The secret peacemaker: A quiet leader of our time

Professor Mark Stein of the School of Business mourns the key intermediary between the British government and the IRA with Leicester connections, who has died aged 80.
The secret peacemaker: A quiet leader of our time

Brendan Duddy


Brendan Duddy, the ‘secret peacemaker’ and intermediary between the British government and the IRA during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, has died aged 80 in his hometown of Derry on 12th May of this year. Duddy was someone who pursued dialogue and peace with extraordinary doggedness and perseverance, and played a key role in negotiating the settlement.


Duddy began his working life in modest circumstances in Derry in the late 1960s, running a fish and chips shop to which a young Martin McGuinness – subsequently the IRA Chief of Staff – delivered hamburgers. Following the terrible events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry in 1972, Duddy became the principal, secret link between McGuinness/the IRA and the British authorities. Codenamed ‘Soon’ by the British authorities, he retained this role over a two-decade period, meeting regularly and in clandestine and difficult circumstances, sometimes at his Derry home.


Duddy’s life, and the lives of his family, were constantly in danger: he recalled, for example, one secret meeting in a hotel during which he overheard IRA men in a room below discussing whether they should kill him there and then. But through sheer grit and determination, his efforts bore fruit: Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, is one of many who has acknowledged this pivotal role, saying that without Brendan Duddy, there may never have been a peace deal. Duddy’s role and significance only became clear in later years, especially following a BBC documentary entitled ‘The Secret Peacemaker’, broadcast in 2008.


So, what is the connection with Leicester? Well, during the time of his secret work, Duddy attended –  and subsequently was on the staff of – the ‘Leicester Conference’, a two-week group relations and leadership training programme. First run in 1947, the Leicester Conference is the longest-established group relations training programme anywhere in the world, one that has trained thousands of leaders, and become a model for countless training programmes elsewhere. While the conference began as a joint project between the University of Leicester and the Tavistock Institute, subsequently it has been run by the Tavistock alone, but it continues to be run at the University of Leicester on an annual basis. The University – and especially the School of Business – has recently established closer links with the Tavistock, with further plans to reinvigorate the collaboration.


Duddy had a long association with the Tavistock Institute and the Leicester Conference, and especially with the Tavistock’s Gordon Lawrence, who was his coach and mentor throughout the time of the troubles. Although the nature of his work was highly secret, Duddy used the ‘Leicester Conference’ as the place to learn about group dynamics, and develop his already considerable group and leadership skills; subsequently, he helped train many others using these methods.


Anyone who had the good fortune to come across him at group relations training events and conferences, as I did, will remember him as someone who was unassuming, highly focused, with great passion and presence. With the exception of Gordon Lawrence, none of us had the faintest clue about his secret, double life, and about the profound but dangerous work he was engaged in. Subsequently, he has given talks about this work, always delivered modestly, never boasting about what he did, but focusing rather on the challenges and difficulties he faced. These talks were invariably followed by standing ovations in his honour, and one left with a feeling that one had been in the presence of a truly remarkable person.


Especially in the wake of the ‘Secret Peacemaker’ BBC documentary, Duddy’s reputation has spread, and he has become a role model for negotiators and mediators elsewhere. Martin McGuinness reported that, during the troubles in Colombia with the rebel group Farc, President Juan Manuel Santos told him that the chief back channel negotiator was codenamed ‘Brendan’.


Duddy’s funeral was attended by people from all over the political spectrum, including members of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and Irish President Michael D Higgins. As the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland (Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh) has said, ‘in a world of violence, conflict and threats of war, we need more people like Brendan Duddy. Rest in peace’.

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