The Belfast Telegraph’s front page on August 31, 1994 was unforgettable in its stark simplicity. Above three awful images of IRA atrocities sat the most significant headline in modern Irish history - ‘It’s Over’.
The photos showed a bloodied survivor of the 1972 Abercorn bomb; the grief-torn face of Gina Murray whose 13-year-old daughter was killed in the Shankill bomb just a year earlier; and bodies being lifted from the rubble following the 1987 Enniskillen attack.
After 3,168 deaths inflicted by all sides over 25 years of the Troubles, the Provisionals were ending their campaign at midnight. While unionists were filled with doubt, the newspaper struck a confident tone and dared to hope.
The crisp, clean copy of political correspondents Vincent Kearney and Mark Simpson was all the more amazing given the frenetic activity involved in turning around the story so quickly. Kearney had met a republican contact outside a west Belfast cafe that morning. “I was asked to get into the back of a car, to lie down, and to put a blanket over my head,” he says.
“I was driven around for about 10 minutes and then the car stopped, and I was told to go into a house. I sat in front of an unmasked man whom I didn’t know. He said ‘I’m going to read you a statement from the Army Council of the Provisional IRA. There will be no questions.’
“He spoke very quickly and I struggled to get it all down word for word. At the end, I asked him for a copy and he said no. I think security concerns ruled that out. It was a very small piece of paper with tiny typed writing.”
The journalist was returned to the cafe by car, this time with no blanket over his head. “It was only 400 yards from where I’d been picked up despite the protracted driving around earlier,” he says.
Kearney rushed back to Belfast Telegraph offices in Royal Avenue to tell his editor, Ed Curran. “My heart-beat and pulse rate were racing. I knew this was something huge, something genuinely historic,” he recalls.
“There had been months of expectation about a big move from the IRA. But the talks and the rumours had gone on so long that you began to wonder if it would ever happen. Ed just said ‘Wow, this is it!’ when I read the statement to him.”
The paper was due to hit the streets at 10.30am but the ceasefire story was under embargo until 11 a.m. so Curran made the decision to hold the presses.
“Ed convened a meeting of myself and a few senior staff. It was all kept very tight. The newsroom wasn’t told in case word leaked out before the paper was printed,” Kearney says.
“I remember Ed picking up a blank A4 sheet of paper and a pen and designing the front page in front of us. He said to me ‘You better have got this right, Vincent, because we have no plan B for the front page – and, if it’s wrong, you’re out of a job and so am I.’”
Kearney’s fellow political correspondent, Mark Simpson, rounded up reaction to the imminent ceasefire. SDLP leader John Hume told him that it was “a piece of news that will be welcomed by Irish people everywhere and in particular people on the streets of Northern Ireland”.
In Downing Street, the reaction was more muted. Tory Prime Minister John Major said he was “greatly encouraged” by the ceasefire but had to be sure it represented a “permanent renunciation of violence”. If so, “many options are open”, he added.
Unionists appeared unsettled by the news. Ulster Unionist leader, Jim Molyneaux, immediately demanded that the IRA hand over its weapons. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds noted that the Provos hadn’t used the word permanent.
He saw other shortcomings in the IRA statement. “Far from renouncing violence, they have praised violence,” Dodds said. “They have praised the so-called sacrifice of their people.”
Loyalist paramilitaries asked their political leaders to establish if the Union was under threat.
Simpson says he felt “a huge rush of adrenalin” as he gathered the comments for the front page story with Kearney. “The quicker we wrote, the quicker people on the streets of Belfast would get the news. There was no internet and no smart phones in those days,” he says.
Kearney went into the print hall at 11am. “There was a big red button that kicked the machines into action. Ed told me to hit it, and the presses rolled,” he recalls.
“A fleet of vans waited at the back door to pick up bundles of newspapers. I watched as one van was loaded up as quickly as possible, drove off, and another moved into its spot for the process to be repeated.
“There was a huge print run that morning – we printed tens of thousands of extra copies. The papers were taken to shops and news-stands all over Northern Ireland.”
Kearney, now an RTE correspondent in Belfast, is still filled with pride over the story. “I walked into the political section of the Linenhall Library one day, and a framed copy of the August 31, 1994 front page was hanging on the wall. It was a great feeling.
“I haven’t kept many papers from my time in newspaper journalism, but I have about half a dozen copies of that edition in my attic.”
Simpson has a framed copy of the front page - given to him by a former Belfast Telegraph colleague – hanging on a wall in his home.
He’s now a BBC Northern Ireland TV reporter. “At the time I was in my mid-20s. I’ve since written and broadcast thousands of other stories, but that Wednesday morning in August 1994 is a day I’ll never forget,” he says.
I worked in the Irish Times’ Belfast office at the time of the IRA ceasefire. That afternoon, I went up to cover a celebration staged by Sinn Fein outside its Connolly House headquarters in Andersonstown.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were feted like all-conquering heroes. They were swamped in a sea of hugs and kisses. There was speculation among the crowd that a secret deal had been negotiated with Downing Street which would lead to a British withdrawal and to the ending partition.
Further scenes of jubilation followed at midnight in west Belfast when the IRA ceasefire came into operation. There weren’t enough bin lids to go around so women took saucepans from their kitchens and banged them on the metal fencing outside Andersonstown barracks.
"Brits out! Brits out!" they yelled at the soldiers and police inside. "You're going home. Buy your plane tickets now!" There were shouts of “I,I, IRA!”
Four men, including a local Sinn Fein councillor, climbed up the fencing and planted Tricolours on top of the barracks as the crowd cheered.
"We've won because otherwise they’d be firing plastic bullets, they’d be shooting us. But we’ve won and they can’t shoot us,” exclaimed one exuberant young man.
‘IRA checkpoint’ was painted at the junction of the Springfield and Falls Roads.
A cavalcade of around 100 cars, horns tooting crazily, toured the streets. People sat on the bonnets, or hung out the windows waving Tricolours. It was enough to give even the most moderate unionist heart failure.
Ultimately, there was no need for them to be concerned. There was no secret deal negotiated between the IRA and London to end the Union. Prisoner releases and policing reform would eventually follow in the years to come, but the constitutional position of Northern Ireland remained unchanged.
Despite the scenes in west Belfast that night, physical force republicanism had not won.
The IRA ended its campaign without achieving its goals. It came to a de facto acceptance of the constitutional nationalist argument that Irish unity couldn’t be achieved through ‘armed struggle’. Over a quarter of a century later, hundreds of people are alive because of that changed stance.
The shame is that Abercorn, Shankill and Enniskillen; Loughinisland, Greysteel, and McGurks; Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy - and all the other less high-profile massacres - ever happened in the first place.Visit our anniversary hub where we celebrate 150 years of the Belfast Telegraph