IRA ceasefire 20 years on: Deal spawned an imperfect peace... but it's better than before
Published 28/08/2014 | 10:44
This morning 20 years ago, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were preparing for one of the most important meetings of their lives – an IRA army council meeting at which they would ask for the first formally declared ceasefire in 19 years.
That was the precondition they had to meet in order to be allowed to enter talks with the British and Irish governments and the other parties. If they had been refused, then their political strategy would have been in tatters.
The meeting, which took place on August 29, 1994, called the ceasefire, but instability was built into it. The IRA had moved under pressure. It had wanted to reserve the right to defend nationalist areas from attack during the ceasefire, but this had been ruled out by Albert Reynolds, the taoiseach.
"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," Mr Reynolds told Sean Duignan, his Press secretary at the time. Reynolds had told republicans that he would pursue a solution which aimed to isolate them if they did not take the opportunity and that "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".
In spite of this, the ceasefire was sold to the rank-and-file on the basis that "targeting" would continue and attacks could be resumed. This happened, briefly, in 1996 when the organisation bombed Canary Wharf before returning to the table.
In 1994, one last-minute condition was that Joe Cahill, the IRA veteran, should be allowed to enter the US. George Harrison and Phil Kent, two former IRA arms suppliers, told me that Cahill's message was that the ceasefire could be ended at any time. Mr Kent claimed that, on the other hand, details of arms supply networks were passed to the US authorities.
The ceasefire document did not contain the word "permanent", but a Rubicon had still been crossed. The IRA had called a "complete cessation" without any indication that its objective of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland would be met without majority consent.
That made Irish unity a democratic question, thus removing any rationale for the use of force. Achieving it was now a matter of persuasion with no guarantee of success.
In the meantime, republicans were treated with kid gloves. For instance, police carrying out an investigation, Operation Taurus, into Martin McGuinness were refused permission to arrest or question him. The prosecution file noted that he might be in negotiations with the Government soon, as well as pointing up weaknesses in the evidence of three potential witnesses.
The insecurity, the blurring of detail and the suspicion of backdoor arrangements which were all inherent in the ceasefire deal have cast a long shadow.
Normally, when a conflict ends, there is a clear victor, who then dictates terms to his opponents. Here, everyone was given some scope to claim victory and the ambiguity in the ceasefire terms has continued in subsequent agreements.
Our continuing arguments over On The Runs (OTRs), dealing with the past and even flags and parading date back to that ambiguity and insecurity.
Carl von Clausewitz, the military theorist, famously described war as the continuation of politics by other means. Here we have done it the other way round; our politics tease out a fruitless, unresolved conflict. It stunts development and it is a phase we need to move beyond, but it is better than what went before.
Reasoned calm of Salmond and co a far cry from our histrionics
Our historic and cultural ties with Scotland are wide, deep and much talked about on this side of the water, but there wasn't much sign of them on the recent BBC debate on Scottish independence.
The thing that struck home immediately is the difference between Scottish attitudes and our own, even when it was a nationalist debating the border with a unionist.
Alex Salmond, Scottish nationalist leader, mentioned us just once, listing us along with England and Wales as important trading partners for Scotland after independence.
Alistair Darling, representing the unionist side, didn't mention us at all.
There were no rows over what flag would be flown and no mention of battles long ago, or ties of blood.
The debate wasn't pitched in terms of treachery and loyalty.
Indeed, both protagonists agreed that, whatever the outcome of the independence referendum on September 18, they would work to make the best of it, starting the next day.
It is hard to imagine constitutional change being discussed so reasonably here. There were heated moments in Edinburgh, raised voices even, but they were over such issues as taxation powers, what currency could be used and the value of North Sea oil.
It was a fact-based discussion, not an emotional rant.
Mr Salmond won most of the arguments.
For instance, he forced Mr Darling into a U-turn over his earlier claim that an independent Scotland couldn't use sterling.
Mr Darling wouldn't say whether or not he would support a formal currency union, leaving the suspicion that he would.
The overall feeling was, whatever the outcome, that the two sides will quickly sit down and take whatever practical decisions are necessary.
In the event of a No vote, Scotland will be given more powers over taxation and benefits to satisfy nationalist sentiment; if it goes it alone, Scotland will keep sterling as the currency and the Queen as head of state.
Could this be the reason that neither Scottish unionists nor nationalists have enlisted the aid of their opposite numbers here?
Perhaps they don't want our emotional approach infecting their reasoned considerations.
In spite of Mr Salmond's strong performance, Mr Darling did his work fairly effectively.
He played on his audience's innate caution, warning that this would be a step hard to undo once taken. That may prove a winning card as the Scots coolly weigh up their options. We could learn from them.