The IRA ceasefire 20 years on
On August 31st, 1994, the Provisional IRA declared a ‘complete cessation of violence’, ending the daily death and destruction that had been normal in Ireland for the previous 25 years
Sense of possibility: a child plays against a wall in north Belfast. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/Reuters
The early 1990s in Northern Ireland was a curious period. The Troubles ploughed on, with daily headlines of death and destruction. In the first eight months of 1994, 65 people died in the conflict, three of them RUC officers. Among the killings were six Catholics gunned down watching a World Cup game in Loughinisland, the gangland boss Martin Cahill in Dublin, and the former INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey in Drogheda.
There were days you felt that this was the way it was going to be forever. And yet there was an intangible sense of possibility, of subterranean shifts that might lead somewhere. On August 31st, 1994, the UVF murdered a 37-year-old Catholic man in Antrim. But that very night the IRA declared a “complete cessation of violence” from midnight.
Earlier that decade, in secret behind monastery walls, John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, had been talking to Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, to determine if there could be a halt to the bloodshed. Adams had been holding out the possibility that the “war” could end. That process, begun tentatively in 1988 before breaking down, resumed in the early 1990s with the late Fr Alex Reid of Clonard Monastery in Belfast acting as go-between.
When these talks were discovered, in the spring of 1993, Hume got a hammering from unionists, from sections of the Dublin media and from some in his own party. He carried on regardless, saying he didn’t care “two balls of roasted snow” about the criticism. Hume did care, though. Those years took a toll on his health.
That engagement gave Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, British prime minister John Major and their well-regarded Department of Foreign Affairs and foreign-office officials something to work on, and resulted in the Downing Street Declaration of December 15th, 1993.
It was a complex and almost theological document, dealing with issues including the notion, dear to republicans, of national self-determination. It tried to bring the argument beyond the simplicity of “Brits Out”, the Sinn Féin and IRA slogan that was emblazoned on Black Mountain as you drove into Belfast around that time.
The declaration said Irish unity could be achieved only when most of the people of Northern Ireland voted for such a move, but it also allowed for an all-island expression of national self-determination through all of the people of Ireland endorsing this principle.
The Downing Street Declaration stated that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. It was suggested that, because there was no comma between the words “selfish” and “strategic”, the line did not mean what it seemed to.
Nonetheless, the general interpretation was that the British government effectively was declaring that you, the people of Northern Ireland, as self-determined by all the people of Ireland, can sort out this problem any way you want and that all we, the Brits, want is “peace, stability and reconciliation”.
Dick Grogan, the former Irish Times Northern editor, wrote in the paper the day after the declaration was published: “Most people in the North, strained with perplexity, would yesterday have agreed with the words of Edmund Burke: ‘An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent’.”
The Downing Street Declaration asked the IRA who it was fighting. If the British had no real interest in Northern Ireland then the IRA’s adversaries could only be unionists. This meant the IRA was waging a sectarian war against the Protestant people – people republicans insisted were fellow Irish people.
It was an intellectual muddle for the IRA, one it found it difficult to wriggle free from.
One day Sinn Féin saw merit in the declaration, the next it was sceptical. On other days it sought “clarification” from the British government. Another day it believed the self-determination proposal fell short. The next day it didn’t.
As the debate continued publicly, behind the scenes Adams and Martin McGuinness engaged in the serious game of doves versus hawks within the republican movement. Right until August it was uncertain who would prevail. There was no shortage of republicans who wanted the violence to roll on.
But gradually during 1994 the pieces were put in place to allow the IRA to make its announcement. The most committed hawks flew off to the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA; others of the disillusioned just drifted away from Sinn Féin and the IRA. But most hung in.
Getting everything in place included President Bill Clinton, to the fury of the British government, granting Adams a visa to attend a conference in New York in late January 1994. Hume also attended that event, but the cameras saw only one man: Adams.
You’d wonder did that huge attention also help convince Adams that once the “war” was over there were huge potential political gains ahead for him and for Sinn Féin, including the eclipsing of the SDLP and a possible role in government in the Republic.
When the IRA announced it was going on ceasefire from midnight on August 31st, republicans celebrated with a cavalcade of cars, tricolours flying from windows, driving through west Belfast, where Adams told a crowd that without the decision to start the “struggle for freedom” 25 years ago “we would still be treated like second-class, subhuman, undignified human beings”.
Nationalists who disagreed with Adams’s justification for the generation of violence asked, What’s the difference between the Provos and the Stickies? Twenty-five years, was the answer.
It’s a sign of how far our society has come that this gag must be explained for younger readers. The line was that the Official IRA (the Stickies) had given up the gun and bomb in 1969 or thereabouts and that now, 25 years and more than 3,000 deaths later, the Provisional IRA (the Provos) had finally arrived at the same conclusion: that “you can’t bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland”.
Hume, demonstrating anxious prescience, expressed frustration about the “nit-picking” over whether a “complete” cessation of violence meant a “permanent” cessation, and over the difference between a “cessation” and a “ceasefire”.
There was to be plenty more nit-picking. The DUP leader Ian Paisley, long before his conversion to positive politics, predictably warned of a “sell-out”. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, James Molyneaux, described the ceasefire as one of the most destabilising events since partition.
Twenty years on, nobody can say that August 31st, 1994, was not a pivotal, historic and welcome moment. It may only have been the beginning of the end, but without that cessation there could have been no loyalist ceasefire in October 1994, no permanent IRA cessation in 1997, no 1998 Belfast Agreement, no 2006 St Andrews’s Agreement, no Paisley and Adams agreeing to share power in 2007, no North-South bodies, no Irish dimension to the agreement, and no powersharing Northern Executive – which, shaky though it is at times, still presides at Stormont.