Revealed: priest’s role in stemming 1970s IRA violence

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In 1993, a year prior to the IRA first laid down its arms, the existence of a secret “back channel” between Martin McGuinness and MI6 was unmasked on the leading page of the Observer.

The alleged Derry Link – which connected the British government with the Provisionals’ leadership via a former priest – eventually generated the IRA’s cessation of violence annually later.

At that time the revelation of a clandestine nexus was sensational. But a brand new book on the outbreak of the Troubles 50 years ago this month suggests that it had in fact existed long before, and had been used to stop specific IRA attacks even through the very earliest years of the conflict.

Denis Bradley, a cleric who significantly more than 20 years later organised covert talks between McGuinness and MI6 officers, passed on advice from Derry’s chief police that the Provisionals should call off certain shootings and bombings in the first 1970s, in line with the book.

In Fifty Years On by the Belfast journalist and author Malachi O’Doherty, Bradley says that he and a Royal Ulster Constabulary veteran, Frank Lagan, convinced the area IRA to cancel some operations because they knew they’d been compromised in advance by special branch via its informers.

Reflecting on his relationship with Lagan, Bradley says: “He and I became fairly, well, ‘close’ – a strange word because Lagan was an extremely tall, rustic human being, maybe not the kind of guy you could have an in depth emotional experience of, but I was very trusting of him and he was trusting of me. ”

Bradley, who was simply ordained in 1970 but gave up the priesthood at the conclusion of that decade, was also trusted by McGuinness, then the rising star in the emerging Provisional IRA in Derry and beyondT who went on to become Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the peace process. Lagan thought that he could use his contacts to stymie some attacks.

It absolutely was not straightforward: in the book Bradley claims Lagan told him that RUC special branch knew about some upcoming IRA operations but let some just do it – probably because it would protect informers inside the Provisional’s Derry Brigade. Nonetheless, Bradley says, that he and Lagan together sent messages to the IRA leadership in the city that halted numerous attacks. That he refuses to specify which IRA operations that he and Lagan allegedly helped stop.

“I also was aware through him [Lagan] of the issue with Special Branch because he was informing me quite often of how difficult it was. That he used me on numerous occasions to obtain things stopped because special branch could have let it go ahead and people might have ended up dead, ” that he says.

Bradley went on to become vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board in the first 2000s. Lagan was the RUC’s chief superintendent in Derry during the time of the Bloody Sunday march in 1972.

He proposed marchers be allowed right through to their in the pipeline destination in Derry’s city centre, and later argued the violence which left 13 unarmed civilian protesters dead – could have been “relatively contained” if that had happened. Through his link with Bradley, Lagan was presented with assurances from the Provisional and Official IRA that there could be no guns at the protest. Lagan died this past year aged 88.

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