Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

'Talking to the IRA our only hope of ending the bloodshed'

Former SDLP leader John Hume
Former SDLP leader John Hume

A priest who played a key role in highly secretive talks which led to the IRA ceasefire said it was vital to reach out to the group to put an end to its killing.

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the announcement that continues to divide opinion in Northern Ireland.

The IRA declared a "complete cessation of military operations" on August 31, 1994.

A similar announcement from loyalist paramilitaries would follow weeks later.

While the 1994 cessation did not last, the announcement signalled the beginning of the end of a bloody 25-year conflict that claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people.

The cessation came after a period of secret back-channel talks between republican leaders and the British Government.

But Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein has downplayed the significance of those encounters – which were exposed publicly in late 1993 – in terms of prompting the ceasefire.

He insisted his party leader Gerry Adams' engagement with John Hume, leader of the then largest nationalist party the SDLP, was more influential in creating the circumstances that ultimately convinced the IRA to make the move.

Fr Gerry Reynolds worked alongside the late Fr Alec Reid to facilitate those talks, with secret meetings taking place at Belfast's Clonard Monastery.

"Fr Alec was in that exchange and contact between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and also with Albert Reynolds in Dublin," said Fr Reynolds.

"Alec had two basic drives within him; it was his faith that God wanted us to be at peace, God wanted us to be right in a relationship with one another, and if we did what we possibly could ourselves, the divine hand in human history would help us on our way.

"He had a great sense of the spirit of God working in the middle of all he was doing.

"And the other basic principle he had was common sense.

"You can't make peace without contact, you can't make peace without listening to one another and talking to one another."

Fr Reid wrote a lengthy letter to Mr Hume in 1986 detailing a proposition in which the Church could facilitate talks between Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Irish Government.

"The imperative was coming from the fact people were being killed," Fr Reynolds told the BBC.

"Alec used to always say what was driving him to keep at it was the next person to be killed."

Mr McGuinness said the announcement of the IRA ceasefire was the most important single step in the entire peace process.

The former IRA commander said: "I think of all of the decisions that have been taken, if you are asking what was absolutely key and critical to end the war, and end the conflict that has existed to the detriment of all of us for far too long, the most important decision of all of the decisions taken in the last 20 years was that decision.

"Because that has brought us to where we are today."

Lord Maginnis, a former Ulster Unionist MP who was a key figure in the political sphere in the 1990s, said he would not deprive anyone who contributed to ending the Troubles of credit.

But he angrily dismissed republican suggestions the IRA made the move from a position of strength.

News of the ceasefire was greeted with victory celebrations in many republican areas.

"There was no way IRA activity was going to bring anything but further suffering," said the former UDR officer.

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