The IRA ceasefire 20 years on

Posted By: August 31, 2014

Gerry Moriarty. Irish Times. Friday, August 29, 2014, 18:02

The early 1990s in Northern Ireland was a curious period. The Troubles ploughed on,
with daily headlines of death and destruction. In the first eight months of 1994, 65
people died in the conflict, three of them RUC officers. Among the killings were six
Catholics gunned down watching a World Cup game in Loughinisland, the gangland boss
Martin Cahill in Dublin, and the former INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey in Drogheda.

There were days you felt that this was the way it was going to be forever. And yet
there was an intangible sense of possibility, of subterranean shifts that might lead
somewhere. On August 31st, 1994, the UVF murdered a 37-year-old Catholic man in
Antrim. But that very night the IRA declared a “complete cessation of violence” from

Earlier that decade, in secret behind monastery walls, John Hume, the leader of the
SDLP, had been talking to Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, to determine if
there could be a halt to the bloodshed. Adams had been holding out the possibility
that the “war” could end. That process, begun tentatively in 1988 before breaking
down, resumed in the early 1990s with the late Fr Alex Reid of Clonard Monastery in
Belfast acting as go-between.

When these talks were discovered, in the spring of 1993, Hume got a hammering from
unionists, from sections of the Dublin media and from some in his own party. He
carried on regardless, saying he didn’t care “two balls of roasted snow” about the
criticism. Hume did care, though. Those years took a toll on his health.

That engagement gave Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, British prime minister John Major
and their well-regarded Department of Foreign Affairs and foreign-office officials
something to work on, and resulted in the Downing Street Declaration of December
15th, 1993.

“Brits Out”

It was a complex and almost theological document, dealing with issues including the
notion, dear to republicans, of national self-determination. It tried to bring the
argument beyond the simplicity of “Brits Out”, the Sinn Féin and IRA slogan that was
emblazoned on Black Mountain as you drove into Belfast around that time.

The declaration said Irish unity could be achieved only when most of the people of
Northern Ireland voted for such a move, but it also allowed for an all-island
expression of national self-determination through all of the people of Ireland
endorsing this principle.

The Downing Street Declaration stated that the British government had “no selfish
strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. It was suggested that, because
there was no comma between the words “selfish” and “strategic”, the line did not
mean what it seemed to.

Nonetheless, the general interpretation was that the British government effectively
was declaring that you, the people of Northern Ireland, as self-determined by all
the people of Ireland, can sort out this problem any way you want and that all we,
the Brits, want is “peace, stability and reconciliation”.

Dick Grogan, the former Irish Times Northern editor, wrote in the paper the day
after the declaration was published: “Most people in the North, strained with
perplexity, would yesterday have agreed with the words of Edmund Burke: ‘An event
has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent’.”

The Downing Street Declaration asked the IRA who it was fighting. If the British had
no real interest in Northern Ireland then the IRA’s adversaries could only be
unionists. This meant the IRA was waging a sectarian war against the Protestant
people – people republicans insisted were fellow Irish people.

It was an intellectual muddle for the IRA, one it found it difficult to wriggle free

One day Sinn Féin saw merit in the declaration, the next it was sceptical. On other
days it sought “clarification” from the British government. Another day it believed
the self-determination proposal fell short. The next day it didn’t.

As the debate continued publicly, behind the scenes Adams and Martin McGuinness
engaged in the serious game of doves versus hawks within the republican movement.
Right until August it was uncertain who would prevail. There was no shortage of
republicans who wanted the violence to roll on.

But gradually during 1994 the pieces were put in place to allow the IRA to make its
announcement. The most committed hawks flew off to the Real IRA and the Continuity
IRA; others of the disillusioned just drifted away from Sinn Féin and the IRA. But
most hung in.

Getting everything in place included President Bill Clinton, to the fury of the
British government, granting Adams a visa to attend a conference in New York in late
January 1994. Hume also attended that event, but the cameras saw only one man:

You’d wonder did that huge attention also help convince Adams that once the “war”
was over there were huge potential political gains ahead for him and for Sinn Féin,
including the eclipsing of the SDLP and a possible role in government in the

When the IRA announced it was going on ceasefire from midnight on August 31st,
republicans celebrated with a cavalcade of cars, tricolours flying from windows,
driving through west Belfast, where Adams told a crowd that without the decision to
start the “struggle for freedom” 25 years ago “we would still be treated like
second-class, subhuman, undignified human beings”.

Nationalists who disagreed with Adams’s justification for the generation of violence
asked, What’s the difference between the Provos and the Stickies? Twenty-five years,
was the answer.

It’s a sign of how far our society has come that this gag must be explained for
younger readers. The line was that the Official IRA (the Stickies) had given up the
gun and bomb in 1969 or thereabouts and that now, 25 years and more than 3,000
deaths later, the Provisional IRA (the Provos) had finally arrived at the same
conclusion: that “you can’t bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland”.


Hume, demonstrating anxious prescience, expressed frustration about the
“nit-picking” over whether a “complete” cessation of violence meant a “permanent”
cessation, and over the difference between a “cessation” and a “ceasefire”.

There was to be plenty more nit-picking. The DUP leader Ian Paisley, long before his
conversion to positive politics, predictably warned of a “sell-out”. The leader of
the Ulster Unionist Party, James Molyneaux, described the ceasefire as one of the
most destabilising events since partition.

Twenty years on, nobody can say that August 31st, 1994, was not a pivotal, historic
and welcome moment. It may only have been the beginning of the end, but without that
cessation there could have been no loyalist ceasefire in October 1994, no permanent
IRA cessation in 1997, no 1998 Belfast Agreement, no 2006 St Andrews’s Agreement, no
Paisley and Adams agreeing to share power in 2007, no North-South bodies, no Irish
dimension to the agreement, and no powersharing Northern Executive – which, shaky
though it is at times, still presides at Stormont.

‘It was world news. The unthinkable had happened’ - Eamonn Mallie recalls the IRA

A “well-coiffed youngish” woman representing the IRA delivered the republican
ceasefire statement to the journalists Eamonn Mallie and Brian Rowan on the morning
of Wednesday, August 31st, 1994, Mallie recalls.
“The bearer of the world’s big message was a female, which was unique from our
experience,” says Mallie, a native of south Armagh who has been based in Belfast
since the 1970s. 
In Belfast, IRA statements regularly came through Mallie and Rowan, an experienced
security writer and then BBC Northern Ireland’s security correspondent. At about the
same time in Dublin, another IRA member was providing Charlie Bird of RTÉ with the
same news. 
“There was no elaboration, no small talk from her,” says Mallie. But she delivered a
278-word statement that got to the meat of the story right from the get-go.
“She dictated: ‘Recognising the potential of the current situation and in order to
enhance the democratic process and underlying our definitive commitment to its
success, the leadership of the IRA have decided that as of midnight, August 31st,
there will be a complete cessation of military operations. All our units have been
instructed accordingly . . . ’ ”
“We were taken aback by the scope of the statement,” says Mallie. “Nobody had
thought it would have gone as far as it did.”
This took place in a fairly crowded restaurant in west Belfast. Did he or Rowan buy
P O’Neill’s representative a coffee or a sandwich? “Are you joking? We couldn’t wait
to get away to tell the world,” says Mallie.
“It would be misleading to say that we suddenly had a rush of blood to the head or
were thinking, This is a great historical moment. I was a journalist: it was about
getting the story out, beating everybody else. That primal journalistic atavism just
came to the surface.
“But it was world news. It was a significant day. The unthinkable had happened.”