The IRA ceasefire 20 years on

On August 31st, 1994, the Provisional IRA declared a ‘complete cessation of violence’, ending the daily death and destruction that had been normal in Ireland for the previous 25 years

Sense of possibility: a child plays against a wall in north Belfast. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Reuters

Sense of possibility: a child plays against a wall in north Belfast. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Reuters

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 01:00

The early 1990s in Northern Ireland was a curious period. The Troubles ploughed on, with daily headlines of death and destruction. In the first eight months of 1994, 65 people died in the conflict, three of them RUC officers. Among the killings were six Catholics gunned down watching a World Cup game in Loughinisland, the gangland boss Martin Cahill in Dublin, and the former INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey in Drogheda.

There were days you felt that this was the way it was going to be forever. And yet there was an intangible sense of possibility, of subterranean shifts that might lead somewhere. On August 31st, 1994, the UVF murdered a 37-year-old Catholic man in Antrim. But that very night the IRA declared a “complete cessation of violence” from midnight.

Earlier that decade, in secret behind monastery walls, John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, had been talking to Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, to determine if there could be a halt to the bloodshed. Adams had been holding out the possibility that the “war” could end. That process, begun tentatively in 1988 before breaking down, resumed in the early 1990s with the late Fr Alex Reid of Clonard Monastery in Belfast acting as go-between.

When these talks were discovered, in the spring of 1993, Hume got a hammering from unionists, from sections of the Dublin media and from some in his own party. He carried on regardless, saying he didn’t care “two balls of roasted snow” about the criticism. Hume did care, though. Those years took a toll on his health.

That engagement gave Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, British prime minister John Major and their well-regarded Department of Foreign Affairs and foreign-office officials something to work on, and resulted in the Downing Street Declaration of December 15th, 1993.

“Brits Out”

It was a complex and almost theological document, dealing with issues including the notion, dear to republicans, of national self-determination. It tried to bring the argument beyond the simplicity of “Brits Out”, the Sinn Féin and IRA slogan that was emblazoned on Black Mountain as you drove into Belfast around that time.

The declaration said Irish unity could be achieved only when most of the people of Northern Ireland voted for such a move, but it also allowed for an all-island expression of national self-determination through all of the people of Ireland endorsing this principle.

The Downing Street Declaration stated that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. It was suggested that, because there was no comma between the words “selfish” and “strategic”, the line did not mean what it seemed to.

Nonetheless, the general interpretation was that the British government effectively was declaring that you, the people of Northern Ireland, as self-determined by all the people of Ireland, can sort out this problem any way you want and that all we, the Brits, want is “peace, stability and reconciliation”.

Dick Grogan, the former Irish Times Northern editor, wrote in the paper the day after the declaration was published: “Most people in the North, strained with perplexity, would yesterday have agreed with the words of Edmund Burke: ‘An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent’.”

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