Taoiseach should emulate Albert Reynolds and act on North

Opinion: There is an urgent need for British and Irish governments to tackle issues bedevilling the political process in the North, writes Gerry Adams

Former taoiseach Albert Reynolds shakes hands with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and SDLP’s John Hume outside Government Buildings in September 1994. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Former taoiseach Albert Reynolds shakes hands with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and SDLP’s John Hume outside Government Buildings in September 1994. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 06:12

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 IRA cessation. The Ireland of the early 1990s was a very different place. Political censorship and exclusion was the norm. Successive Irish governments worked with British governments in pursuing a negative agenda which merely fed the cycle of discrimination, resistance and conflict.

Unionist leaders, supported by elements of the British and Irish establishments, opposed any dialogue between the British and Irish governments and republicans. However, by early August 1994, despite continued conflict, there was a feeling among republican leaders that we were driving forward a historic process of change. This had been years in the making. Indeed if we go back to when Fathers Alec Reid, Des Wilson and I started our discussions, over a decade had passed.

Progress on developing the peace process had been made behind the scenes in meetings with John Hume. These later emerged as the Hume/Adams initiative. There was also progress with the Irish government. Martin McGuinness and I had given the IRA our assessment that there was a convergence of views between Sinn Féin, John Hume and the Irish government on a range of issues.

We had achieved agreement on a number of important points. There was an acceptance that partition had failed; there could be no internal settlement within the six counties; the Irish people as a whole had a right to national self-determination; there could be no unionist veto over discussions or their outcome and any negotiated settlement required fundamental constitutional and political change.

We also agreed that there were practical matters of immediate concern to nationalists in the North including parity of esteem, equality of opportunity and equality for Irish culture and identity.

IRA cessation

The Irish government had given written assurances that in the event of an IRA cessation, it would end its marginalisation of the Sinn Féin electorate and that there would be an early public meeting between taoiseach Albert Reynolds, John Hume and myself. To show that change was imminent, we worked to develop public manifestations of support for an alternative approach which might convince republicans to back a cessation.

Irish America was key to this. The peace process was also now on the agenda of the Clinton administration. A powerful group of Irish Americans had committed to campaign in the US for an end to visa restrictions for republicans; establishment of a Washington office to inform the US media and public on the peace process; to lobby for investment in the North and for the US to act as guarantors of any agreements. The fledgling Clinton administration had indicated positivity.

Events were now moving quickly. We had asked for a visa for Joe Cahill to travel to the US to brief Irish Americans on developments. This would test the Clinton administration’s commitment to the peace process in the face of what would prove to be strident British opposition. Fr Alec, US ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, her brother senator Ted Kennedy and taoiseach Albert Reynolds spent long hours lobbying for a visa for Joe Cahill.

On Sunday, August 28th, John Hume and I issued another joint statement making clear that agreement threatened no one. It was followed that evening by a statement from Albert Reynolds who said a historic opportunity was opening up and the British had a responsibility to respond on demilitarisation and inclusive all-party talks.

On August 29th, in the face of strident British opposition, visas were granted to Joe Cahill and Pat Treanor to travel to the US. This demonstrated there would be a strong international focus in support of the Irish side in negotiations with the British. I reported to the Sinn Féin ard chomhairle that the final pieces of the jigsaw were coming together but we understood the ultimate decision on a cessation rested with the IRA. Martin McGuinness and I went to meet the IRA leadership again. Martin said the Hume/Adams initiative had given people hope, that more nationalists saw republicans making a real effort to build peace, that Irish nationalism was reasserting itself and that Sinn Féin was growing in strength.

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