In 1919, the British government had its first major encounter with terrorism, when the Irish Republican Army was established to drive the British out of Ireland. The government responded to the IRA’s acts of terror – which included the assassination of civilians as well as soldiers – with indiscriminate reprisals; these were met in turn by further escalation from the IRA. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, declared that the British government would never talk to the “murder gang”, as he described the IRA. But by 1920, it became clear to both sides that a military victory was impossible. Lloyd George secretly began to initiate contact with Michael Collins and other IRA leaders, using a relatively junior former customs official, Alfred Cope – who managed to open up a channel to the rebels and negotiate a ceasefire. This led to full-blown talks in Downing Street in 1921, and eventually to an agreement, albeit a flawed one that later unravelled.
Seventy-six years later, in December 1997, Tony Blair and I sat down in the same cabinet room in Downing Street with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; the negotiating teams, from Sinn Féin and the British government, even sat on the same sides of the table as they had in 1921. On both occasions, the meeting was a big event. There were more TV cameras outside Downing Street than there had been on election day seven months earlier, and we were all nervous. Alastair Campbell had ordered the Christmas tree be removed from in front of the door of Number 10, so that there could be no pictures of terrorists in front of festive decorations.
Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour leader, observed: “All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester.”