Ceasefires were not the end... just the beginning
Brian Rowan recalls the key events leading up to the IRA's 'complete cessation of military operations' 20 years ago this weekend.
Published 29/08/2014 | 10:00
It is a day I remember in its finest detail. First, meeting a representative of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, and then a woman who read to me the words of the IRA leadership. But it is like many other days in history in that we learn much more with the passing of time.
"I don't think people thought it was permanent," a senior republican told me a few days ago. "There was no inevitability that this was the end."
What it was was the beginning of some end to the long, bloody conflict. But the living memory of that day and period is dying. It is being lost in the passing of people such as former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, Presbyterian minister Roy Magee, senior IRA leader Brian Keenan and loyalists Gusty Spence and David Ervine.
We now know that the ceasefires were part of a process; that they were the start of something, rather than an end.
"Maybe some people in the leadership thought it was permanent, but it wasn't the prevailing attitude in the mainstream," that senior republican told me.
We were talking over coffee and biscuits and thinking back to 1994. His words still come with the condition of anonymity. There is not yet a process that allows him to speak openly. I have been told by others that he was one of the last to be brought over the line in terms of a willingness to explore a political alternative to what the IRA called "armed struggle".
"The jury was out for a lot of people," he continued. "It was uncharted waters."
It was that and not just for the IRA, but for many others – loyalists, politicians, Army, police and the intelligence services. The previous decades of bombs, bullets, killing and destruction meant many were understandably sceptical and needing to be convinced.
"The security forces are very worried about a ceasefire being used for the movement of materials, setting up booby traps," a senior NIO official told me six days before the IRA announcement.
He pointed to one of the slogans of that period 20 years ago – "Time For Peace, Time To Go" and asked, "What's changed?" In his mind, republicans were still expressing "Brits Out" only in a different form of words. "They are not finished," he told me.
Today, he would probably point to the rubble and to the bodies of the London bomb of February 1996 as proof of his assessment and his thinking back then.
But what the IRA and the loyalists delivered back in 1994 was much more than the police and intelligence services had believed possible.
They had been expecting a statement from the IRA that would be time-limited, to a short number of weeks or months.
But, in that meeting with the woman on the morning of August 31, 1994, the words she read declared "a complete cessation of military operations".
Weeks later, on October 13, the combined loyalist leadership, representing the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, said they, too, would "universally cease all operational hostilities".
"The permanence of our ceasefire will be completely dependent upon the continued cessation of all nationalist/republican violence," the statement read. "The sole responsibility for a return to war lies with them."
Gusty Spence read that statement at a news conference chaired by the former Red Hand Commando prisoner William 'Plum' Smith.
"I believe that, in 1994, there was a realisation by all combatants that there was a need to bring violence to an end and to pursue a path to resolve conflict through political means and dialogue," Smith told me.
"No one knew exactly what it would lead to, or whether the violence could be brought to an end.
"The process was the realisation that violence wasn't going to win and that all the people had suffered enough. That brought the ceasefires and then the beginnings of a protracted process of dialogue to lay the foundations of the 1998 Agreement."
Albert Reynolds was critical to that period, because he was someone at a high political level prepared to take the necessary risks and to make deals. The quiet conversations he authorised went into both the republican and loyalist communities.
Reynolds ensured that words written by a senior churchman were included in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 – a British and Irish position that created a path to ceasefires and beyond.
"He reached out to the fears in the Protestant/unionist community in a way which was unique at that time and found expression in the Downing Street Declaration through the recognition of [the principle of] consent," the retired Church of Ireland Archbishop, Lord Eames, told this newspaper.
"He took the wording that I suggested to him on the basis of conversations I was having within unionism/loyalism."
Reynolds, with John Hume and Gerry Adams, was trying to find a formula, a process, that would persuade the IRA that there was an alternative to violence.
He agreed that, in the event of a full cessation, he would meet the Sinn Fein president publicly within a week, that he would engage the US administration and address the issues of prisoners.
"I decided I would give it my best shot," the former taoiseach once told me. And he did.
With Hume, he took the biggest political risks, and he persuaded President Clinton and Prime Minister Major of the possibilities. "Albert was a deal-maker with a mission," Major wrote last week.
And this is how we now understand the events of 1994 – not just one ceasefire, but the two that many worked for.
That they were a beginning towards some better end; not perfect, but the first steps out of a war mindset that were probably the hardest to take.
Think of the battles since. More killing, struggles over decommissioning and demilitarisation, the tug-of-war between prisoners' rights and those of victims, devolution of politics and policing and the continuing threat posed by dissidents.
That takes us through to today and the unfinished business of peace-building. The past is unanswered and the political institutions at Stormont are stumbling and faltering.
Twenty years on, these are today's realities. And what are the dangers? Just look around the world at escalating conflict. What happened in 1994, despite all the flaws, should never be taken for granted. Those announcements were the first steps into a different place.