Into the Peace Process

Today The Pensive Quill carries part two of an article by guest writer Liam O Ruairc on Irish Republicanism and the Peace Process

Liam O Ruairc

In the early 1990s, the Provisional leadership engaged in secret talks with the British government which would culminate with the IRA declaring a ceasefire on 31 August 1994 in order to allow Sinn Fein participate in the peace negotiations. This, as well as other positive signals from the British and Irish governments, led the Provisional to believe that at some point in the 1990s London and Dublin agreed that the old policy of excluding republicans was futile and that the only strategic alternative was one of inclusion in dialogue and negotiations. According to Gerry Adams: "The British policy in Ireland has changed dramatically… British policy was about repressing republicanism; British policy in the last decade, or so, has been about trying to find some accommodation with republicanism." (31)

However, what goes unmentioned here is that 'the strategic objective was to include republicans while excluding republicanism'. (32) The price to be paid for the inclusion of republicans in the talks was the exclusion of republicanism.

This means dialogue with Republican leaders and organisations but on the basis of an agenda that excludes the political objectives of Republicanism. The whole peace process may have included Republicans, but from the 1993 Downing Street Declaration to the final 1998 Belfast Agreement, was always based on the British state’s political alternative to Republicanism since 1972: an internal solution (a power sharing assembly in the North which includes Nationalists) with the externality of an Irish dimension (cross border bodies) grafted on it. The longstanding Republican demands were never serious runners for all party talks, and none of them appeared in the final Belfast Agreement.
'What the British were allowing republicans - by permitting them into all-party talks where they can argue for a united Ireland without the remotest possibility of securing it - is an opportunity to dig a tunnel to the moon.' (33)
From a British state perspective ‘talking to terrorists’ only made sense in the context were the Provisional movement was sufficiently weakened to consider a way out of its campaign as opposed to a general attempt to bring ‘extremists’ into the ‘democratic’ process without rigid preconditions. (34) By negotiating with the Provisional movement, the British state was signalling to the IRA a way out of its armed campaign rather than a way out of Ireland for itself. This is evident from the political parameters of the peace process.

As Lord David Trimble later wrote:
"Crucially it was soon made clear (to Republicans) that there were conditions before there could be an official engagement. The key conditions were later formalised in the Downing Street declaration of 1993 as an end to violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Equally important was the government's commitment to the consent principle and its refusal to act as a persuader for a united Ireland, which prefigured the outcome of the formal interparty talks, the three-stranded structure of which were defined in March 1991, and the key procedural decisions taken by the parties in 1992 in the absence of Sinn Féin. When it called the cessation of its campaign in 1994, republicans were, in effect, accepting these parameters for talks." (35)
All this was evident early on, in the 15 December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which laid the parameters for future negotiations. (36) In it, the London and Dublin governments recognised that a political settlement "may as of right, take the form of agreed structures for the island as a whole, including a united Ireland achieved by peaceful means".

Article 4 of the Declaration stated: "The British government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish." But the ‘right’ of self-determination was heavily qualified by the fact that constitutional change would be dependent upon the consent of a majority in the North.

In article 2 of the Declaration, the London and Dublin governments committed themselves to Northern Ireland’s consitutional guarantee. This implied continued British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland and full recognition of that jurisdiction by the Dublin goverment.

Article 5 had the Taoiseach on behalf of the Dublin government accepting that "the democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of the people of Northern Ireland". The formula of the Downing Street Declaration ensured that any agreed settlement would be partitionist and copper-fasten the Unionist veto. The Downing Street Declaration was bereft of the idea that the British government should ‘persuade’ the Unionists of a united Ireland.

In the House of Commons, British Prime Minister John Major stated that the Declaration "reaffirms the constitutional guarantee in the clearest possible terms":
"What is not in the Declaration is any suggestion that the British Government should join the ranks of the persuaders of the ‘value’ and ‘legitimacy’ of a united Ireland; that is not there. Nor is there any suggestion that the future status of Northern Ireland should be decided by a single act of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole; that is not there either. Nor is there any timetable for constitutional change, or any arrangement for joint authority over Northern Ireland. In sum, the Declaration provides that it is, as it must be, for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own future." (37)
There was a clear political tension between republicanism and the Declaration. As BBC journalist Peter Taylor reminds us, "Although on the face of it the Joint Declaration was a nationalist green in colour, it was essentially a unionist document effectively enshrining the unionist veto that the Provisionals had spent years fighting to destroy." (38)

In the course of its twelve points, the principle of consent was mentioned eight times. However, the reaction of the Provisional Republican movement was interesting: "The Provisionals had rejected the Sunningdale Agreement outright in 1973. They had condemned -sometimes stridently- the Ango-Irish Agreement twelve years later, but with some qualifications that left room for recognition that indeed it contained progressive elements. When confronted with the Downing Street Declaration, the Provisionals hesitated." (39)

Sinn Fein sought 'clarification' of the Declaration, yet neither accepted nor rejected its contents, although the IRA ceasefire statement pointed that it was not a solution. But this clearly indicated a shift away from the traditional republican position. 'Ultimately, whatever the language of the declaration, the people of the island were not afforded the opportunity to exercise the right of self determination to bring about a united Ireland. Such an option was never laid before the electorate and even if it had been the exercise would have been futile given the continuing Northern veto.' (40)

On 22 February 1995 the London and Dublin governments published the Framework For The Future documents which provided a possible outline for a political deal. (41) The Framework For Accountable Government In Northern Ireland proposed that Northern Ireland should have its own elected assembly with devolved powers. A New Framework For Agreement dealt with North-South relations. It envisaged the establishment of cross border bodies which would seek to harmonise tourism, education, and economic development all accountable to the devolved Assembly.

As paragraph 10 made clear, the Framework documents were predicated on the continuation of the union and that any movement away from that could only be achieved with the agreement of a Northern Ireland assemby.

Paragraph 35 emphasized that North-South bodies would have a role subordinate to the Northeren assembly. Paragraph 21 also stated that the Dublin government would change its constitution to "reflect the principle of consent".

British Prime Minister John Major reassured unionists that there was a ‘triple lock’ against constitutional change:
"There is a triple safeguard against any proposals being imposed on Northern Ireland; first, any proposals must command the support of the political parties in Northern Ireland; secondly, any proposals must then be approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum; and thirdly, any necessary legislation must be passed by this parliament. That provides a triple lock designed to ensure that nothing is implemented without consent." (42)
Despite this the response of the provisional republican leadership to the Framework Documents was enthusiastic. (43)

However, by early 1998, the Unionists succeeded to severely dilute in the final Heads of Agreement documents that had been published by the London and Dublin government to outline the basis of a settlement on 12 January 1998 most of the cross-border elements that had originally figured in the 1995 Framework Documents, making the Heads of Agreement far less of a threat to Unionism than the 1995 Documents. (44)

Finally, on 24 January 1996, the report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning (also known as the Mitchell report) published its six principles which sought to establish the entry requirements to political negotiations and define the nature of all future political activity. (45)

The principles included renouncing the use of force and a committment to exclusively peaceful means to resolve political issues, as well as the total disarmament of so-called paramilitary organisations verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission.

On 09 September 1997, the Sinn Fein leadership signed up to the Mitchell principles. This was in contradiction with the IRA’s constitution as it challenged the IRA’s right to bear arms. In accepting the principles, they accepted the British state’s definition of what constituted democracy and what it regarded as legitimate opposition. Decommissioning only targeted organisations regarded by the state as illegitimate, while these had to renounce ‘violence’ the report did not question the state’s right to use force. Decommissioning was not synonymous with multilateral demilitarisation.

By the time Sinn Fein entered political negotiations in September 1997 after the Provisional IRA reinstated its ceasefire on 19 July 1997, the political parameters had been set and any future political arrangement would be a predominantly internal one. The republican political agenda was degraded to the point where Gerry Adams now wrote about 'renegotiating the Union' rather than ending it. (46)

The process that the Provisional Republican movement joined was pre-programmed to deliver a partitionist settlement. At their first ever Downing Street meeting in 1997 British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Gerry Adams if he could go back and tell his people 'there was no possibility of a united Ireland.' And at its conclusion Blair told key aides 'he was pleased that Adams seemed to accept he would have to live with something less than a united Ireland' as the outcome of the peace process. (47)

Alasdair Campbell’s diaries show that Blair made it clear to the Provisional leadership that the settlement would not "explicitly commit to a united Ireland" and that "Adams was ok" with such parameters, although McGuiness appears to have been more relunctant. (48)

In his 2008 book on the process, Great Hatred Little Room, former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell confirms Blair's essentially pro-Union position from the outset of the negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement.

While still leader of the opposition at Westminster Blair had abandoned Labour's traditional policy of Irish unity by consent. Over time he then moved from a position of ostensible neutrality on the constitutional issue to one of effective support for maintaining the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland based on the 'consent' principle subsequently enshrined in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. (49)

In a speech given in Belfast in 1997, Prime Minister Blair articulated his position on Northern Ireland in forthright terms:
"My message is simple. I am committed to Northern Ireland. I am committed to the principle of consent. … My agenda is not a united Ireland… I believe in the United Kingdom. I value the Union…Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority here wish…This principle of consent is and will be at the heart of my government’s policies on Northern Ireland. It is the key principle… A political settlement is not a slippery slope to a united Ireland. The government will not be persuaders for unity." (50)


(31) The Nick Stadlen Interview with Gerry Adams, 12 September 2007. Audio version and full transcript in two parts:,,2166144,00.html
(32) Anthony McIntyre, Good Friday : The Death of Irish Republicanism, New York : Ausubo Press, 2008, 3
(33) Anthony McIntyre, Sinn Fein stance hinders Republican cause, The Sunday Tribune, 20 July 1997
(34) For an interesting discussion of the Irish model and its misunderstanding see: John Bew, Martyn Frampton, Inigo Gurruchaga, Talking To Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, London: Hurst & Company, 2009
(35) David Trimble, "Ulster’s Lesson for the Middle East: Don’t Indulge Extremists", The Guardian, 25 October 2007
(36) British and Irish Governments, Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration (15 December 1993) London: Prime Minister’s Office, 1993. (available at:
(37) Hansard, sixth series, vol. 234 col. 1072-3, quoted in Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A chronology of the Troubles 1968-1999, Dublin: Gill&MacMillan, 1999, 283-284
(38) Peter Taylor, The Provos: the IRA and Sinn Fein, London: Bloomsbury, 1998, 343
(39) Jack Holland, Hope Against History: The course of conflict in Northern Ireland, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999, 251
(40) Jonathan Tonge, Northern Ireland, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006,124
(41) British and Irish Governments, The Framework Documents – A New Framework For Agreement (22 February 1995), London: Prime Minister’s Office, 1995. (available at:
(42) Hansard, sixth series, vol. 255 col. 358, quoted in Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A chronology of the Troubles 1968-1999, Dublin: Gill&MacMillan, 1999, 304
(43) Facing The Challenge, An Phoblacht Republican News, 23 February 1995
(44) Henry McDonald, Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein dressed up defeat as victory, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2008, 154-155
(45) Report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning (24 January 1996), Belfast: Northern Ireland Office, 1996. (available at:
(46) Another chance for progress, An Phoblacht-Republican News ,24 July 1997
(47) Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, London: The Bodley Head, 2008, 23
(48) Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years, (London: Hutchinson, 2007) pp.252, 265
(49) Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, London: The Bodley Head, 2008, 11-12 and 79-80
(50) Address delivered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Royal Agricultural Society, Belfast, 16 May 1997. (available at:


  1. another helping, just 3 more courses of liams to go,
    i notice that liam is using unionist terms in his opinion piece, like the belfast agreement, or the final agreement, not that it means a lot, not in the long run any-how, just saying.

    there is also a lot of emphasis on what john, duck the mortars, major or lord bought trimple had to say, looks like if you take the oath to the crown, liam will take your word as gospel.

    it is a lie to the IRISH people to make a comparison between the good friday agreement and sunningdale, at the centre of sunningdale, which the people had no vote on, was the crown oath, which is why the stoops want it back, after 1998 there is no oath at the assemply, at the heart of the good friday agreement which the people of the 32 counties voted yes to, is equality, no crown, for slow learners, the vote for peace was the vote to ditch the crown out of IRISH politics.

    SINN FEIN wants rid of all weapons in IRELAND, with the armed brit patrols gone, there are less weapons on our streets.

    then we have tony blair who promised the unionists the world, mere brit words which meant nothing, this promise did not make it on-to the peoples agreement, but it toppled trimple, and he fell on SINN FEINS political sword, the brits said sorry, and made trimple a unelected lord,
    dont let the truth get in the way of a good story liam.

  2. Liam, extremely interesting and very informative, definitely thought provoking.

    It's amazing that, although the majority of republicans now know we were sold and not even to the highest bidder, when you read it in real terms it still sounds quite shocking.

    What is worse than the betrayal however, is the fact that Adams and Co still continue to lie, cover up and deceive the people who trusted them.

    There are few of us who do not remember the Mitchell debacle.
    The entire scenario was played out on a nod and a wink basis.
    Telling the people they would give a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but the real gear still remained where it could be accessed if needed and so many people believed this shit.

    Sinn Fein, actually put a questionnaire through doors in Clonard. Seriously asking people what they thought was an acceptable quantity to give.
    Needles to say no-one ever came back out to collect the responses, probably those responsible were 'disappeared' before the arms surrender.

    They (Sinn Fein) did not even accord us the right to surrender with dignity.
    Once they signed on the doted line, the people and their struggle was quickly relegated to criminal status.

    One of my worst memories of the entire painstaking process, was watching Sid Walsh read the final surrender statement.
    The pain was not over quickly though, as apparently Sydney chose to go to the Felon's that evening to lament the end of the struggle with other like minded republicans.

    In my minds eye I could picture the less than humble Sydney as he gave his choreographed reflections to the press at the Felons bar.
    Could just picture him, all that smarm and absolutely no charm standing under the images of executed republicans such as the young Tom Williams.
    Maybe they think they could fool the dead as well. 'Look at the tripe we ended up with, now wasn't your sacrifices worth it'

    Look forward to the next piece Liam.