Gerry Adams was spotted entering the home of John Hume and the lid was lifted on what has come to be known as the “Peace Process.” The leader of Sinn Fein and the leader of the SDLP had been engaged in talks for some time and Hume was attacked by many politicians for talking to Adams in secrecy.
The verbal attacks came from all sides against John Hume criticising him openly for talking with the leader of Republicanism. Politicians who usually held a centre ground mentality also jumped on the band wagon and were very keen to join in the abuse that Hume received.
He had taken a risk, stepped outside the usual political channels and he was persecuted for trying something different. IRA attacks and violence were at a high level and although no-one accused Hume of supporting the IRA or its brand of Republicanism, people still wanted an explanation as to why he was meeting Adams. Adams had also met leaders within the Catholic Church and Hume had also been having talks with the Irish and British governments. The important thing was that Hume and Adams were the two dominant people in northern nationalism and if they could come to some type of agreement despite being rivals, then there was a strong chance something could be agreed.
John Hume actually challenged the traditional nationalist belief that the cause of the problems in Northern Ireland was the presence of the British. There had been long held views that were Nationalists to get Britain to leave Ireland then all the troubles would end quickly. It was his belief that the Nationalist people needed to convince the Unionist people that they could be accomodated in a new agreed Ireland. Hume had convinced many local, European, American and International politicians that this should be the way forward, and he was a highly respected and influential politician in Ireland at this important time. To be more specific he was respected much more outside Northern Ireland than he was inside it. Hume’s approach was different and at least offered something other than the usual exclusion politics that failed time after time.
In 1991 Hume wrote a declaration which he was sure could form the basis of an agreement between the Irish and British governments. The draft included ideals such as the principle of self-determination, that Britain had no selfish interest in preventing a United Ireland and the general thrust of the draft was to find a common ground that could cater for everyone’s ideological position.
It focussed on an Anglo-Irish context and added a European dimension. It also suggested that were IRA violence to end then Sinn Fein could join normal political life. Hume then shared this document with Gerry Adams and with Charles Haughey the Taoiseach. Haughey was cautious but when Albert Reynolds replaced him as leader of Fianna Fail in 1992, he was much more open to the proposals. These were however not the only channels of contact that remained open and many secret meetings took place between republicans and various groups. The question was would this different approach find any acceptance by both sides of the community, and especially those on the political extremes.
John Major who had replaced Thatcher as British Prime Minister probably took the biggest risk as his government had a slender majority and had anything gone wrong, he could easily have lost power. He also had within his own party ministers strongly committed to the Unionist cause and a bunch of rebel MPs who were anti-European, and could have used this against him at any stage. Major also to an extent relied on the Ulster Unionist Party for support due to this slender majority and this vote was at a high risk given the nature of the secretive political talks with nationalists.
Any British Prime Minister taking a risk of this nature at least displayed a considerable amount of coverage. John Major also knew and understood that the complex problems of Northern Ireland required dedicated, serious and a huge commitment if they were ever to be resolved. He also found that he quickly developed a good working relationship with Albert Reynolds the Irish Prime Minister and they frequently exchanged correspondence.
As these talks were taking place there were also even more secretive talks taking place between Britain and republicans through various channels. These lasted from around 1990-1993 and included discussions about the Hume and Adams discussions. Both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were involved in these discussions but they bore no fruit as in the end and although the republicans were talking to senior British officials, the British had to withdraw as they could not get clearance from Westminster to proceed. Formal documentation had been exchanged but no face to face meetings had taken place. At the time however there were denials on all sides that such intensive talks were actually taking place. For the ordinary member of the public it was a time of confusion and it was hard to know exactly what was going on.
The discovery of the Hume and Adam’s talks in 1993 did then create a confused and often blurred picture of actually what was going on. They eventually admitted they had been having negotiations amidst a huge amount of protest from many politicians. With the talks now out in the open both the British and Irish governments began to adopt a more formal and distancing approach. Major did agree to discuss the document but would not give any guarantees on negotiating within its particular framework. It always seemed that when talks showed some signs of bearing fruit, parties disengaged probably because they believed it could damage their electorate.
Sir Patrick Mayhew the Northern Ireland Secretary was against any such discussions though Albert Reynolds continued to believe and to push the British government into what he saw as the best hope for some type of political resolution. Through frustration and lack of movement from the British government, Hume went public in the autumn of 1993 stating he was convinced that both he and Gerry Adams had made substantial progress in an agreement to bring together the divided people of Ireland.
The news dominated not only local radio and television stations but was discussed at national and international levels throughout the world. London and Dublin were angry by this media release by John Hume but did work at developing it, though not in the context of any hint that Adams had been involved in the process. John Major tried quickly to distance himself from the agreement suggesting instead that they should return to the political discussions that were being organised by Mayhew. There remained within the thought process that anyone found to be engaging with Gerry Adams had stepped outside the boundaries of what was acceptable. By doing this in any public way was frowned upon and so a stalemate continued.
While all of this was happening, dreadful violence filled Northern Ireland bringing it to the brink of near disaster. One Saturday around lunch time an IRA bomb went off in the loyalist Shankill Road. It had been targetted at a meeting of UDA leaders, who the IRA believed were meeting in some offices above a fish and chip shop. The bomb detonated prematurely and Thomas Begley, who was planting the bomb, was blown up himself and took with him the lives of nine Protestant people. Four women and two children were among the dead and the offices above the shop were empty. Once again horiffic scenes of death and destruction were broadcast on our television screens. When Thomas Begley was being buried, images of Gerry Adams carrying the coffin were shown around the world. This caused an outcry with people wondering how Adams could be discussing peace and then carrying the coffin of an IRA bomber who had taken the lives of men, women and children. Adams defended his action but almost everyone else found it hard to accept, especially when he was supposed to be engaged in talks about peace.
Loyalist gunmen then went on a revenge rampage killing six people in a series of shootings. Two gunmen opened fire in a public bar in the small village of Greysteel where they killed or fatally injured eight people, seven of who were Catholics. Twenty-three people had died in under a week and along with the multiple funerals it seemed to many that there was little sign of any of the murdering and killing stopping.
It was a time akin to the 1970s when people stayed indoors and cancelled social events for fear of being shot dead. It was a time of great fear and anxiety where no-one felt safe.
London and Sinn Fein then released versions of the correspondence they had been having and both told very different stories. Each accused the other of telling lies and fabricating versions of the events. The Northern Ireland Office and the British government did admit to twenty-two typing and transcription errors and their government’s credibility at that time suffered a major set back.
In December 1993 Major and Reynolds met in Dublin in what is often described in a tense and bad tempered atmosphere. Major believed that the Irish government had been guilty of press leaks and the Irish were not pleased that Major had been having other negotiations with republicans. Against all the odds the two men still managed to maintain a working relationship. This constant pattern of violence and politicians playing on words and actions simply had the effect of either driving people away from politics, or of frustrating the very life out of them with false hopes and promises.
In December 1993 Major and Reynolds unveiled the “Downing Street Declaration.” It read, “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 the 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.”
This was launched to a waiting world and for the people of Northern Ireland it was significant though like the many before it viewed with a lot of scepticism. This joint declration contained many of the items that Hume and Adams had discussed but the Republican points had been diluted to make them more attractive to the Unionist audience. The Republicans however did not reject this out of hand and asked for clarification on certain elements of the agreement rather than a complete rejection. Major stated that no clarification was required and this produced weeks and months of stalemate. This was very typical of the confrontation that any worded agreement would have, with each side placing their spin on exactly what it meant. The result was always a vaccum and one thing filled that, violence.
Up until 1994 Gerry Adams had been banned from entering the USA but in February of that year, that ban was removed by the American President Bill Clinton. This was despite long protests from the British government who were very keen to stop Sinn Fein from getting any propoganda, but Clinton had the final word and allowed Adams to enter America. Adams was given what can best be described as a celebrity reception and appeared on many television shows and met many influential people. In one of the most strange episodes ever by the IRA about a month after this they IRA fired mortars at Heathrow Airport which was a confusing attack given the fact that they could have taken much civillian life. In yet another unusual twist it transpired that the mortars could never have exploded so that this incident was more about terror than any danger of loss of life.
Some months later on May 1994 the British government did finally clarify elements of the Downing Street Declaration but got no response from the Republican movement. Six Catholics were shot in a bar in Loughinisland in June 1994 by loyalists and in response a number of prominent loyalist figures were shot dead.
On 31st August 1994 an IRA statement was read out, “There will be a complete cessation of military operations.” This caused a celebratory and jubilent mood in the nationalist community but a more uncertain response from the unionist community. This is a very strong memory for me as I remember the celebrations on the street and it was almost a festival atmosphere within the strong nationalist areas. Elsewhere the response was much more muted and like myself although we retained some hope, it was simply that, hope rather than expectation.