Belfast Telegraph

Records reveal sadness and shock of leaders in wake of Docklands bomb

The then Prime Minister John Major
The then Prime Minister John Major
The Docklands bombing that signalled the end of the IRA ceasefire
Former US President Bill Clinton
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Details of telephone conversations between US President Bill Clinton, UK Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach John Bruton in the wake of the Docklands bombing have been released.

The newly-declassified transcripts from the US National Archives cover the hours after the IRA broke its ceasefire in February 1996.

They reveal how the three leaders were filled with shock, frustration and sadness - none of them had seen it coming.

"It's bad news, really bad news," John Major told Bill Clinton by phone at 11.13pm UK time on February 9, 1996, just four hours after the IRA ended its 17-month ceasefire.

The explosion, which killed two people and injured more than 100, came after months of stalemate in the attempts to start peace talks.

The calls show the deep personal commitment that Clinton showed in trying to end violence.

His surprise was compounded by the fact he had met Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams days before at the White House.

"I just wanted to call and tell you how sorry I am about what happened," Clinton told Bruton in a four-minute call shortly after he had telephoned the PM. "It is dreadful, really," Bruton replied.

"It was completely sudden and unexpected. It appears a lot of Sinn Fein's leadership was taken by surprise."

Referring to an IRA statement after the bombing, which blamed Major and his Government for the failure of the peace process, the US President said: "Blaming the British under these circumstances is pretty gutless."

Clinton was annoyed at himself because he had met Adams days earlier and not foreseen the bomb attack, though he had noticed the Sinn Fein leader "seemed ill at ease".

Both Major and Clinton criticised a statement Adams had released after the bombing in which he said he regretted that "an unprecedented opportunity for peace had foundered on the refusal of the British Government and the unionist leaders to enter into dialogue on substantive negotiation".

Clinton told Major this was "not a very diplomatic statement".

In the weeks afterwards the three governments worked towards trying to put together a package that would enable Sinn Fein to enter all-party talks once the ceasefire was restored.

On February 23, 1996, Clinton called Bruton again and the Taoiseach told him a definite date for all-party talks was needed.

He felt he could convince reluctant members of the SDLP, led by John Hume, to accept some form of election "so long as the transition to talks is absolutely direct and there would be no delay and no further conditions".

Clinton promised to stay in touch with Adams and to see what he could do to persuade Hume on the election proposal - both of which, Bruton said, would be helpful.

"Call me at any time. I am heartsick about this but I believe we still have a shot at getting this back on track so if there is anything I can do, I'll do it," the President told him.

In their next phone call, on June 6, 1996, the Taoiseach shared the "good news" with Clinton that "things are coming through for the talks" and he was "very grateful" to Clinton for sending former US senate leader George Mitchell to lead attempts to find a solution.

"We have not lost hope that there may be an IRA ceasefire by Monday - it's still possible," Bruton said.

In the end, it would take over a year for a second ceasefire.

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