wanted to resurrect an idea to repartition Northern Ireland, creating a smaller but exclusively Protestant state.
Documents at the National Archives show British officials knew of the plot and feared it would lead to a bloodbath, although they were certain it would fail if attempted.
Bloody year: 220 killed in 1974
What however remains uncertain is how the IRA, which is also thought to have known about this plan, then came to be drawn into discussions with loyalists.
One theory is that an independently-minded republican took it upon himself to contact the UDA believing repartition would be good for both groups.
In one of the more bizarre episodes of the Troubles, these contacts led to a number of UDA men visiting Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi, then an enthusiastic supporter of the IRA, in November 1974.
Senior republicans also held meetings with Protestant churchmen during 1974, talks which paved the way for the IRA's abortive 1975 ceasefire.
The IRA reorganised itself for a "long war" and republicans began putting more effort into Sinn Fein's political campaigning. It was the seeds of this more complex republican strategy that officials saw in the meeting with the UDA.
Key figures in Belfast
"A substantial body of opinion within Sinn Fein favours the alternative of political actions - a reduction in the terrorist campaign; pressure for the ending of detention (which is a change in tactics); negotiation with extreme loyalist groups and, ultimately, ourselves," Mr Rees told the prime minister.
"Unfortunately there is little evidence that its members have realised their present lack of electoral appeal," he added.
As for the loyalists, Mr Rees believed some members of the Ulster Volunteer Force were interested in taking a normal political path but "they are sadly na´ve and ill-equipped to do so".
"Our policy should be to continue to keep ourselves well informed with discreet encouragement but not direct involvement," he said.