The ‘five minutes to midnight’ setback to the 1994 IRA ceasefire

Opinion: ‘It’s on. He wants you back. You’re booked out of Bangkok. Just get there somehow or another’

It almost didn’t happen at the time. A last-minute hitch threatened the entire undertaking. Sinn Féin suddenly announced there could be no ceasefire in advance of former Provisional IRA leader Joe Cahill conveying the news to the IRA’s long-time American supporters “in person”, ie, face to face in the United States.

At first, that seemed a minor detail given that Albert Reynolds, John Major, Bill Clinton and Gerry Adams had finally come on side together. Six months earlier, Reynolds, in the face of powerful British opposition, had persuaded the Clinton administration to issue Adams with a US visa. Surely, the reasoning went, the same would apply to Joe Cahill, but not so.

A month earlier I told the taoiseach that Marie and I would be holidaying in Thailand from mid-August, returning in early September. He immediately told me he might require me to be around before September. It was my first indication that the protracted peace process might finally be on the verge of success.

Minority of one

That was by no means the general perception. In July, a Sinn Féin conference in Letterkenny had seemed to rule out any ceasefire; a hardline conference resolution convinced the vast majority of political and media opinion that the IRA had no intention of abandoning the campaign of violence. When I expressed the same opinion, Reynolds said: “If you too think it’s gone, Diggy, then I’m in a minority of one.”


Just before we left for Thailand, he told me the IRA was still insisting that in the event of a ceasefire it would reserve the right to defend nationalist communities against future aggression. His response to that was so stark that, relying on a shorthand note, I jotted his words into my diary that evening: “I’ve told them that if they don’t do this right they can shag off; I don’t want to hear anything about a six-month or six- year ceasefire; no defending or retaliating against anyone; just that it’s over, period, full stop. Otherwise, I’ll walk away. I’ll go off down that three-strand talks/ framework document road with John Major, and they can detour away for another 25 years of killing and being killed, for what? Because at the end of that 25 years they’ll be back where they are right now, with damn all to show for it except thousands more dead, and all for nothing. So they do it now, in the name of God, and be done with it, or goodbye.”

Early morning on August 28th, on the Thai island of Ko Samui, the call came. “It’s on. He wants you back. You’re booked out of Bangkok. Just get there somehow or another.” It took baksheesh to wheedle our way aboard a small plane. Two days and three airports later we barely made a connection to Dublin. “Welcome back, Diggy,” said the taoiseach. “You saw it start in 1969, so I figured you might as well see it finish tomorrow.”

It was then he told me of his “five minutes to midnight” setback. The army council of the IRA was adamant that there would be no peace announcement until Cahill entered the US. But US attorney general Janet Reno was equally adamant that Cahill should not be allowed into the country. The US justice department was maintaining there was a glaring difference between granting a visa to Adams and affording the same access to Cahill.

Their point was that Adams had not got a serious criminal record but that Cahill had been sentenced to hang for the murder of an RUC man in 1942 – he was subsequently reprieved – and had convictions for gun-running and being an IRA member. Reno repeatedly emphasised her conviction that granting him a visa would be in contravention of a rigid US regulatory code as well as establishing a potentially catastrophic precedent.

Reynolds told me he spent most of that night on the phone to Nancy Soderberg who, as US deputy national security adviser, had exerted a powerful influence on the decision to grant Adams a US visa. He told me he eventually became so tired that, when Soderberg kept emphasising Cahill’s serious criminality rating, he burst out: “Dammit, Nancy, I never claimed we were dealing with saints.”

Personal assurance

Eventually, he was put through to Clinton and gave him his personal assurance that a visa for Cahill would remove the final impediment to a permanent ceasefire. Finally, the word came back: “The president has personally authorised a US visa for Mr Cahill”.

A few days later, I watched a small Sinn Féin group, led by Adams, Jim Gibney and An Bhean Rua Rita O’Hare, walk calmly through the gates of Government Buildings to meet the taoiseach and John Hume. There was a nervous moment as a number of Special Branch men glared at the Shinners, who just looked impassively back. Then, when Reynolds, Adams and Hume emerged together on to the front steps, and the awaiting media crowded around, a security man tried to push O’Hare aside. Shaking herself loose, she turned on me like a flash. “That day is over!” And in a sense, she was right.

It was over.

Seán Duignan is a former RTÉ political editor and served as government press secretary while Albert Reynolds was taoiseach On Thursday: Nancy Soderberg