Page last updated at 18:34 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

Powell puts cat among the pigeons

By Brian Rowan

Jonathan Powell
Jonathan Powell made the claims in his new book

"I did not facilitate meetings between Sinn Fein and the DUP last year."

The email dated 18 November 2005 was sent on behalf of a senior journalist.

It contained a response to questions I had sent him about suggested talks/meetings involving the DUP and Sinn Féin.

"As a journalist, working in a competitive, dangerous environment, I talk to people from all sides, all the time.

"I will never reveal sources in relation to my work. My position on that principle will not change," the email continued.

I was not expecting him to discuss his journalistic work and sources with me - nor did I ask him to do so.

My questions were put because I had been told of contacts between the DUP and Sinn Féin during the negotiations of 2004 - and of the role of a journalist.

It is the same "back channel" that Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell makes numerous references to in his recently published book - Great Hatred, Little Room - Making Peace In Northern Ireland.

In his writing, Powell reveals that Gerry Adams told him about his party's contacts with the DUP - something Powell said the British already knew about, including that the contact "passed through a journalist".

The timing of this was in the early part of 2004.

Powell has considerable detail on the backchannel, much of which confirms what I was told in 2005.

One of my sources told me that the Irish government was reporting details of the contacts to the British government during the course of 2004.

And two sources confirmed the role of a journalist in those contacts - sources whose information I had depended on in crucial moments of the peace process.

On Friday 14 October 2005, I put the suggestion of the contacts to both Sinn Féin and the DUP - to senior members in both parties.

In one meeting I got blank looks and in the other, I recorded in my notes, "big denials".

The DUP's position was put to me in an email on 21 November 2005.

It read as follows: "With reference to your email I have already told you that no such meetings took place.

"The position of the Democratic Unionist Party in relation to dealings with Sinn Féin has always been clear and unambiguous," he continued.

"The party was not and is not involved in negotiations/meetings with Sinn Féin.

Details on the contacts did not emerge from sources that could in anyway be described as anti-peace process

"The party leadership have not at any time sanctioned or had knowledge of any meetings at any level between anyone from Sinn Féin and anyone from the DUP or anyone acting on behalf of either or both.

"As no such meetings took place the rest of your questions are not relevant," he wrote.

The email also warned: "The party, or any members named, would not hesitate to take action through the courts and/or press/media regulatory bodies as appropriate in order to correct any inaccuracies which may appear and will use this and other previously sent correspondence as an indication of prior warning having been given."

'Senior figures'

On that same date another source said there had been meetings in 2004, they involved "senior figures" on both sides and that the contacts were about "demonstrating seriousness" in relation to the negotiations of that period.

Sinn Féin's written response to my questions read: "This story, like so many others at key points in the peace process, emanates from sources who are opposed to the peace process and is designed to create difficulties.

"Sinn Féin does not intend to engage in this negative agenda which is about undermining the search for agreement."

Details on the contacts did not emerge from sources that could in anyway be described as anti-peace process.

If republicans have been involved in something of this nature, then there will be a paper trail

The taoiseach's office was also careful how it responded.

"In the 10 years that the taoiseach has been involved in the peace process a great number of people and parties have assisted in terms of progressing issues in Northern Ireland.

"It has not been our position to comment on these matters."

Jonathan Powell has now written in some detail on this matter - and he writes with considerable authority.

It reminds me of the IRA-British government backchannel denied for so long but exposed in an explosion of information in late 1993.

The lesson of that period is to be careful what you deny. Sir Patrick Mayhew (now Lord Mayhew) ended up looking like a fool.

If republicans have been involved in something of this nature, then there will be a paper trail - a note of who said what, the messages that passed between the two, the who, what, when and where of all of this.

Martin McGuinness
Mr Powell writes about the role of Martin McGuinness in a process of contacts

Certainly there are more questions to be answered as a result of Jonathan Powell's book.

He is a key witness in all of this - in the claim and counter claim.

In his book he writes about the role of Martin McGuinness in a process of secret or private contacts.

As I recently wrote in the Belfast Telegraph, I was told of that role in 2005 - that McGuinness and his senior adviser Aidan McAteer were both involved.

The involvement of those two men says a lot and says that republicans took seriously the contacts.

It does not suggest that they believed they were involved in some maverick or freelance exercise - or that they were involved with junior players.

McGuinness, in all the heat and importance of that negotiation back in 2004, would not have shared a proposed army council text unless he knew who he was sharing it with and for what purpose.

Why, some ask, would you need a back channel if the two sides were negotiating through the British and Irish governments?

There is a simple answer - better to hear it from the horse's mouth.

I suppose, if you were in the DUP's shoes, better to hear it from Martin McGuinness than Jonathan Powell, better to be sure.

Powell has also said there was a journalist intermediary.

The DUP at its most senior level is insisting that its first direct meeting with Sinn Féin was in March 2007 - on a weekend and just before the Paisley/Adams news conference of Monday 26 March.

Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley junior were involved in those talks - in their first meetings with Sinn Féin and Martin McGuinness.

But if Jonathan Powell is right and my sources are right - there were other contacts before then, much, much earlier.

Not involving the individuals named above - but others.

I can understand what was in it for both sides - the importance of hearing positions directly outlined, and not having to depend solely on third party assessments.

The danger in all of this is that the denial continues and the truth emerges.

Jonathan Powell has put a political cat among the pigeons.

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