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4th-Sep-2014 01:26 am - Albert Reynolds supported the granting of a US visa to Gerry Adams to the fury of Downing Street

Opinion: ‘Sadly, the 20th anniversary of the ceasefires has been marked by the death of one of the most important of its authors, Albert Reynolds, and a few months previously of the most vital of intermediaries, Fr Alex Reid’

Martin Mansergh
Irish Times
4 Sept 2014

‘The Downing Street Declaration proved to be the hoped-for catalyst for peace.’ British prime minister, John Major, with the taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, during a press conference in London, following the Downing Street declaration. (Photograph: Peter Thursfield / THE IRISH TIMES)

Until 1993-1994, the prospects of achieving peace in Northern Ireland any time soon seemed bleak. Each year, in the latter stages of the conflict, between 80 and 100 people met violent deaths, with many more badly injured, bereaved or otherwise traumatised. Whether victims were random or targeted, the risks restricted normal life in countless ways. There was always a danger that a series of retaliatory attacks would go out of control and ratchet up the scale of casualties.

Neither the Republic nor Great Britain, though less affected, were immune. The best efforts of their governments and security forces had not succeeded in creating a negotiated settlement across the middle ground or in defeating the paramilitary campaigns.

British-Irish relations were often strained, despite their increasing institutionalisation; and North-South relations were constantly so. The economic effects were negative and held back the whole island. There were unwanted side effects in terms of organised crime and the spread of the drugs culture, which might have been better checked if Garda resources had been less tied up in Border security. The reputation of Ireland abroad suffered, with the island sometimes depicted as still being caught up in an atavistic religious war.

There had been numerous initiatives, governmental and otherwise, to restore peace since the early 1970s. Many of them represented important building blocks or stages towards the ultimate goal, Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish Agreement being the most important examples. By the early 1990s the futility, cruelty and dangers of ongoing conflict were apparent to nearly everyone, but what was missing was any mechanism for ending it with the support of militants most closely involved.

Sadly, the 20th anniversary of the ceasefires has been marked by the deaths of one of the most important of its authors, former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and a few months previously of the most vital of intermediaries, Fr Alex Reid.

Political risk

On taking office, Reynolds took up the threads of an initiative arising from discussions between John Hume and Gerry Adams, which would involve a statement of principles between taoiseach and British prime minister. To bring this to a point where it could be considered by the British government, Reynolds took the considerable political risk of authorising direct contact with the leadership of what was euphemistically described as the republican movement.

Later, he recognised the need to develop additional lines of communication with both moderate unionist opinion and loyalism. There was initially much resistance to this approach from the British side, but eventually British prime minister John Major agreed to negotiate what became the Downing Street declaration of December 15th, 1993. It proved to be the hoped-for catalyst for peace.

While rehearsing and developing the exclusively peaceful and democratic means by which Irish unity could be brought about, if the people in both parts of Ireland so consented in an act of concurrent self-determination, it also confirmed that the door was open for full participation in future negotiations and normal democratic life for all those who definitively renounced any further resort to violence. A lengthy statement of the need to build trust with unionists and a set of rights that loyalists were prepared to recognise were also incorporated.

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