Former Derry News editor Garbhan Downey pays tribute to secret peacemaker Brendan Duddy
DURING my time at the Derry News, I got to know Brendan Duddy well. He was, without question, one of the most interesting and charming people I ever interviewed.
He genuinely believed his purpose in life was to serve – whether by seeking peace in Ireland, or by setting up facilities such as the House in the Wells and the Northlands Centre for addiction sufferers (like his late mother).
He was also hugely likeable, which helped a lot when you were trying to deal with him. Because by God, he was not perfect either. And when you got Brendan, you got the full package.
For a man who spent his life keeping secrets, until the day and hour he took the stroke in 2010 he literally never stopped talking.
He loved nothing better than sharing his considerable expertise in anything from chip-making to women’s fashion accessories to banking. At length. Usually before you’d even asked. And particularly when you’d thrown him a question he didn’t want to answer. He could blow more smoke than Vesuvius.
And I’m not saying he kept an eye on his money either, but I was once specifically pulled aside and warned by one of Duddy’s family never to go ‘skip diving’ with him. They were sick and tired of the driveway being cluttered up with his prizes, so they’d called a meeting and banned it.
So if, as we hear, there is to be another Nobel Prize for bringing peace to the North, it should go directly and unopposed to Duddy’s wife Margo, and his children Tricia, Larry, Paula, Brendan, Shauna and Tonya, for not throttling him. Saints, as you’ll remember, can be tough to live with.
Most of all, however, Duddy was a profoundly kind man, who cared and worried deeply about those around him.
For more than 20 years, because he believed it was his Christian duty to bring peace to Ireland, he put his neck on the line every single day without anyone ever knowing what he was doing.
His belief that he, one man and his dog, could deliver a solution, where nations, governments and armies were repeatedly failing, was undoubtedly quixotic. Possibly even messianic. But none of us would be where we are today without him.
Brendan Duddy, a fish-and-chip man from the Glen, helped change the world and make it better.
It is hard today for people to conceive the danger Duddy put himself through. Given that he was so valued and trusted by the British, there were those who wanted him executed as an MI6 agent. Some were actually insisting on it, while others maintain to this day they were right.
Loyalists, meanwhile, were convinced Duddy sat on the IRA Army Council, and they wanted to shoot him too.
So, Duddy’s first ally in peacemaking, the Derry RUC superintendent Frank Lagan, convinced him to acquire a pistol, which he slept with, under his pillow, for more than ten years.
Duddy had little time for sides, however, other than his own. It took me a while to work this out; his angle was the common good – doing the right thing. And his understanding of what constituted the right thing was often much better than any of the groups he was dealing with.
So to that end, he regularly upset, and occasionally infuriated, both the IRA and the British. He berated them when they were they were cowardly, or bullying, or digging in their heels. And he pushed them into doing things they didn’t want to – sometimes even counter to their own direct orders - by using tactics and techniques that Machiavelli could only aspire to.
Both groups lost patience with Duddy and broke off relations at different stages. Brendan did not always play fair. He knew he was a poor gambler, so he thought nothing of stacking the deck if had to. But the same man could charm his way out of anything.
And when the British government and the IRA finally sat down and talked directly with one another in the mid 1990s, he was the man who brought them together. And they were discussing an agenda, which Duddy had spent a lifetime helping shape and put together.
And here’s the key thing people forget about Duddy: he wasn’t just a message-post or a pipeline, he was a dealmaker. He was the linchpin, the man holding the centre together. He once described himself as an elastic band, stretching as far as possible, trying to connect one side to the other; desperately hoping he would never snap.
Duddy could never have succeeded, however, without the willingness and leadership shown by the Republican Movement in stepping up to the table and making it their own. They and, of course, John Hume all took serious risks in their bid to create a just and peaceful settlement, based on equality.
Incidentally, the closest Duddy came to being killed during the Troubles had nothing to do with his mediation work. One dark evening, in the turbulent 1970s, he decided to go out for a run up to Grianan Fort. He’d covered the route so often he knew every bump on the mountain, even at night.
So when he was jogging down towards Burt, he was amazed to clamber into a new hedgerow near the bottom of the hill. The hedge, it turns out, was a camouflaged British army unit, possibly SAS, operating illegally in the South. And they quickly surrounded him and pointed two rifles directly into his chest.
He began to fear he was about to be executed and dumped on a back road – like an IRA informer. He was all too aware that his death could be one of the unexplained anomalies of the troubles, another meaningless statistic.
But instead, they called the RUC and handed him over to them at the border, advising him he was one lucky boy. When he arrived home, Margo, who’d had enough of his adventures, told him: ‘Hell’s cure to you!’
Duddy’s partner for much of his 20 years as a peacemaker still shuns the limelight to this day.
I wrote about him once in this paper – giving him the soubriquet ‘Sisyphus’, after the Greek hero who was condemned to spending eternity pushing rocks up mountains, only to watch them roll down the other side.
Sisyphus was Duddy’s connection with the Republican Movement and was the man who later persuaded successive Dublin governments to get behind the peace process. And like Duddy he suffered decades of scorn and rejection for his efforts.
I sat beside him at the funeral as he paid his respects to his old friend, quietly elaborating on Peter Taylor’s eulogy as it was being delivered.
I hadn’t seen Sisyphus for about ten years, before last week, when I met him with a visiting US delegation, trying to land a vital piece of infrastructure for Derry. Still pushing rocks up the hill. But as soon as the photographer appeared, he was gone. He still believes that it’s when you start doling out credit that things go awry.
As I looked round me as the Mass ended, I was struck by how blessed Derry is to have people of Brendan Duddy’s ilk. People like Pat Hume, Mitchel McLaughlin, Conal McFeely, Tom McGinley, Denis Bradley and many more. People who spend their lives gently advising and nourishing others and taking personal risks for the greater good.
But, by not seeking to carve off personal credit for themselves – in the form of money or votes or newspaper coverage – they can inspire those around them to do likewise. And this can lead to us moving mountains.
As no less a figure than Harry S Truman once said: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’
This is a city of angels, of quiet diplomats, idealists and better souls; people who are content to set aside individual gain, knowing that it is the right thing to do.
We can only hope that they will always continue to dwell among us.
Brendan Duddy, gentleman peacemaker, ar dhéis Dé go raibh sé.
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