‘We don’t want to over-react’: Clinton to Bruton after London bombing

Transcripts reveal horror and shock of the leaders after 1996 blast ended first ceasefire

The aftermath of the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf.  Photograph: Matthew Polak/Sygma via Getty

The aftermath of the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf. Photograph: Matthew Polak/Sygma via Getty


“It’s bad news, really bad news,” John Major told Bill Clinton.

They spoke by phone at 11.13pm Irish time on February 9th, 1996, just four hours after the IRA ended a 17-month ceasefire by detonating a large bomb in the London Docklands.

The explosion, which killed two people and injured more than 100, came after months of stalemate in the attempts to start talks towards a peaceful political solution to the then 27-year-old Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Conversations during that night’s phone calls between the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom and then taoiseach John Bruton were filled with shock, frustration and sadness. None of the three leaders had seen it coming.

The calls show the deep commitment that Clinton personally showed in trying to secure peace.

Transcripts of the calls, released by the US National Archives to the William J Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas – and The Irish Times – reveal a sense of despair among the three leaders as they tried to grapple with fast-moving and unexpected events.

The US president’s surprise was compounded by the fact he had met Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams days before at the White House in Washington.

“I just wanted to call and tell you how sorry I am about what happened,” Clinton told Bruton in a four-minute call from the Oval Office shortly after he had telephoned the British prime minister.

“It is dreadful really,” Bruton replied. “It was completely sudden and unexpected.”

The Fine Gael leader thanked Clinton for his public statement in response to the attack, in which he said that “the terrorists who perpetrated today’s attack cannot be allowed to derail the effort to bring peace to the people of Northern Ireland – a peace they overwhelmingly support.”

“It touched a lot of people. It appears a lot of Sinn Féin’s leadership was taken by surprise,” Bruton said.

‘Gutless’ IRA

Referring to the IRA statement after the bombing, which blamed Major and his government for the failure of the peace process, the president said: “Blaming the British under these circumstances is pretty gutless.”

At this stage Major had demanded the IRA decommission its weapons before being allowed to enter multi-party talks or there would have to be an election.

Clinton was annoyed at himself because he had met Adams just days earlier and not foreseen the bomb attack, though he had noticed the Sinn Féin leader “seemed ill at ease”.

Taoiseach John Bruton showing US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary around Leinster House. Photograph: Frank Miller
Taoiseach John Bruton showing US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary around Leinster House. Photograph: Frank Miller

The US president said he had “no inkling” of the bombing and that it was “hard to explain”.

“I didn’t see it coming,” he said, adding that he felt “badly” having met Adams.

“He was grousing and I told him that he could say what he wanted to say about what John Major had said, but the fact remains [Major] found a way to at least offer you an alternative: the possible permutations of the election proposal,” Clinton told the prime minister during their 10-minute phone call.

The US president said that “it’s not like I had a premonition about this but I had a feeling [Adams] didn’t know what to do.”

It has emerged in recent years that Adams warned senior Democratic congressman Bruce Morrison, who was close to the Clinton White House, just over two months before the Canary Wharf bombing that the UK government’s demand for some prior IRA disarmament was threatening the ceasefire.

During their February 9th, 1996 call, Major thanked Clinton for his statement “and the speed with which it was made”. He told the president he intended to “dampen things down”, according to the partially redacted transcript.

“I think we are going to see how to keep the show on the road. First, we must make sure that the British and Irish governments lock arms and I think Bruton and I will be able to do that,” Major said.

Both leaders criticised a statement Adams had released after the bombing in which he said he regretted that “an unprecedented opportunity for peace had foundered on the refusal of the British government and the unionist leaders to enter into dialogue on substantive negotiation”.

Clinton told Major this was “ not a very diplomatic statement”.

Proceed with caution

During a call to Clinton, Bruton said the bombing would put the idea of “proximity talks” – negotiations between warring factions through a third party – “on the back-burner”.

Bruton said decisions had to be taken “from the security perspective and what attitudes to take with Sinn Féin” but that the three governments had to proceed cautiously.

“We don’t want to rush into it, but we can’t reverse the course. We have to keep hope alive,” he said.

Clinton agreed, adding: “We don’t want to over-react. It is sad and troubling.”

The US president offered to help in any way.

“I just wanted to call and check in with you and tell you if you have any ideas about what we ought to do just give us a call and let us know what to do and we’ll do it,” he told Bruton, wrapping up their call.

In the weeks afterwards the three governments worked towards trying to put together a package that would enable Sinn Féin to enter all-party talks once the ceasefire was restored.

On February 23rd, 1996, Clinton called Bruton again, this time from Air Force One, telling the taoiseach he wanted to see “where you are and see what else I can [do] to help.”

The taoiseach told him there needed to be a definite date for all-party talks and that he felt he could convince reluctant members of the SDLP, led by John Hume, to accept some form of election “so long as the transition to talks is absolutely direct and there would be no delay and no further conditions”.

“The best and only chance to get the IRA to restore the ceasefire is if a specific date is designated,” Bruton said.

‘I am heartsick’

Clinton promised to stay in touch with Adams and to see what he could do to persuade Hume on the election proposal – both of which, Bruton said, would be helpful.

“Call me at any time. I am heartsick about this but I believe we still have a shot at getting this back on track so if there is anything I can do, I’ll do it,” the president told him.

Bruton thanked him for taking the trouble to call. “It’s a critical situation right now,” the taoiseach said.

Their next phone call (for which transcripts have been released) started on a more humorous note when, on June 6th, 1996, Clinton joked about being kept on hold by Bruton and having to listen to holding music.

“I just want to let you know that you’ve got the best muzak in the world. We don’t have Tchaikovsky over here. I’m in much better humour than I was 30 seconds ago,” he said.

“You had to listen to Tchaikovsky? That’s shocking,” replied Bruton.

The taoiseach shared the “good news” that “things are coming through for the talks” and he was “very grateful” to Clinton for sending former US senate leader George Mitchell to lead attempts to find a solution.

“We have not lost hope that there may be an IRA ceasefire by Monday – it’s still possible,” Bruton said.

After the bomb blast at Canary Wharf in London. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA
After the bomb blast at Canary Wharf in London. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

Clinton said the US would “do everything we can and call some of their best friends over here.

“Most American-Irish are 100 per cent with you and Major on the agreement for decommissioning and the role of Mitchell,” he said. “I fully support the position you have taken that Sinn Féin cannot participate in the talks unless the IRA agrees to a ceasefire. If it hadn’t been for the bombing, it would be much easier.”

In the end, it would take just over a year to convince the IRA to agree to a second, permanent ceasefire.

In July 1997, the UK government, under new prime minister Tony Blair, dropped its demand that the IRA disarm as a condition of Sinn Féin entering the talks. This secured a resumption of the IRA ceasefire.

On an earlier call, in May 1995, nine months into the first ceasefire, Clinton asked Major if the peace process was giving him a political “boost” at home.

“Not a bit,” replied Major. “For most people here, Ireland is just another island. They don’t really care what happens elsewhere in the world.”