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The Irish Peace Process by Jeson Ingraham

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Text: © Jeson Ingraham ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following is the second draft of an article contributed by Jeson Ingraham who, at the time of writing, was a temporary intern student at INCORE (INitiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This article is copyright (© 1998) of Jeson Ingraham and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

The Irish Peace Process
Jeson Ingraham


Hume-Adams Talks
The Joint Declaration on Peace (Downing Street Declaration)
The IRA and Combined Loyalist Ceasefires
A New Framework for Agreement
Decommissioning and the Mitchell Principles
The End of the IRA Ceasefire
The Opening of the Talks
The All-Party Talks and a New Labour Government in 1997
The Resumption of the IRA Ceasefire and Sinn Féin Entry into All-party Talks
Compromised Ceasefires


The Northern Ireland conflict has long been considered, along with the Middle East and South Africa, as one of the more intractable of the ethnic conflicts. While there are some encouraging signs of conflict resolution from certain areas of the world, there are many other cases which confirm many people's belief that a resolution is not possible through the current Irish Peace Process. Centuries of sporadic violence and the more recent troubles have convinced many in Northern Ireland that their future will always be trapped in the past. The fundamental challenge to peace is that it is dependent upon an agreement between both sides. While Unionists feel that any agreement must not threaten the link with Britain, Republican involvement in the peace process hinges on a movement towards the ending of partition. In 1992 the Irish government stated that the, "poles of the problem are between those who resent the very existence of Northern Ireland and those who see its existence, and its British status, as vital for their identity. It could be tempting to say these two things are irreconcilable" (O'Brien, 1995, pp.242-243). Undoubtedly, violence has had an important impact on Northern Ireland. It has effectively polarised both communities, solidified their fears and insecurities, and has left very little room to meet in the middle. Compromise is the only way both sides can hope to overcome their differences. However, as the peace process has shown, compromise requires painful sacrifices for those with nationalist and unionist aspirations.

The Hume/Adams Talks

The current peace process began in April 1993 when John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin (SF), met to discus the future of Northern Ireland. Their meetings focused on the idea of self-determination for the people of Ireland, and they hoped their discussions would lead to a historical agreement between the British and Irish governments. No official documents were produced, but commentators generally agree on what was discussed by Hume and Adams. A key element of this discussion was that Britain should be willing to allow the people of Ireland to decide their own political future. This meant that they had to be willing to accept the possibility of a united Ireland. Furthermore, they were to call on Britain to declare it had no "selfish, political, strategic, or economic interest in Northern Ireland" (O'Brien, 1995, p.290). This statement was in response to Peter Brooke's, then Northern Ireland Secretary of State, statement on 9 November 1991 which claimed that Britain had no "selfish, strategic, or economic interest in Northern Ireland."

In previous years, SF had shown hints that they wished to peacefully and democratically reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Through their coming together, Hume and Adams signalled a change in the Nationalists approach to the Northern Irish situation which would, eventually, entail Republicans being willing to abandon violence. In this approach, Nationalist leaders hoped to appeal to a much larger percentage of the nationalist community and to the Irish people of the Republic. It was clear that violence had reduced support for the Nationalist cause in the Republic of Ireland. The task of SF would be to convince the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that they could achieve their political aims without the use of paramilitary force.

The Joint Declaration on Peace (Downing Street Declaration)

The discussions between Hume and Adams were a catalyst which led to talks between the British and Irish governments. In June 1993 both governments came together to discuss the future of each governments relationship to Northern Ireland. For six months, both governments would try to reach a compromise. The main debate focused on the question of self-determination. In the end the British government could not accept self-determination for the people of Ireland as a whole. Rather, the island would be united only if "a majority of the people of Northern Ireland are so persuaded" (British and Irish Governments. Joint Declaration on Peace; paragraph 6). In clarification, the governments condemned any political violence. All persuading was to be done peacefully.

Another significant, though small, difference between the proposals by Hume and Adams and the agreed declaration was the fact that the British government refused to claim that they had no political interest in Northern Ireland. Prime Minister John Major relied on unionist support, and it was enough of a risk for him to say that Britain had no "selfish, strategic, or economic" interest in Northern Ireland (British and Irish Governments. Joint Declaration on Peace; paragraph 4). Major refused to act as a persuader for Irish unity.

Finally on 15 December 1995 The Joint Declaration on Peace was released after a long and intense debate between the two governments. To Republicans, the declaration was not seen as a solution to the conflict between the two communities. The document did however claim to create a structure in which a peaceful political settlement could be pursued. The document concluded,

The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister believe that these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundation for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation. They commit themselves and their governments to continue to work together, unremittingly, towards that objective. (British and Irish Governments. Joint Declaration on Peace; paragraph 11)
Both governments then waited for the reaction of the people of Northern Ireland.

The IRA and Combined Loyalist Ceasefires

The British and Irish governments held the view that no democratic process could be allowed to be influenced by violence, yet it was recognised that if the talks were to produce any lasting settlement the process would have to be as inclusive as possible. The absence of political parties which represented the various paramilitary groups was seen as a hindrance to the possibility of a permanent settlement. Therefore, it was considered essential that Loyalist and Republican paramilitary groups should be encouraged to enter into ceasefires.

In the immediate aftermath of the declaration, violence continued. While politicians had struck a compromise, paramilitary groups carried out business as usual. Republicans spent some time seeking clarification on the Joint Agreement. Only when they felt the agreement would allow them to pursue their objectives politically would they consider a ceasefire. Loyalist violence was not just a response to Republican violence, but it was also a sign of their insecurity regarding their relationship with the British government. Although unionists were in the majority in Northern Ireland and the document would only allow a united Ireland to be achieved by a majority consent from the Northern Ireland population, unionists no longer had the absolute right to veto the idea of a united Ireland.

In the case of the IRA, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of SF put a lot of effort into the process which eventually was to bring about an IRA ceasefire. SF was convinced that the IRA's objectives could be achieved much better through democratic means. Just a few weeks before the IRA ceasefire Gerry Adams spoke at a republican rally and said, "I am especially confident that after twenty-five years of unparalleled courage and self-sacrifice, the nationalist people of this part of Ireland are prepared to show the way to a new future while at the same time reaching out the hand of friendship to unionists" (Rowan, 1995, p.91).

The SF argument clearly influenced the leaders of the IRA. On 31 August 1994 the IRA announced, "We believe that an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement has been created. We are therefore entering into a new situation in a spirit of determination and confidence determined that the injustices which created this conflict will be removed and confident in the strength and justice of our struggle to achieve this" (Irish Republican Army, 31 August 1994; paragraph 4). Though it was a victory for peace, it was not an all-inclusive Republican ceasefire. There were other splinter groups such as the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) which did not consider themselves bound by the IRA's complete cessation of military operations. Only time would tell if all Republican organisations would recognise the ceasefire.

The path to a Loyalist ceasefire must be seen in a different light. Unlike the Republican paramilitaries, Loyalists felt they were defending themselves. In their view, Republicans had entered into a "peace offensive" which did not signal that peace was on the horizon. Rather, it was taken with great suspicion. Loyalists felt that Republicans were trying to coerce them into a united Ireland. Ray Smallwood, a Loyalist politician who was shot dead a month before the IRA ceasefire explained Loyalist reaction to Republican "changes" like this.

People are angry and they are alienated; they're alienated and let us remember that the alienation we see now is a result of the last nationalist peace offensive, so called. In 1985 they inflicted the Anglo-Irish Agreement on us with the promise of peace, prosperity and progress. That didn't happen. What we have now is an alienation born from that, and the violence emanating from Loyalists paramilitaries is the manifestation of that anger and alienation. (Rowan, 1995, p.108)

Despite their insecurities, key people were working behind the scenes in an effort to see a combined Loyalist ceasefire.

Church of Ireland Primate Dr Robin Eames and Presbyterian minister Roy Magee developed extensive contacts with representatives of Loyalist paramilitary groups. Both men understood that the war wasn't over unless the Loyalists laid down their arms, and they worked tirelessly to make the most of the opportunity for peace. Primarily, the men relayed the questions, concerns, and statements of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC). Loyalists wanted to know if the IRA ceasefire was permanent, the status of the INLA, and that their "constitutional position as a partner within the United Kingdom" was assured (Rowan, 1995, p.116).

A long and violent six weeks had past before the CLMC announced a ceasefire of their own. Their ceasefire signalled that they felt their connection to the Union was safe, but their statement was different from the IRA statement in two ways. First of all, it expressed remorse for "the loved ones of all innocent victims" (Combined Loyalist Military Command, 13 October 1994; paragraph 2). Secondly, it announced "The permanence of our ceasefire will be completely dependent upon the continued cessation of all nationalist/republican violence, the sole responsibility for a return to War lies with them" (Combined Loyalist Military Command, 13 October 1994; paragraph 7). At last, there was peace in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, were the Loyalist and Republican ceasefires strong enough to overcome twenty-five years of violence?

A New Framework for Agreement

In February 1995 both governments introduced A New Framework for Agreement. Peace in Northern Ireland helped the British and Irish governments find a new confidence in their dialogue. Not only was the document a continuation of issues discussed in The Joint Declaration for Peace, it also introduced new ideas for future governmental structures.

The issue of self-determination was again one of the main topics in the governments' discussions. The framework was not "a rigid blueprint to be imposed," but statements the governments made in this new agreement were a sign of the deep commitment to certain principles regarding self-determination. The document read, "Given the absence of consensus and depth of divisions between the two main traditions in Northern Ireland, the two governments agree that such an accommodation will involve an agreed new approach to the traditional constitutional doctrines on both sides" (British and Irish Governments. The Framework Document; paragraph 15).

For the Irish government it was important that they recognised the need to change their constitution. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution claimed sovereignty over all of Ireland. This had always been bitterly resented by unionists, and therefore change was required. If progress was to be made, the Republic needed to recognise that a united Ireland would only be the result of a majority consent from the people of Northern Ireland. Similarly, Britain committed itself to observing Northern Ireland's right (along with a majority consent by the Republic) to self-determination. Thus, they committed themselves to recognising the possibility of a united Ireland in the event that the people of the North and South democratically agreed on it.

A New Framework for Agreement also discussed the setting up of three future structures which would help overcome tensions between both communities. These structures reflected the three sets of relationships and would include internal Northern Ireland structures, North/South structures (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), and East/West structures (The Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom).

The internal structures would be set up to promote direct dialogue with all relevant political parties in Northern Ireland. The British and Irish governments believed such structures were necessary to reach "cross-community consensus in relation to decisions affecting the basic rights, concerns and fundamental interests of both communities" (British and Irish Governments. The Framework Document; paragraph 22). North/South structures were necessary in order to represent the common good of all traditions in Ireland. In light of the expanding role of the European Union, it was believed to be in the economic interest of the whole island to harmonise certain economic and social policies. Finally, in recognising the need for East/West structures, both governments saw the benefits in developing their relationship. It was their idea to "envisage a new and more broadly based Agreement, developing and extending their co-operation, reflecting the totality of relationships between the two islands, and dedicated to fostering co-operation, reconciliation and agreement in Ireland at all levels" (British and Irish Governments. The Framework Document; paragraph 39).

Not surprisingly, the document was not openly welcomed by either community. The Belfast Telegraph commented,

There is something for everyone, of all shades of the unionist or national opinion, and not enough for anyone to wholeheartedly endorse. Unionist can, if they want, regard the strong North-South dimension as a slippery slope to Irish unity. Republicans, on the other hand, may see the emphasis on agreement and consent as a means of copper-fastening partition for generations to come (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.86).

Not everybody in the nationalist community rejected the framework Some believed the agreement would be beneficial for the common good. One reason people felt this way was because they thought the proposed structures had the potential to benefit both communities economically. Secondly, the agreement was the foundation for a talks process. The Irish News noted, "It should be clearly recognised that this is a starting point for politicians to discuss and hammer out a future where our people can live in harmony and peace" (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.86).

However, the unionists did not see it in the same way. They felt threatened and even betrayed by the document, particularly by the proposed North/South structures. In their opinion, a North/South institution with any kind of political power was a sure sign of a step towards Irish unity. Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP Ken Maginnis claimed the document had taken the unionists back ten years (Wilson, 1995, p.134). This disagreement seemed to exemplify the fact that both sides saw that the road to peace headed in opposite directions.

Decommissioning and the Mitchell Principles

The decommissioning of paramilitary arms became an important issue as Northern Ireland moved towards multi-party talks. It became apparent that some of the participants would only accept those parties, who were linked to paramilitary organisations, into a talks process if weapons were first handed over. Opposing parties saw this not only as unrealistic but as an unfair precondition on the entry to talks. Gerry Adams complained that the British government never mentioned that the surrender of IRA weapons was a precondition to negotiations, until after the IRA ceasefire on 31 August 1994. He further commented, "The British government is not simply interested in a gesture. It is, in reality, demanding the start of a surrender process as a precondition to all-party talks" (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.105). Undoubtedly, the British and Irish governments' implicit point needed to be taken into account. Any talks process had to be completely democratic and uncompromised by the threat of violence, but were they being realistic? Paramilitary organisations (Loyalist and Republican) vowed that they would not stop fighting until their aims had been achieved. Again, these differences seemed to be a irreconcilable barrier to the peace process. Given the dilemma the British government was persuaded of the need to seek independent help.

Just days before the United States President, Bill Clinton, was scheduled to make his historical visit to Northern Ireland, the British and Irish governments were making last minute efforts to issue a document on decommissioning which would receive the President's support. Amazingly, on 28 November 1995 after a week of intense diplomacy, Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach John Bruton agreed on the Joint Communique over the phone on the eve of Clinton's arrival in London. The document discussed the twin track policy "to make parallel progress on decommissioning and all-party negotiations" (British and Irish Governments. Joint Communique; paragraph x). Both governments committed themselves to launching all-party talks by February, 1996. In parallel, they "agreed to establish an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue" (British and Irish Governments. Joint Communique; paragraph 5). The governments asked Senator George Mitchell of the United States to chair the independent body. Former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri and Canadian Chief of Defence Staff General John de Chastelain were also asked to serve on the independent body. Perhaps most important of all, President Clinton arrived in London on 29 November 1995 and endorsed the Joint Communique. The next day he became the first serving United States President to visit Northern Ireland.

In January 1996, the time had come for George Mitchell and the International Body to suggest how the British and Irish governments should treat the issue of decommissioning. John Major made it clear that he believed decommissioning should take place before all-party talks. Furthermore, he had the support of Labour opposition leader Tony Blair, and recent polls indicated that 83 per cent of the people in Northern Ireland rejected the idea that all party talks should take place before any decommissioning started (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.152,154).

However, in their report on 24 January 1996, the International Body concluded,

there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve full and verifiable decommissioning as a part of the process of all-party negotiations; but that commitment does not include decommissioning prior to such negotiations (Mitchell, de Chastelain and Holkeri. Report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning; paragraph 25).
The report also included fundamental "principles of democracy and non-violence" (Mitchell, de Chastelain and Holkeri. Report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning; paragraph 20)." In their research, the Body simply didn't believe decommissioning before the talks was possible. Groups such as SF welcomed the report because it recommended they be allowed in the talks before decommissioning started. One aspect of the report which might prove to cause difficulties for political parties linked to paramilitary groups was the principle which asked them, "To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any efforts by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations" (Mitchell, de Chastelain and Holkeri. Report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning; paragraph 20e).

Rather than accept the main recommendation of the International Body's report, the British government immediately introduced a new plan based on 'confidence building' measure mentioned in the report. In a surprise move, John Major "embraced [Ulster Unionist Party leader] David Trimble's proposal for an elected assembly to negotiate a settlement" (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.162). This proposal clearly divided Britain and the Republic of Ireland. While the Irish Times reported the proposal was a "serious breach of faith", the London Times called it "the most creative proposal yet advanced for moving the peace process forward" (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.154). The proposal would favour Unionist representation in any elected assembly and was evidence that the UUP had a substantial amount of influence on the British government. This sequence of events hardened and infuriated the nationalist community. It was even reported from the White House that officials were "shocked and angered" by the proposal. Despite criticism, on 27 January 1996 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, reiterated the government's position and said, "all-party talks will not take place without elections to the proposed forum unless paramilitaries take the alternative route of decommissioning weapons" (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.155).

The following weeks were characterised by political gridlock. While Britain continued to push for an election, the Irish Government introduced the idea that talks be carried out in a neutral environment (that is in the style of the Bosnian peace process held in Dayton, Ohio). Not surprisingly, the proposals divided the community and the goal to begin all party talks by the end of February seemed to be disappearing.

The End of the IRA Ceasefire

At 7.01 pm on 9 February 1996 a car bomb exploded near Canary Wharf in London killing two people, injuring more than one hundred, and causing £85 million worth of damage. After seventeen months of peace the IRA had ended their ceasefire. Just one hour prior to the explosion a statement was issued by the IRA. In the statement, the IRA stated that "The cessation presented an historic challenge for everyone and the IRA commends the leaderships of nationalist Ireland at home and abroad. They rose to the challenge. The British Prime Minister did not." (Irish Republican Army, 9 February 1996; paragraph 4). The statement continued, "The resolution of the conflict in our country demands justice. It demands an inclusive negotiated settlement. That is not possible unless and until the British government faces up to its responsibilities" (Irish Republican Army, 9 February 1996; paragraph 8). The IRA once more resumed its violent campaign in England and in doing so appeared to signal an end to the peace process.

Despite the many reservations on the Nationalist side preparations were made for an election in Northern Ireland which was set for 30 May 1996. Both governments attempted to get the IRA to reinstate its ceasefire for the sake of the process and in fear that Loyalist paramilitaries would react to the recent Republican violence. The unionists criticised the government for making concessions to nationalists by proposing that the Irish government be a joint co-ordinator of the negotiations in both governments' Consultation Paper: Ground Rules for Substantive All-Party Negotiations. Somehow, by the 30 May 1996 all the parties were prepared for elections.

The rules governing the Forum Election and the entitlement to take part in subsequent talks were laid out in The Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act of 1996. In the Forum Election the UUP received 30 seats (24.2%), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) received 24 seats (18.8%), the SDLP received 21 (21.4%) seats, and SF had its best ever showing and received 17 seats (15.5%), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) received 7 seats (6.5%), and the United kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) received 3 seats (3.7%). Four other parties did not win any constituency seats, but were each granted two seats because they finished among the top ten most successful parties. These parties were, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) (3.5%), the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) (2.2%), the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) (1.0%), and a Labour (Lab.) coalition (0.9%) (Bew and Gillespie, 1996; 177). It could be argued that the high level of support for SF was meant to encourage them to influence the IRA to resume its ceasefire. Others argued that it was a sign that a substantial amount of nationalists were aligning themselves with the stance of militant Republicans. Despite the electoral support for SF, the party was told that it would not be allowed into the talks without a permanent IRA ceasefire. The ballot however did not speak as loud as the bombs which continued to explode on the streets of London.

The Opening of the Talks

The talks opened on 10 June 1996. The UDP and PUP were allowed to remain in talks because the CLMC Ceasefire had held under difficult circumstances (both the PUP and UDP had close associations with Loyalist paramilitary groups). As expected, SF were not allowed to enter the talks because the IRA had not resumed its ceasefire before the talks began.

Despite trouble surrounding Loyalist marches in Portadown, the talks pushed forward. On 6 June 1996 the RUC in Portadown had announced that an Orange Order march returning from a service at Drumcree church would be re-routed so as to avoid a Catholic area. Unionists felt the move threatened their identity, while nationalists felt it was a sign of equal status. As the time of the parade approached, the unionist community became quite hostile. After three days of rioting, the RUC reversed their decision on 11 June 1996 and allowed the parade to proceed through the Catholic Garvaghy Road. Inevitably, this decision sparked a violent nationalist response. For days, rioting occurred in republican areas and a Republican splinter group (later identified as the Continuity Irish Republican Army, CIRA) bombed a hotel in Enniskillen (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, pp.178-179). Remarkably, Nationalist and Unionist politicians forged through this period of heightened tension and reached preliminary political agreements in the multi-party talks. On 12 June 1996 all parties represented at the talks agreed to the Mitchell Principles. Over a month later, the parties agreed on rules of procedure (Northern Ireland Office. Progress in the Northern Ireland Multi-Party Talks, June 1996 to March 1997, Northern Ireland Office). This political progress was made despite the murder of a Catholic taxi-driver (later shown to be the first killing associated with the Loyalist Volunteer Force, LVF) and the death of a Catholic man who was crushed by an armoured car during riots in Derry (Bew and Gillespie, 1996, p.179). The talks were then suspended for the summer.

The talks resumed on 9 September 1996 and the political parties subsequently discussed the issue of decommissioning and a future agreement. Progress was slow but steady. In an inter-governmental conference on 20 November 1996 both governments stated that they wished to see the talks become more inclusive. They "reiterated their view that progress should be made on the basis of an inclusive and dynamic process in which mutual trust and confidence is built as progress is made on all issues of concern to all participants" (Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference. Joint Statement of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference, paragraph 5). After the meeting, Sir Patrick Mayhew commented that the talks process would continue with or without SF, but that their involvement was welcomed alongside a IRA ceasefire (Mayhew, Patrick, 20 November 1996). On 18 December 1996 the talks broke for Christmas. They were to start back up again on 13 January 1997. Senator Mitchell concluded that the 1996 negotiations "made a serious effort to address and resolve the many substantial obstacles to agreement" (Northern Ireland Office. Statement by the Independent Chairmen of the Northern Ireland Talks, 18 December 1996).

The All-Party Talks and a New Labour Government in 1997

The talks resumed after the Christmas break on 13 January 1997. The talks proceeded very slowly through the early months of 1997 and were usually overshadowed by IRA violence. At a press conference on the 27 January 1997 Michael Ancram stated, "We are going back now to resume our discussions on the difficult question of decommissioning" (Northern Ireland Office. Michael Ancram Interviewed, 27 January 1997). Members of both governments condemned the continuation of IRA violence, but also recognised the negative impact on the talks process. In praising the achievements and at the same time observing the disappointments of the talks, Sir Patrick Mayhew said on 5 March 1997, "We have not been able to show greater results from the opportunity that the talks offer, and that we have not been able to address directly or at all the substantive political issues in the three strands" (Mayhew, P., 5 March 1997). On 5 March 1997 the talks broke and would not begin again until 3 June 1997. Along with the Easter season, the British general election was scheduled to take place on 1 May 1997, to be followed shortly afterwards by Northern Ireland district council elections. Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew was not to return to the talks regardless of the outcome of the general election as he announced his retirement from the House of Commons.

On 1 May 1997 the people of the UK elected the Labour Party, by a large majority, to government in the British parliament. Tony Blair became the new prime minister and Mo Mowlam became the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The victory of Labour was to signal a significant political change in the search for peace in Northern Ireland. Initially, nationalists welcomed Labour's election as a victory because the British government no longer relied on support of the UUP. This took political pressure off the incoming government. However, this change was not short of sceptics. An Irish Times columnist reminded the nationalist community that Tony Blair had supported John Major's policies regarding Northern Ireland when the IRA ended its ceasefire (Myers, K.,1 May 1997). Nevertheless, subsequent events seemed to disprove the idea that there would be no significant changes in Northern Ireland to parallel the political and constitutional changes planned for Britain.

In the middle of May, Tony Blair said the Northern Ireland talks was "one of the Government's highest priorities" (The Government's Approach, 16 May 1997). This seemed to be the case as the talks resumed on 3 June 1997 and developments on the issue of decommissioning seemed to move quickly. By 25 June 1997 both governments issued proposals on the issue of decommissioning. The proposals were heavily based on the report of the International Body that the issue of decommissioning should be discussed alongside substantive political negotiations. It was proposed that this would be achieved by creating an Independent Commission which would "facilitate, observe, monitor, and verify decommissioning" (Northern Ireland Ofice. The Reopening of Multi-Party Talks, June 1997). The governments also proposed the development of "two Liaison sub-committees of the talks plenary, one on decommissioning and another on confidence building measures" (Northern Ireland Ofice. The Reopening of Multi-Party Talks, June 1997). The conclusions found in the proposals allowed the governments to set up substantive all-party talks in September. The negotiations were scheduled to conclude by May of 1998.

The Resumption of the IRA Ceasefire and Sinn Féin Entry into All-party Talks

As September 1997 grew closer, and SF recognised the British government's desire to include them in the talks or else proceed without them, the Republican movement reassessed its political situation. John Hume argued that a resumption of the ceasefire was once again within reach of the government. On 18 July 1997 Hume and Adams released a joint statement which said, "A just and lasting commitment will only be achieved if it is based on principles of democracy and equality and has the allegiance of both traditions" (Adams, G. and J. Hume. Joint Statement by John Hume and Gerry Adams, 18 July 1997; paragraph 3). Two days later, the IRA resumed it's ceasefire. Clearly the recent political changes had influenced their decision. Their ceasefire noted "having assessed the current political situation, the leadership of the Oglaigh na hÉireann are announcing a complete cessation of military operations from 12 midday on Sunday 20 July, 1997 (Irish Republican Army, 20 July 1997; paragraph 4). Both governments reacted with reserved hope and waited to see if the ceasefire was genuine. If it was clear the IRA had abandoned all paramilitary activity for six weeks, then SF would be allowed to enter the talks in September. The ceasefire held, SF was admitted into the talks, and not surprisingly, their arrival marked the departure of the DUP and UKUP. After a sincere effort by both governments to make the multi-party talks all inclusive, disappointingly, the talks still lacked representation from all parties.

Compromised Ceasefires

The months that followed cast more doubts on the multi-party talks. Although the Loyalist ceasefire had held for over three years, it became apparent that Loyalist extremists were responsible for three car bomb attacks in Belfast (22 December 1997), Londonderry (28 December 1997), and Larne (20 January 1998). These and other events may have provoked the retaliation of the Republican group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The INLA did not consider itself bound by the IRA ceasefire and on 27 December 1997 they killed the LVF leader Billy Wright inside the Maze prison in Belfast. The LVF itself did not subscribe to the Loyalist ceasefire. Christopher McWilliams, one of the tree men charged with Wright's murder said, "Billy Wright was executed for one reason and one reason only, and that was for directing and waging his campaign of terror against the nationalist people from his prison cell" (The Irish Times, 30 December 1997). Immediately following the death of Wright, there was an upsurge of Loyalist attacks on Catholics on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Renewed violence had a direct impact on multi-party talks as the early months of 1998 brought the suspension of two parties from the process; the UDP and SF. The UDP walked out (just hours before being suspended) of the talks on 26 January 1998 after both governments concluded that they had breached the Mitchell principles. The UDP is considered as the political wing of the paramilitary group the UDA / UFF which had been linked to "a wave of sectarian killings" (The Irish Times, 27 January 1998). Though the UDP had walked out of the talks, they were not walking away. It was made clear that they would be allowed back into the talks after a period of time (which turned out to be four weeks) if they remained committed to the Mitchell principles in word and deed. In late February 1998, SF was also suspended from the talks. Both governments believed that two killings, that of a Loyalist paramilitary and a Catholic drugs dealer, were the work of the IRA. SF attempted to use legal manoeuvres to keep themselves in the talks because they claimed the IRA ceasefire was still intact. Despite their attempts SF was suspended. As the talks were nearing the May 1998 deadline, the two governments set an exclusion of two weeks provided there were no further breaches of the Mitchell principles. A little less than a month after the UDP walked out of the talks, they rejoined them on 23 February 1998. Despite Unionist claims that the IRA was linked to recent bombings, SF re-entered the talks on 23 March 1998.


In an effort to overcome the political gridlock, the independent chairman of the multi-party talks set a deadline for agreement as the 9 April 1998. Many people were initially sceptical that an agreement could be reached in the new time limit. However in the final weeks of negotiation most of the delegates taking part in the process said that the deadline did give the process a new sense of urgency and had been a good idea. During the last week of March 1998 and the first week of April 1998 serious problems still lay in the path of a political agreement that the parties could sign-up to. Not surprisingly, Unionists and Nationalists were divided over how power would be shared in the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly, and the extent to which the Irish government would have influence over Northern Ireland under the proposed North-South structures.

The weeks leading up to the deadline were hectic with the various party delegations an government officials having to work round the clock to close the gap between the various political positions. Rumours that the UUP was going to leave the multi-party talks were about as common as speculation that SF was also on the verge of leaving Stormont. In retrospect, the tensions that were apparent between the various groupings were an indication of the historical compromise that was being asked of all sides. The midnight deadline, of 9 April 1998, was not achieved but parties and governments (including Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern) were asked to stay at the Stormont castle until an agreement was reached. The imminent arrival of the Easter weekend, and the prospect of a collapse of the talks, gave the process and participants a last push to reaching an agreement. With a media circus outside the castle, the news of the Agreement was reported in the late afternoon on Good Friday. Amazingly all the parties involved in the talks attended the final plenary session in which George Mitchell announced that an agreement had been reached and that the multi-party talks were at end. Participants in the multi-party negotiations believe that The Agreement, "offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Declaration of Support, Paragraph 1). Those who have been involved in the process were careful not to heralded it as a victory for any particular party, but rather as the best agreement that could be achieved in the circumstances.

A decision on whether or not to accept The Agreement is to be made by the people of Ireland, in two simultaneous referendums North and South, on 22 May 1988. If accepted the provisions in the lengthy document will do several things. First of all, it will reaffirm the principle of self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland, and the fact that the status of Northern Ireland will not change unless a majority of people in Northern Ireland democratically consent to a united Ireland. This principle includes the Irish Government's proposal to change Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution which will redefine their territorial claim over Northern Ireland and recognise the "consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Annex B, Article 3). This change will be decided by the people of the Republic in the upcoming 22 May 1988 referendum. A 108 member Northern Ireland Assembly (Strand 1) is to be established in which safeguards will be implemented "to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of these institutions and that all sections of the community are protected" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Strand One, Paragraph 5). This form of power-sharing will include an executive authority composed of "a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and up to ten Ministers with Departmental responsibilities" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Declaration of Support, Paragraph 14). The Agreement will also bring forth the establishment of a North/South Ministerial Council (Strand Two) designed to "develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland - including through implementation on an all-island and cross-border basis - on matters of mutual interests within the competence of the Administrations, North and South" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Strand Two, Paragraph 1). Furthermore, "It is understood that the North/South Ministerial Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly are mutually inter-dependent, and that one cannot successfully function without the other" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Strand Two, Paragraph 13). The third and least controversial strand is the establishment of a British-Irish Council which will aim "to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Strand Three, Paragraph 1). Membership will be comprised of representatives from the Irish and British Governments, including devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Although the creation of the three strands and Ireland's Constitutional amendment are the major aspects of The Agreement, there are many other notable changes which The Agreement will bring. In the case of human rights, the document contains a variety of commitments to improve and adopt new human rights legislation. This includes the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law, the creation of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, along with comparable steps by the Irish Government (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity). In the area of decommissioning, The Agreement reaffirms the commitment and good faith of the various parties in working constructively to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary groups within two years after the endorsement of the Agreement in the referendums. The document also promises the "normalisation" of security forces "compatible with a normal peaceful society" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Security, Paragraph 2[iv]). In order to change the perception of the police force The Agreement promises "an independent Commission will be established to make recommendations for future policing arrangements in Northern Ireland including means of encouraging widespread community support for these arrangements" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Policing and Justice, Paragraph 3). For political groups representing paramilitary groups, the documents stance on prisoners seems promising. Prisoners of groups maintaining an unequivocal ceasefire will enter into a review process which "would provide for the advance of [their] release dates" (The Agreement, 10 April 1998, Prisoners, Paragraph 4). Finally, a new British-Irish Agreement will be signed which would replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in 1985.

Northern Ireland faces a complicated political process in the future. The Agreement is expected to receive a 'yes' vote in the two forth-coming referendums but that is only the first challenge it faces. For a working Assembly and Council to be established, there must be a healthy majority of political representatives dedicated to co-operating. This may be difficult as the DUP, the UKUP, and members of the UUP opposed to The Agreement, are likely to form a substantial opposition and therefore may undermine the Assembly. The fact that those in support of The Agreement are constantly in debate over what it actually means is yet another signal that the most adversarial times in this process have yet to come. However, on a more positive note, one cannot help but feel encouraged by the fact that Northern Ireland has an historical opportunity to achieve a peaceful settlement.


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Bew, P. and G. Gillespie (1996) The Northern Ireland Peace Process: 1993-1996 London: Serif.

British and Irish Governments (15 March 1996). Consultation Paper: Ground Rules for Substantive All-Party Negotiations. Belfast and Dublin: HMSO and The Stationery Office (RoI). CAIN Internet Site;

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Mayhew, Patrick. (5 March 1997) Talks plenary: Valedictory Statement by the Secretary of State. Northern Ireland Office;

Mitchell;G., de Chastelain, J. and H. Holkeri. (24 January 1996) Report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning. CAIN Internet Site,

Myers, Kevin (1 May 1997), 'An Irishman's Diary', The Irish Times on the Web; [Link currently not available]

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O'Brien, Brendan (1995) The Long War. Dublin: The O'Brien Press

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Wilson, Gordon (1995) Statement in: Paths to a Political Settlement in Ireland. Belfast: The Black Staff Press

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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