Newly released Irish State papers from 1990 detail secret contacts with the Republican movement that were eventually to lead to the peace process, and to the 1994 IRA ceasefire, write David McCullagh and Donal Byrne.

There were two routes of contact. The best known is the dialogue between SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, with the assistance of Fr Alec Reid.

But there was a more secret and more direct channel of communication between the British government and the IRA Army Council, involving the Catholic and Church of Ireland chaplains at the Maze Prison, Fr John Murphy and Reverend Will Murphy.

The two Murphys were in direct contact with two members of the Army Council, and with the IRA Chief of Staff, who according to Fr Murphy showed "a particular anxiety to get talks under way at an early date."

They were also in contact with a Northern Ireland Office official, Danny McNeill, who attempted to find out who their IRA link was.

"McNeill apparently kept mentioning Martin McGuinness in that context. Fr Murphy told me that eventually, in order to bury that particular red herring, he finally told McNeill that McGuinness was not involved in the process – something which seemed to surprise McNeill."

But which route was likely to be more productive? The newly appointed Catholic Primate, Cahal Daly, believed that Sinn Féin and the IRA were separate organisations, but he had no doubt which was in charge: "while the IRA was in a position to impose its view on Sinn Féin, the reverse was not the case".

Former Catholic Primate Cahal Daly

The Department of Foreign Affairs agreed with this assessment, which led it to believe that the link to the IRA through the Maze chaplains was probably more significant than the ongoing Hume-Adams process.

A similar point was made by Belfast solicitor Paddy McGrory, who had close contacts with Republicans.

He told Foreign Affairs that while Gerry Adams was "one of the few people in the movement with a long-term view and with a capacity to think in an imaginative way", he was "unable to make any significant move without the approval of the IRA".

In practice, though, the two routes worked in tandem.

Hume, who was talking to Adams without the knowledge of his SDLP colleagues, believed the IRA might call a ceasefire if the governments in Dublin and London cleared the way by making certain statements.

He wanted the Irish government to call a conference of all parties on the island, including Sinn Féin.

Unionists presumably wouldn’t attend, but the rest could "work out a common plan/strategy on the basis of which they would seek to convince Unionists of the value of a United Ireland". This was the basis for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation established in 1994.

His other suggestion was for the British government to say publicly that it had no vested interest in remaining in Ireland.

This finally bore fruit on 9 November 1990, when Northern Secretary Peter Brooke said in a speech: "The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland."

Peter Brooke pictured in 1989 after he was named Northern Ireland Secretary

A few weeks later Danny McNeill - just back from a briefing in London - asked to see Fr Murphy.

He went through Brooke’s speech in detail, and "was anxious in particular that the Army Council should realise that this speech had been addressed to them".

He also told Fr Murphy that Brooke "was generally supportive of the initiative", and that new prime minister John Major "was aware of the initiative but not in a way which would require him to consider taking a decision one way or the other at this time."

In Dublin, the Department of Foreign Affairs believed there was scope for progress, through either or both route of communication between the British and the Republican movement.

Assistant Secretary Dermot Gallagher said the new optimism was due to Margaret Thatcher’s replacement by John Major.

He said: "The indications are that, as of now, Major has no fixed views or indeed little knowledge about NI.

"At the same time, by instinct and temperament, the new Prime Minister is likely to find the Unionist posture essentially anachronistic. Unionist rhetoric, which at least at times struck a chord with Margaret Thatcher, will sit uneasily with his pragmatism."

It would take time, and there would be many twists and turns on the road, but 1990 ended with some optimism that a breakthrough could be on the cards.

[Based on documents in 2020/17/10; 2020/17/16; and 2020/17/36]