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Opinion: John Hume felt frustration as SDLP faced difficult meetings in lead-up to ceasefire

  ‘Contrary to the insinuations of unionists and some academics that John Hume pursued an IRA ceasefire at the deliberate expense of any possible outcome from Brooke-Mayhew, the reality was that he was trying to get to a convergence of both processes.’ Above, taoiseach Albert Reynolds shakes hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume outside Government Buildings on September 6th 1994 after a discussion of ways to advance the peace process following the IRA’s ceasefire announcement of August 31st. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

‘Contrary to the insinuations of unionists and some academics that John Hume pursued an IRA ceasefire at the deliberate expense of any possible outcome from Brooke-Mayhew, the reality was that he was trying to get to a convergence of both processes.’ Above, taoiseach Albert Reynolds shakes hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume outside Government Buildings on September 6th 1994 after a discussion of ways to advance the peace process following the IRA’s ceasefire announcement of August 31st. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Fri, Sep 5, 2014, 00:01

The sense of relief and release that came with the IRA ceasefire was palpable. More than eight months had passed since the Downing Street declaration, the guts of which came from the Hume-Adams paper. There had been the protracted calls for clarification, the Gerry Adams visa to the United States, expectation reverting to speculation and “soundings”, so by August there were misgivings about what appeared to some to be a string-along.

It was not only in public that SDLP leader John Hume was being questioned about what had happened to his belief that the declaration would be the prelude to a definitive ceasefire which would in turn provide the context for new, more inclusive political dialogue. That summer there were difficult meetings in the SDLP in which colleagues were questioning not John’s motives or judgment but those of others. Talk of “lines to be drawn”, “calls to be made”, “how much more positioning, clarification or gratification does it take?”. This reflected not just political frustration but disgust that the IRA campaign was still being “justified” after all the processed efforts to present the context for a ceasefire announcement.

John Hume felt this frustration but was confident that the ceasefire would come. However, he was not in a position to divulge the basis of this to colleagues or the prospective time line. He was also conscious of resumed unionist allegations that he had stymied the Brooke-Mayhew talks in 1991-1992 in favour of the Hume- Adams approach that they now argued was clearly failing. One of his less intemperate ways of meeting colleagues’ concerns that summer was to point to the need to prepare for future negotiations that would build on the agenda and other foundations from the 1991 and 1992 talks and the declaration, which strongly reflected the Hume-Adams draft.

Doubts were being entertained not only by some in the SDLP. Patience was wearing thin for others. That was certainly the signal from the Irish government. I recall US deputy national security adviser Nancy Soderberg’s pointed scepticism when we discussed the request for Joe Cahill’s visa. This was not a straight contrast to our earlier exchanges on the Adams visa but showed misgivings that that political investment by the Clinton administration should have been better rewarded by then and worry about things just being strung out.

I know that it was not just from his chats with me (some of them in or after meetings with John Hume) that Fr Alex Reid was aware of the strains on political patience outside the Provisional republican movement. Amid invocations of the Holy Spirit, he counselled that people should see such a test of patience as a test of their political commitment or instinct and compare it with the allowances that could be made for unionism and the British in the conduct of politics. In this context he expressed a profound esteem for John Hume and his forbearance throughout personally challenging phases of the process.

I was conscious too of the papers Fr Reid was sharing with us reflected other “peace mission” engagement with loyalist paramilitaries. His belief that prospects of a possible loyalist ceasefire would not turn into a precondition for a decisive IRA move was convincing to me and was reinforced by other soundings. On the converse concern about possible IRA sensibilities that a subsequent loyalist ceasefire might be used to reinforce the pretence that loyalist violence had only been in response to the IRA’s, Fr Reid was firm that it should not be an impediment to the IRA’s own declaration.

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