The first, faltering steps
Twenty years ago, after decades of street violence and armed struggle, peace came to Northern Ireland. On September 1st, 1994, following agreement on the terms of the Downing Street Declaration by the Irish and British governments, the Provisional IRA announced a “complete cessation of military operations”. Within months, the Combined Loyalist Military Command ended all “operational hostilities”. There was jubilation and flag-waving in Belfast. But the ceasefires didn’t last: they represented faltering steps in a tortuous process that has brought an unquiet peace and a devolved, power-sharing Executive to Northern Ireland.
While the Downing Street Declaration laid the foundations for an accommodation between the Northern Ireland political parties, however, much remained to be done. Even today, the risk of slippage exists as Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party engage in tribalist posturing. As DUP Minister for Industry Eileen Foster observed, however, the quality of life in Northern Ireland has changed immeasurably.
The IRA announcement of 1994 represented a shift away from its armalite/ballot box strategy. It reflected the determined work of former SDLP leader John Hume and Fr Alec Reid in persuading Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that peace was a necessary prerequisite to political negotiations. The Downing Street Declaration, in which the British government declared it had “no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland” and encouraged self-determination on the basis of consent was not formally accepted by Sinn Féin. Republican expectations of participation in all-party talks were dashed, however, when the Ulster Unionist Party demanded IRA disarmament. The ceasefire collapsed in 1996. Bombings, sectarian murders and the worst civil unrest for many years followed.
Elections in Britain and Northern Ireland in 1997 altered the political arithmetic. The demand for IRA disarmament in advance of negotiations was dropped. The ceasefire was reinstated and government and inter-party talks produced the Belfast Agreement in 1998. It provided for civil and cultural rights and parity of esteem between the two communities, along with an elected Assembly and a power-sharing Executive. IRA disarmament was pledged to occur within two years. It didn’t happen.
It took a further five years, marked by political brinkmanship, partial breakdowns and intense engagement by the Irish and British governments before the decommissioning process was completed. In 2007, an Executive dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin emerged and despite current budgetary disagreements, prospects are good. Twenty years of intransigence and near-disaster, however, underline that there is no place for complacency.