British Cabinet Account Of 1972 IRA Ceasefire Talks

By Ed Moloney and Bob Mitchell

Thanks to some good detective work at the national archives at Kew, where the British government’s records are stored, my colleague Bob Mitchell unearthed this previously unseen account of the July 1972 talks between the IRA leadership and a British government delegation headed by William Whitelaw, then the NI Secretary.

The talks were the ill-fated culmination of a bi-lateral truce between the IRA and the British forces which began on June 26th, 1972 and they took place at a house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea owned by then government minister Paul Channon on Friday, July 7th. Although an agreement was reached to meet again on July 14th, the ceasefire broke down two days later in a violent confrontation between British troops and the IRA in the Lenadoon district of West Belfast over the rehousing of Catholic refugees.

The document is an account of the talks given to then prime minister Ted Heath by Whitelaw and Northern Ireland Office official Philip Woodfield, who had earlier met Gerry Adams and Daithi O Connail to arrange details of the ceasefire, and was written up by the personal private secretary of the prime minister Robert Armstrong, who later became Cabinet Secretary when Margaret Thatcher was premier. It was written on the same day the encounter took place and is marked ‘Secret and Personal’, suggesting the distribution of the file may have been limited to a select few cabinet members or even just to Edward Heath.

The document confirms that while the British were prepared to be flexible over the timing of troop withdrawals and an amnesty for IRA prisoners – these were “negotiable”, Armstrong wrote – the issue of Irish national self-determination, or “Declaration of Intent” as the document described it, proved to be the breaking point. The IRA delegation’s leader, Sean MacStiofain demanded the British recognise the right of all the Irish people to determine the future of Ireland.

But as Armstrong put the British side: “It was difficult to see how the IRA leaders could accept any reformulation of  the Declaration of Intent which preserved the British Government’s commitment not to alter the status of Northern Ireland except in accordance with the will of the majority of people of Northern Ireland.” In the face of this disagreement Armstrong’s colleague Philip Woodfield predicted the IRA would resume violence “forthwith”, which they did within 48 hours.

The British would have to wait some 26 years, until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, before an IRA leadership was prepared to take the step outlined by Armstrong. Ironically two of the IRA’s six-man delegation at Cheyne Walk, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would be to the fore in crafting that shift in republican ideology. The document shows that on the crucial issue of Irish self-determination it was not the British who eventually blinked.

Other interesting aspects of the document are: the exchange between the IRA leaders, principally Sean MacStiofain, the Chief of Staff  – who was “very much in charge” according to Armstrong – and the Whitelaw delegation was tape-recorded. Whether this was done openly or secretly and without the knowledge of the IRA delegation is not recorded. Transcripts of the recording, Armstrong wrote, would be made available to Heath by the Monday morning.

Armstrong’s account makes it very clear that the British knew that they were talking at Cheyne Walk with the IRA leadership and the document listed the members of the group’s delegation. This included one “Mr Adams”; the British did however appear to have trouble understanding the Northern accent. Gerry Adams’ then close friend and colleague on the staff of the Belfast Brigade is described as “Mr Bell (or Barl)”. His name was in fact Ivor Bell.

12 responses to “British Cabinet Account Of 1972 IRA Ceasefire Talks

  1. Ed,

    Very cool. Just going over that section in the new draft of the book.thanks!


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  8. Hi Ed, I was wondering if you have the National Archives reference for the source above?

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