Early progress made in the peace process by Reynolds and Major often overlooked
Opinion: Downing Street Declaration built on the relationship of trust between the two government leaders
Albert Reynolds with Dick Spring: Reynolds’s achievements as taoiseach have not been sufficiently recognised.
Occasionally Government whips can engineer standing ovations from their own side in the Dáil for major ministerial announcements. However, spontaneous upstanding of deputies on all sides are very rare events. One such standing ovation was extended to Albert Reynolds, Dick Spring and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn at about teatime on Thursday, December 15th, 1993, and with good reason. They had just returned from the signing of the Downing Street Declaration.
Twenty years later, with the situation in Northern Ireland transformed, it is easy to forget the impact the Downing Street Declaration had and the genuine cross-party and public welcome with which it was greeted as a historic achievement. It was a short series of momentous intergovernmental pronouncements which not only transformed British-Irish relations but set the course for the IRA ceasefire nine months later.
This week at a special event organised in Dublin by the Department of Foreign Affairs to mark the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration, Dick Spring reminded the audience of the appalling atrocities which formed the background to the work in which he and others were involved. These included the IRA bombing of a crowded shopping centre in Warrington in March as a result of which three-year old Jonathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry were killed.
The Downing Street Declaration was the result of months of delicate and largely secret negotiations between Irish and British politicians and officials, of secret talks between Gerry Adams and John Hume and very secret work by clergymen such as Alex Reid, Robin Eames, Roy Magee and advisers such as Martin Mansergh and Fergus Finlay.
The Downing Street Declaration was, above all else, built on the relationship of trust between the prime minister John Major and the taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It was fitting therefore that Major was the guest of honour at Wednesday’s anniversary event in Iveagh House.
Major spoke warmly of Reynolds who, although not well-enough to attend, was represented by his wife, Kathleen, and four of their children. Major described Reynolds’s illness as “a cruel trick of fate for a man who gave so much to break the Gordian knot of Anglo-Irish distrust”. Addressing the absent Reynolds directly, Major added: “Albert I see you these days too rarely, but I think of you often and I am proud to call you my friend.”
Senator George Mitchell, speaking from the floor at the event, said that, as someone who came to the peace process later, he felt the contribution which both Major and Reynolds had made had not been sufficiently recognised in Ireland, Britain or abroad.
He had a point. The fact that both Reynolds and Major lost office shortly after the IRA ceasefire and that the Belfast Agreement was instead negotiated by their successors, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, has meant that Reynolds’s and Major’s efforts in securing the Downing Street Declaration and the 1994 ceasefires have since often been underplayed.