The famous Feakle Talks took place 40 years ago this Wednesday on 10 December, 1974 with Smyth’s Village Hotel being the venue for the historic get together of IRA leaders and protestant church leaders to try and bring peace to Northern Ireland. Joe Ó Muricheartaigh met and interviewed two of the key figures in the negotiations before they died in Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Reverend Bill Arlow, both of whom recalled Feakle, its significance and its aftermath.
WHEN HOPE FLOATED IN FEAKLE
THEY had 220 miles ahead of them — cross-country from Belfast on bad roads. And in the dead of night, under the cover of darkness and secrecy, because that’s the way it had to be and how they wanted it.
Only they knew the long journey ahead, their destination and their rendezvous in a place they’d never heard of, much less been before. But again that’s the way it had to be and how they wanted it.
Not even the family members they left behind that night and effectively told ‘you see me when you see me’ had an inkling. All because no one outside the circle of people making the same journey could know.
In the car were the protestant Bishop of Conor, Dr Arthur Butler and Reverand William Arlow, while in other cars there were other churchmen. Dr Jack Weir, a moderator in the Presbyterian Church and Dr Eric Gallagher, president of the Methodist Church in Ireland. Stanley Worrall of the New Ulster Movement and Rev Ralph Baxter. Meanwhile, Rev Arthur McArthur of the United Reform Church and Dr Henry Morton of the British Council of Churches flew into Shannon.
All had been brought together by the Irish Council of Churches and were headed for Smyth’s Village Hotel in Feakle.
They weren’t alone.
Dáithí Ó Conaill, who was wanted in the south dared to cross the border was en route; Seamus Toomey, JB O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon were also on the road after their daring prison break a year earlier when a helicopter picked them up from the roof of Mountjoy Prison.
Sinn Féin president Rúairí Ó Brádaigh journeyed from Longford, vice-president Máire Drumm came from Belfast with party organizer Seamus Loughran, as did Billy McKee, who was just out of Long Kesh.
It was a bad night for travelling — wet and windy, with the squally showers making visibility poor. The following morning wasn’t much better — bitterly cold and wet, with a biting wind whistling around the holiday complex that had been opened that year.
Thing is, the slew of clergymen, the IRA men and Sinn Féin representatives weren’t in Feakle to enjoy the East Clare Way — they were there try and draft a peace plan and end the war.
It was the historic Feakle Talks of 10 December, 1974.
FORTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Rev Bill Arlow, who was behind the wheel leaving Belfast, was the main driver of the whole thing. He was the quietly spoken but fiercely determined ecumenist, who since the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s had dedicated much of his ministry to trying to broker peace.
Having a Roman Catholic grandmother and a Protestant grandfather was at the root of his ecumenical outlook — it meant he always respected those on both sides of the sectarian divide and worked with them too.
In St Patrick’s parish in Newry where his Protestant flock were in the minority; in St. Donard’s parish in the heart of East Belfast in the early 1970s that was a melting pot for sectarian tensions. This led him to found the ‘Good Neighbour’ movement which was established to frustrate efforts of Protestant militants to drive Catholics out of East Belfast.
His time at St. Donard’s ended in early 1974 and soon afterwards the Irish Council of Churches came calling, with its Shannon-based secretary Rev Ralph Baxter making the long journey to East Belfast.
“We need a man for the Irish Council of Churches,” said Rev Baxter. “We want you to be that man. We’re involved in setting up what will be the International Fund for Ireland,” he added.
“I thought I was leaving the real world behind,” recalled Rev Arlow. “Going into the Irish Council of Churches, I thought I was going straight to a talking shop but Glen Williams of the European Conference of Churches soon put me in the picture. His idea was that I’d have to get people together talking before they’d ever be reconciled”.
It was an extension of Rev Arlow’s efforts at ecumenism at St. Donard’s — he brought Protestant and Catholics out to Holland for a conference. They didn’t want to talk, but Arlow had their hotel and plane tickets pre-booked. With no escape from each other, they knocked heads and common ground was found.
The result was the establishment of an ecumenical centre back in Northern Ireland that published its own newspaper and survived sabotage attempts from both sides of the divide. The peace train was running and Feakle was the next stop along the tracks as Rev Arlow approachedSinn Féinb vice-president Máire Drumm and her husband Jimmy.
“Church leaders on the Protestant side would like to sit down and talk with the IRA,” Rev Arlow told them. “We want to know who the IRA are, what they are and what their objectives are,” he added.
This approach led directly lo a meeting in North Donegal, attended by lower level leadership of the IRA and a number of Protestant clergymen. The next stop was Feakle.
“It took about four months to organise and we wanted the Brits in on it,” revealed Reverend Arlow years later. “We wanted a direct link with Stormont and Westminster. We knew the British Council of Churches were continually involved with cabinet ministers and we persuaded them to come in on the talks.
“It was felt nothing but good might come from talks and that we might open a door for the British government. The soundings with the British government were made by Stanley Worrall, a former headmaster of Methodist Collage, Belfast and chairman of the New Ulster Movement and Sir Frank Cooper who was number two to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees.
“The British government knew what was going to happen at Feakle and Cooper was told that we wouldn’t mind if a representative of the Government sat in to listen in on the talks. They declined but said they would be very pleased if we presented them with our findings. That opened the door to Westminster — they were involved.
“The IRA would have gone anywhere — we originally wanted to take them to Holland, but we couldn’t get assurances from the British government that they’d be allowed out of the country and then back in. We gave the IRA a choice of four places and they chose Feakle,” he added.
“The churchmen arranged the meeting,” remembered Ó Brádaigh, “and allowing them pick the venue was one thing. Two of the churchmen had ministered in Clare and they felt they had a feel for the place and chose Feakle,” he added.
“On the way down to Feakle we had fears that this was an effort to stage a publicity stunt on the part of the Republican movement,” continued Rev Arlow. “We were thinking ‘maybe when they get us down here, they’ll hold us to ransom, because they’re capable of that’.
“Then when we got there, we wondered ‘are they taking us seriously’. There was just Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and a few others. We didn’t want to talk to people who were in Sinn Féin. We wanted to talk to the Army Council of the IRA,” added Rev Arlow.
AFTER breakfast on the morning of 10 December the IRA leaders arrived, flanked by armed colleagues.
“They were in anoraks, had guns in their pockets and they took up positions guarding them,” revealed Rev Arlow. “The Provos were taking the matter very seriously,” said Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. “It was big time stuff, have no doubt about it. It was top level people really trying to get to grips with the situation,” he added.
“We were told straight away that all the Army Council were there bar one man,” recalled Rev Arlow. “It was part of their policy to always leave one out, just in case they were apprehended by security forces, so there’d always be one left to carry on the work.
“We weren’t expecting much for the talks straight away, but we felt at least we were breaking the ice and it could be the beginning of something. We wanted to convince them that they were doing their cause no good by persisting in violence.
“Dáithí Ó Conaill told me that people were restless. He said ‘behind every man on the Army Council there is a man with a gun in his hand and when they take over there will never be peace until there’s a united Ireland’. He added, ‘we’re prepared to talk to see where it will lead us’. Seamus Toomey was sitting in the hotel and was wearing dark glasses and Ó Brádaigh said ‘there’s the man you have to convince’,” he added.
The talking could finally begin.
IT was 9.30am on the morning International Human Rights Day — the same day that the former Chief of Staff of the IRA Sean McBride was being presented with the Nobel Prize for Peace — and the Feakle peace talks started.
“The morning session went very well and there was some straight talking,” said Rev Arlow. “Ó Brádaigh was brilliant and Ó Conaill was even better. They weren’t stupid Irishmen from the bogs. These were intelligent men who were fighting for a cause, a just cause from their point of view. For the first time we began to wonder ‘have they a just cause’.
“One of the questions we had was, ‘why are you seeking peace, is the pressure getting to you’. Two of them said — and we have never disclosed their names — that they were seeking peace because they had a young family and they’d spent their life in the cause, didn’t regret it and would do it again, but wanted their children to have a choice, wanted peace and wanted to at least talk about it,” added Rev Arlow.
“We wanted a totally new Ireland — the complete separation of church and state,” said Ó Brádaigh. “We wanted a pluralist society that was neutral and unaligned. It was our vision and that’s what we put to the churchmen that morning.
“Everything was going really well and it was very open-minded on both sides,” continued Ó Brádaigh, “and eventually one of the clergymen said, ‘right let’s break for lunch and in the afternoon we will prepare a worded suggestion of what we want the British government to say about the north’.”
The lunch was nearly over when an IRA mole within the Garda got word to Feakle that 120 rank and file members of the force, as well as 60 armed members the special branch and the army were speeding towards Smyth’s Hotel in the biggest security operation in the history of Clare.
Later, a source close to the Gardai told this reporter that Assistant Garda Commissioner, Edmund Garvey, who became Commissioner in 1975 delayed sending the gardai in, not because of any IRA sympathies, but unlike the Fine Gael/Labour government he was willing to give the peace talks a chance.
“One of the men wearing a jacket and with a gun went straight to Ó Conaill and whispered in his ear that there was going to be a raid,” remembered Rev Arlow. “The churchmen were sceptical,” reasoned Ó Brádaigh, “as they thought it was subterfuge for withdrawal and were very disappointed because they felt the talks were within touching distance of getting to grips with the problem.”
The raid meant that the Feakle Talks were effectively over. Four of the Republican delegation — Seamus Toomey, JB O’Hagan, Kevin Mallon, Daithí Ó Conaill — disappeared into the East Clare countryside, out the Flagmount Road by Slieveanore, coming out on the Galway-Dublin Road at Kilkreekill as the special branch were passing. Only Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, Máire Drumm, Seamus Loughren and Billy McKee remained.
“It was getting dark and we all these headlights — car after car was coming in and the lights were doused. Then the door burst open and this human tide came in on top of us. A number of them had machine guns,” recalled Ó Brádaigh.
“This happened at a time when we were beginning to visualise the impossible happening,” said Rev Arlow. “We were at the door of something and this happened. Afterwards Ó Brádaigh told me that when the security forces came in he was sitting at the fire and with his great sense of humour told them that ‘the men you’re looking for are upstairs in that room there’. They came racing upstairs and I opened the door to them. They got a great shock when they saw a group of eight sedate clergymen.”
Before the talks finally broke up later that evening it was agreed that the clergymen’s proposals for peace would be forwarded to the IRA for their consideration.
“It was Bishop Butler who got the job of giving the proposals to the IRA men and then then went to see Merlyn Rees in Westminster,” said Reverend Arlow. “Rees played it in a very cool way — his point of view was that they were not going to enter into direct negotiations but would respond in a positive way to anything positive done by the IRA.”
Feakle had opened up the possibility of peace.
THE immediate dividend was a unilateral IRA ceasefire from 22 December, 1974 to 2 January, 1975. The window for peace was opened still further when the IRA ceasefire was renewed on January 2 for a further two weeks.
The ceasefire ended on 16 January, only for talks between British government and Republicans to result in a bilateral truce between the IRA and the British that came into operation on 10 February and lasted until 22 September.
“If the talks at Feakle had been allowed to continue the intervening 30 years could have been different,” said Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in 2004. “It’s the great ‘what if’. We don’t know but the possibilities seemed wide open. Here we were getting at the heart of the thing with people who had the say so.
“It was one of the most open discussions that I ever had because it wasn’t propagandising or barging at each other in public or soundbites. Feakle wasn’t given a chance — our attitude was that we were prepared to stay there for days. The clergy were the same,” he added.
At the same time, according to Rev Arlow the path towards peace had been started with Feakle. “Feakle gave the IRA the chance to prove that they could be trusted,” he said. “They realised that the people who met them did so at tremendous risk to themselves. Up to Feakle we were exhorting people to stop hating and killing each other — we were getting nowhere except getting headlines.
“What we did at Feakle was set an example — one of ‘not do as we say, but do as we do’. That was the big thing that took place and despite all the difficulties they have stuck with that. The idea of talking with Republicans that started in Feakle has lasted to this day,” he added.
This was backed up by Ó Brádaigh who revealed that “On Christmas Day (1974) a businessman — who I knew had contact with the British — came to my house with a written message in his own handwriting. It said the British government wanted contact with the movement and to discuss structures on British disengagement from Ireland.”
“After Feakle, there was a committee appointed that had an off the record meeting with the UDA,” continued Rev Arlow, “and at the time we wouldn’t have been thinking in terms of meeting with the Irish government but we didn’t rule it out.”
Lack of Irish government involvement was rooted in the fact that a major policy plank of Fine Gael/ Labour coalition policy was “no negotiation with the IRA” — something that has been held up by peace negotiations as a reason for the Special Branch and army led raid on the Feakle Talks.
“Feakle gave the IRA the chance to prove they could be trusted. They realised that the people who met them did so at tremendous risk to themselves,” said Rev Arlow. “Up to Feakle we were exhorting people to stop hating each other and killing each other, but we were getting nowhere except getting headlines.
“What we did at Feakle was set an example — one of ‘not do as we say, but do as we do’. That was the big thing and that took place and despite the difficulties they have stuck with that. The idea of talking with Republicans that started in Feakle has lasted to his day,” he added.
“Feakle wasn’t given a chance,” said Ó Brádaigh. “Our attitude was that we were prepared to stay there for days. The clergy were the same. The clergy would have been able to get it across to loyalists better, whereas unionism an loyalism would have been distrustful of negotiations between us and the British. It was a big step forward and the pity was we weren’t allowed to develop it more,” he added.
Still, as noted Norther Ireland historian Dr Eamonn Phoenix said “suddenly there was this twinkling candle at Christmas in the form of the Feakle Talks. This brought great hope”.