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Deniable Contact

Back-Channel Negotiation in Northern Ireland

Niall Ó Dochartaigh

Publication Date - April 2023

ISBN: 9780192887535

336 pages
9.2 x 6.0 inches


Deniable Contact provides the first full-length study of the secret negotiations and back-channels that were used in repeated efforts to end the Northern Ireland conflict. The analysis is founded on a rich store of historical evidence, including the private papers of key Irish Republican leaders and British politicians, recently released papers from national archives in Dublin and London, and the papers of Brendan Duddy, the intermediary who acted as the primary contact between the IRA and the British government on several occasions over a span of two decades, including papers that have not yet been made publicly available. This documentary evidence, combined with original interviews with politicians, mediators, civil servants, and Republicans, allows a vivid picture to emerge of the complex maneuvering at this intersection.

Deniable Contact offers a textured account that extends our understanding of the distinctive dynamics of negotiations conducted in secret and the conditions conducive to the negotiated settlement of conflict. It disrupts and challenges some conventional notions about the conflict in Northern Ireland, offering a fresh analysis of the political dynamics and the intra-party struggles that sustained violent conflict and prevented settlement for so long. It draws on theories of negotiation and mediation to understand why efforts to end the conflict through back-channel negotiations repeatedly failed before finally succeeding in the 1990s. It challenges the view that the conflict persisted because of irreconcilable political ideologies and argues that the parties to conflict were much more open to compromise than the often-intransigent public rhetoric suggested.


  • Includes rich new evidence of the operation of back-channel communication in Northern Ireland that has never been published before
  • Explains why efforts to end the conflict through back-channel negotiations repeatedly failed before finally succeeding in the 1990s
  • Engages with theories of negotiation and mediation and extends our understanding of the distinctive dynamics of negotiations conducted in secrets and the conditions conducive to the negotiated settlement of conflict

About the Author(s)

Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Professor of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland Galway

Niall Ó Dochartaigh is Personal Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway. He has published extensively on the Northern Ireland conflict and on mediation, peace negotiations, and territorial conflict. Previous publications include the co-edited books Political Violence in Context (ECPR Press 2015), Dynamics of Political Change in Ireland: Making and Breaking a Divided Island (Routledge 2017), and a seminal study of the Northern Ireland conflict: Civil Rights to Armalites: Derry and the birth of the Irish Troubles(Palgrave Macmillan 2005). He was a founding convener of the Standing Group on Political Violence of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) and the Specialist Group on Peace and Conflict of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).


"An impressive book. Drawing on previously unmined sourcesELhe offers a subtle account of a complex courtshipEL offers important evidence of shifting strategy over the years [and] thoughtful analysis of his own. [Intermediary Brendan Duddy] was a long-distance runner, with all the loneliness and determination of the breed. So, too, in his own way, is Professor O Dochartaigh. To collect and collate the Duddy archive, to piece together the story it tells, to place that story in broader historical and theoretical contexts, to acknowledge that it is only one of many stories in the convoluted history of Ireland-these things take effort and staminaEL [We are] in his debt for his solid and serious monograph." -- Dermot Quinn, Reviews of New Books

"In the light of Niall Ó Dochartaigh's startling book on back-channel negotiations between the UK government and the IRA leadership between the 1970s and the 1990s, it's now clear that British public opinion significantly misread the Provisional IRA - though no more than the IRA's rank and file supporters misunderstood their own leadership. ... in Ó Dochartaigh's dauntingly revisionist interpretation of the Troubles, the continuing conflict becomes far less easy to explain than the much desired peace that took decades to arrive..." -- Colin Kidd, London Review of Books

"a ground-breaking study of great sophistication and deep analysis which provides a better understanding of the complicated and long process that ended violence in Northern Ireland... It is extremely well written and has something of a cloak and dagger quality that keeps the reader engaged and in suspense. the full story of how and why the IRA and the British government ultimately came to the negotiation table after a quarter-century of conflict has now been illuminated by Niall Ó Dochartaigh in his comprehensive and deeply researched analysis The analysis is also enriched by the various theoretical works on peace making and negotiation that the author consulted and weaved into his narrative" -- Catherine Shannon, Irish Literary Supplement

"[This] important new bookEL takes us through the twists and turns in this secret diplomacy, with particular attention directed towards three initiatives - the first in 1975-76, the second in 1981 and the third in 1990-91 - when the British government and Provisional Irish Republican Army 'initiated back-channel contacts aimed at a peaceful compromise. Ó Dochartaigh tells a very compelling story ...[and] he offers us a rare glimpse intoEL a missing dimension of the Northern Ireland conflict." -- Aaron Edwards, Irish Political Studies

Table of Contents

    Introduction: Negotiating Political Violence
    1. Escalation: 'Their War Got Out of Hand and Ours Got Out of Hand Too'
    2. Negotiation: 'Dogmatic and Impossible Demands'
    3. The Intermediary: 'A Vessel to be Used'
    4. Contact: 'Climbing a Mountain Without Ropes'
    5. 1975 Ceasefire: 'Everyone Trying'
    6. Long War and a Policy Vacuum: 'Passing the Time Decently'
    7. The Hunger Strikes: 'Playing Their Last Card'?
    8. British Policy and IRA Strategy: 'A Difficult Hand to Play'
    9. Back to the Back-Channel: 'They Should Tell Us Privately'
    10. Peace Process: 'All Their Cards on the Table Including the Deeds of Their House'
    Conclusion: Negotiation, Transformation and Strategic Action
    Epilogue: Diaries of a Long-Distance Runner

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