The annual release of official documents by the National Archives has taken on a special significance this year as it encompasses almost an entire decade, from 1991 to 1998. The British moved to a 20-year release of state papers some years ago and the Irish system is now catching up.
The latest release covers the evolution of the peace process from the very early tentative moves by Charles Haughey in his final year in office, through the key developments undertaken by Albert Reynolds and on to its conclusion by Bertie Ahern in the shape of the Belfast Agreement. The vast array of documents now in the public domain provide insights into how the Irish leaders dealt with their British counterparts beginning with Margaret Thatcher and going on through John Major and Tony Blair.
Haughey and Thatcher had a testy relationship going back to their spats in the early 1980s. Her focus on the continuing security threat posed by the IRA and her belief that the authorities in the Republic were not doing enough to counter the threat meant that little progress was made at meetings between the two. However, when John Major succeeded Thatcher in June 1991, Haughey adopted a different approach and suggested that efforts should be made to try to bring Sinn Féin into the political process.
This happened when Albert Reynolds succeeded Haughey and embarked on a risky strategy of trying to get the conditions for an IRA ceasefire so that all sides could then move into political talks. As the official documents confirm, the trusting relationship that developed between Reynolds and Major was a key factor that led to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and the IRA ceasefire of August 1994.
The question of IRA decommissioning threatened to derail the process. The documents reveal that the acting chief constable of the RUC, Ronnie Flanagan, privately told an Irish official that the British government had "foolishly impaled itself on a hook" by insisting on it. Flanagan suggested that matters could eventually degenerate to the point where there might be a partial resumption of IRA violence in Britain, which is exactly what happened in February 1996.
The documents also cover the period when Bertie Ahern became taoiseach and developed a warm relationship with the new British prime minister Tony Blair that helped produce the Belfast Agreement. The Irish insistence on a range of North-South bodies with a serious mandate and unionist objections to such a development came close to blocking agreement. At one stage Ahern told the British he had “changed my damn Constitution” and would walk away if unionists were allowed to treat the North-South Ministerial Council as a “chat show”. Such gems will give scholars and commentators material for years to come.