Reynolds backed Adams US visa to Downing St fury
Opinion: ‘Sadly, the 20th anniversary of the ceasefires has been marked by the death of one of the most important of its authors, Albert Reynolds, and a few months previously of the most vital of intermediaries, Fr Alex Reid’
‘The Downing Street Declaration proved to be the hoped-for catalyst for peace.’ British prime minister, John Major, with the taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, during a press conference in London, following the Downing Street declaration. Photograph: Peter Thursfield / THE IRISH TIMES
Vital intermediary: Fr Alex Reid. Photograph: Fran Caffrey/AFP/Getty Images
Until 1993-1994, the prospects of achieving peace in Northern Ireland any time soon seemed bleak. Each year, in the latter stages of the conflict, between 80 and 100 people met violent deaths, with many more badly injured, bereaved or otherwise traumatised. Whether victims were random or targeted, the risks restricted normal life in countless ways. There was always a danger that a series of retaliatory attacks would go out of control and ratchet up the scale of casualties.
Neither the Republic nor Great Britain, though less affected, were immune. The best efforts of their governments and security forces had not succeeded in creating a negotiated settlement across the middle ground or in defeating the paramilitary campaigns.
British-Irish relations were often strained, despite their increasing institutionalisation; and North-South relations were constantly so. The economic effects were negative and held back the whole island. There were unwanted side effects in terms of organised crime and the spread of the drugs culture, which might have been better checked if Garda resources had been less tied up in Border security. The reputation of Ireland abroad suffered, with the island sometimes depicted as still being caught up in an atavistic religious war.
There had been numerous initiatives, governmental and otherwise, to restore peace since the early 1970s. Many of them represented important building blocks or stages towards the ultimate goal, Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish Agreement being the most important examples. By the early 1990s the futility, cruelty and dangers of ongoing conflict were apparent to nearly everyone, but what was missing was any mechanism for ending it with the support of militants most closely involved.
Sadly, the 20th anniversary of the ceasefires has been marked by the deaths of one of the most important of its authors, former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and a few months previously of the most vital of intermediaries, Fr Alex Reid.
Political riskOn taking office, Reynolds took up the threads of an initiative arising from discussions between John Hume and Gerry Adams, which would involve a statement of principles between taoiseach and British prime minister. To bring this to a point where it could be considered by the British government, Reynolds took the considerable political risk of authorising direct contact with the leadership of what was euphemistically described as the republican movement.
Later, he recognised the need to develop additional lines of communication with both moderate unionist opinion and loyalism. There was initially much resistance to this approach from the British side, but eventually British prime minister John Major agreed to negotiate what became the Downing Street declaration of December 15th, 1993. It proved to be the hoped-for catalyst for peace.
While rehearsing and developing the exclusively peaceful and democratic means by which Irish unity could be brought about, if the people in both parts of Ireland so consented in an act of concurrent self-determination, it also confirmed that the door was open for full participation in future negotiations and normal democratic life for all those who definitively renounced any further resort to violence. A lengthy statement of the need to build trust with unionists and a set of rights that loyalists were prepared to recognise were also incorporated.
More than eight months elapsed between the declaration and the IRA ceasefire of August 31st, 1994, followed on by the loyalist ceasefires of October 13th, in concluding which Reynolds played a hands-on part. During this interim period, when hopes wavered and there were many hesitations, Reynolds was animated by a conviction that peace could be grasped. He lost no opportunity to explain, clarify and persuade, brushing aside suggestions of a temporary or partial peace.
He did what was within his power, agreeing to thelifting of the Broadcasting Act section 31 ban on interviews with political associates of paramilitary organisations, and supporting the granting of a short-term US visa to Adams, to the fury of Downing Street. Reynolds signalled his preparedness to bring Sinn Féin in from the political cold the moment there was a declared IRA commitment to a lasting ceasefire. The new era of peace was symbolised by the famous handshake on the steps of Government Buildings between John Hume, Gerry Adams and Albert Reynolds a week after the ceasefire on September 6th, 1994. The British adopted a much more circumspect approach designed to reassure unionists that there was no secret betrayal.
The IRA ceasefire and subsequent loyalist ceasefires were an essential first stage. They needed to be underpinned by a negotiated political settlement, the
Belfast Agreement of 1998. That framework agreement then needed to be implemented through a series of steps and amplifying agreements up to 2010, which saw the devolution of policing and justice.
Queen Elizabeth visited the Republic in 2011, marking the essential completion of the peace process and real detente achieved in British-Irish relations.
Despite the temporary breakdown of the IRA ceasefire in 1996-1997, and apart from (with the huge exception of the 1998 Omagh bombing) residual dissident and loyalist paramilitary activity, peace now reigns, though community tensions still need to be reduced.
One would like to believe a firm line has been drawn under violent and coercive approaches to divisions within Ireland and more specifically Northern Ireland. Only genuine, unforced democratic persuasion can determine future political and constitutional choices, meaning there is no inevitability about any of them.
Martin Mansergh is former Northern Ireland adviser to the taoiseach