The Army Council made a secret decision in 1988 which was to have enormous consequences for the peace process. It abandoned the traditional IRA demand that the British should withdraw from Ireland within the lifetime of a British parliament. Instead it decreed that from that moment onwards the IRA would be more flexible and could settle for a much longer time line for British disengagement. No numbers were mentioned but there was a consensus that if Britain was prepared to leave Northern Ireland and signalled this to the IRA, the process could take as long as 15 or 20 years to complete.
The decision was kept a tightly guarded secret, especially from the IRA rank and file, and for a very good reason. Had they known that this key, almost defining, policy had been diluted most IRA Volunteers would have been alarmed or at the very least deeply unsettled. The demand for a speedy British withdrawal had been a Provisional policy since 1972 when, during the ceasefire of that year, Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofain told London ministers that he wanted their political and military withdrawal to be completed within two-and-a-half years. Early IRA leaders took a tough line on this issue partly because they didn’t trust the British to keep their word and partly because they feared that if the process of withdrawal was dragged out Loyalists would have enough time to sabotage it. Under the leadership of O Bradaigh and O Conaill, the Army Council realised how inflexible the demand was and instead called for "planned, phased and orderly" British disengagement, but Adams and the Young Turks of the IRA seized upon this as yet another sign of the old guard’s weakness. When he and his allies secured control of the Army Council, the official policy was toughened up. Britain, if Adams and his allies got their way, would have the lifetime of a parliament, a mere four to five years, to complete its departure from Ireland. The sharp contrast with the earlier inflexible and tough approach meant that opting instead, as the 1988 policy change indicated, for a lengthy and leisurely withdrawal would set the alarms bells ringing loudly at grassroots level, especially if the change was set beside other developments such as the talks with the SDLP. For that reason the grassroots were simply not told about it.
At the Army Council meeting that changed IRA policy, most of the talking was done by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. They argued, persuasively by all accounts, that the old policy was a handicap at a time when the IRA’s strategy was designed to forge an alliance with constitutional nationalists. If people like the SDLP leader John Hume or Fianna Fail’s Charles Haughey were to be won over to a joint strategy, the IRA’s adherence to such a rigid and unreasonable demand would be an obstacle. Not only that, but the British themselves would, if serious withdrawal talks ever started, regard the four to five year time line as simply undeliverable and it would have to be softened anyway. And there was another argument. The Unionists would be bound to resist any attempt by Britain to disengage from Northern Ireland but that resistance was likely to be fiercer if the deadline was short. A long, drawn out process could draw the sting out of the situation and give Unionists enough time to get used to the new circumstances and provide Republicans the space within which to persuade them of the benefits of change. The Army Council, partly on the basis that the talks with the SDLP and the government in Dublin were only tactical, secretly endorsed the arguments.
The change was accepted by the Army Council for two very important reasons, and in theory these made the change less significant than it first appeared. While Britain could take up to twenty years to quit the North, the Army Council agreed – with Adams and McGuinness assenting - that the IRA would still not end its military campaign unless and until the British gave a public commitment that they were actually going to leave. Nor could the time frame be left vague or open-ended. The British would have to specify a date by which their political and military presence would be ended. Those bottom lines remained IRA policy after 1988 despite the new policy, or so the Army Council believed.
It is no exaggeration to say that the policy change made the peace process internally viable for the Adams leadership, because it created a framework for ambiguity without which the real peace process would have foundered. Thanks to the change traditional, uncompromising Republicans on the Army Council could look at the negotiations that made up the peace process and believe that they were entirely consistent with the long-held goal of forcing Britain to leave Northern Ireland. But the same policy was also perfectly consistent with the other, more secret process designed behind the backs of the Army Council and which was based on the secret redefinition of withdrawal which Adams and Reid had secured from the British in 1987, a withdrawal which was confined to a promise not to interfere politically in all-party talks and which would pave the way to a settlement based on the constitutional integrity of the Northern Ireland state. It is the genius of the Reid-Adams enterprise that from the outside both scenarios looked the same and both could co-exist quite happily. They looked the same but in fact were very different. One was about getting the British out of Ireland; the other was about getting Sinn Féin into constitutional politics.
This latter formulation was kept secret from the Army Council, and for the very simple reason that it would have been rejected out of hand had it been placed in front of its members in that form. The Reid-Adams restatement offended two key IRA principles which had underscored its long war with the British. One was that the Unionists did not have and could not have a veto on Irish unity. The principle of national self-determination in its customary form stated, as the document prepared by MacStiofain for the 1972 ceasefire talks put it, "that it is the people of Ireland acting as a unit that should decide the future of Ireland". The fact that the principle had been breached in the 1921 Treaty was the reason for the IRA's existence. The other principle declared that the British would have to make a public declaration of intent to withdraw within a specified period of time. The Army Council after 1988 was prepared to be more open-minded about how long that period could be but would not budge from the view that it must be specific and stated. To do otherwise would open the door to Britain’s backing out of the deal. The Reid-Adams formula explicitly accepted the principle of consent and because of that precluded any move by Britain to withdraw against the Unionists’ wishes, no matter what the timeframe.
Not only was the Reid-Adams formula kept secret from the Army Council but so too was the early diplomacy with Britain and the Haughey government. Senior figures were not told of Gerry Adams’s correspondence with Tom King nor the mediation of Fr Reid both with King and his successor, Peter Brooke. The Army Council was never officially informed about the first meetings Reid had with the Fianna Fail leader on behalf of Adams and Reid's lengthy message to Haughey in May 1987 containing the secret offer of an IRA ceasefire was also kept hidden. It was not until 1988, when Adams told the Council of an offer of talks with Fianna Fail and the SDLP that the Army Council got even a glimpse of what had been happening.
Even then the affair was treated casually. Adams told the Council that the initiative for the talks had come not from him but from Haughey who had used Fr Reid, a figure he described as an old friend, to make the connection. At the start the talks were classified as merely exploratory and were considered so insignificant that Adams was obliged to give the Army Council only oral reports on what had taken place. Had the talks been seen as at all consequential there would have been written reports and very possibly a sub-committee would have been established to control the contacts. But there was none of that. Sinn Féin was authorised to send along representatives to the meetings but the Army Council was somewhat blasé about the dialogue. Over the years it had received hundreds of requests to meet and talk to all sorts of people and had long since adopted an open attitude to such overtures. All requests for dialogue were granted but only a very few produced anything of interest. The talks with the SDLP and Fianna Fail were put into that category.
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The result of all this was that there were really two peace processes running in the years leading up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire. One was that which the Army Council believed was underway. In that process the aim was to secure a British commitment to withdraw from Northern Ireland, after which there could be negotiations about the time line within which that was to happen and the arrangements deemed necessary to satisfy the requirements of Unionists. The other peace process was founded on a fundamental redefinition of British withdrawal, one which would allow Sinn Féin to accept the principle of consent and to negotiate a deal with Unionists which fell short of what most Republicans would traditionally regard as Irish unity. Both peace processes were able to shelter under the same rhetorical umbrella but inevitably the conflict between them would from time to time burst to the surface. They were fundamentally and mutually inconsistent and from time to time this problem surfaced in public, confusing those who were not privy to internal Provisional politics and Adams’ need for careful management.
There was no shortage of examples. Ceasefire speculation, for example, reached fever pitch in the weeks and months following Peter Brooke’s 100-day interview in which he made a guarded offer of talks with Sinn Féin in the event of an IRA ceasefire. Brooke, as he revealed many years later, had ben motivated by the secret contacts with Father reid and was deliberately probing for a response from Adams and the media smelled a story. A claim that the Army Council was considering a ceasefire was duly published in February 1991 in The Irish Press whose editor Tim Pat Coogan had played a role in the Adams-Reid diplomacy. The speculation was not entirely ill-founded. Adams was working towards a ceasefire but his organisation did not know it. This all alarmed the Sinn Féin leadership and the party’s press officers worked feverishly to deny it. Typical was the briefing given to the author at the time. "There are no grounds", insisted an IRA spokesperson, "for believing that the IRA is contemplating any kind of ceasefire or that there is a debate on the role of armed struggle...the next time there would be a cessation of hostilities would be when the Brits declared for withdrawal." That was the Army Council line and it was echoed a few weeks later at the Sinn Féin ard-fheis. In March, Sinn Féin held a private conference in West Belfast and the media were allowed in for Gerry Adams' opening remarks. Reports of a radical change in Republican policy were "mischief-making" he declared.
The secret diplomacy with the British and Irish governments demanded however that from time to time Adams would have to send an entirely conflicting signal, to re-assure those with whom he was dealing that he was serious about the peace project. Within days of his angry dismissal of ceasefire speculation as "mischief-making", Adams sat down in front of a British Channel Four television crew and with his spoken words dubbed by an actor because of broadcasting restrictions said the complete opposite. Interviewed by the veteran Irish Times journalist Mary Holland, he was asked whether the IRA would suspend its campaign in order to get talks with the British off the ground even if there was no public declaration of a ceasefire. Adams' reply was unequivocal. Republicans he said "would not be found wanting" if faced with such a possibility. "I am saying that if talks such as you...outlined were on the cards that no intransigence or obstacles would be placed in the way of such talks. ...there is a need for people to be pragmatic...." It was a close as he could come without actually using the words that an IRA ceasefire was on the table for negotiation.
The Channel Four interview, which was broadcast in April, caused uproar in the IRA's upper reaches. Adams had not cleared his remarks with the Army Council and Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna was obliged to send the message out to the grassrooots that this was Adams playing word games. Nothing had been seriously meant, he told the rank and file. A few days later the Easter Rising commemorations were held and a hard-line military message was relayed by the Army Council. The message was amplified by Adams who told the crowds that the struggle would continue as long as there was a British presence in the North.
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Under the Adams leadership of the IRA, the word ‘ceasefire’ had become so discredited that it was never used in Republican exchanges except when assurances were needed that one would never happen again until the British left Ireland. ‘Ceasefire’ was associated with the leadership of O Bradaigh and O Conaill and the disasterous 1975 cessation when the IRA was brought to the brink of defeat by the treacherous British. Not even at Christmas time when the IRA active service units took a few days break to spend the holiday with their families was the word used. The festive ceasefire was always an unofficial, undeclared affair. No one called it a ceasefire because to do so was regarded as a sign of weakness, something that called into question the leadership’s commitment to armed struggle.
So when Martin McGuinness spoke up at an Army Council meeting in the winter of 1990, and proposed that there should be a three-day publicly declared ceasefire starting on December 24 and ending on December 26, it was an event of major significance, the first crack in the iceberg and a signal whose significance would not be lost on the British or Irish governments
McGuinness' proposal caused consternation in the Army Council. Three members, Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna, 'Slab' Murphy and Joe Cahill along with QMG, Micky McKevitt immediately denounced the proposal as unconstitutional. They claimed that the 1986 Army Convention had passed a motion saying that the next time there was a ceasefire, no matter how short or long, it would have to be approved by a special or Extraordinary IRA Convention. McGuinness, they insisted, had no constitutional authority for the move. That was the signal for a major row. Adams insisted they were wrong. The 1986 Convention had passed no such motion he insisted and Pat Doherty was dispatched to unearth the minutes from the relevant documents dump. When these were retrieved they showed that Adams appeared to be right but the minutes were not the original hand-written notes taken at the meeting but the typed up version prepared afterwards. The row rumbled on amid muttered allegations that the record of the 1986 Convention had been doctored while other delegates to the Convention were consulted about their memory of the event. In the face of the record produced by Doherty however, most Army Council members relented and the ceasefire went ahead, announced to the media in a way which generated even more speculation about the IRA’s intentions.
The row over the Christmas ceasefire of 1990 demonstrated in compelling fashion that the bulk of the Army Council knew nothing about the secret Reid-Adams enterprise. Adams may well have confided in individual members of the Council, figures like McGuinness and Doherty in particular, but had it been formally aware of what was going on and approved, there would have been no dispute that Christmas. The Council would immediately seen the sense in sending just this type of message to Peter Brooke. The Northern Ireland Secretary had just satisfied a crucial demand of the Reid-Adams dipomacy with a public declaration in London of Britain’s neutrality in Ireland and its indifference as to the shape of final settlement.. If ever there was a time for the IRA Army Council to send a message signalling flexibility this was it. And if the Council had been aware of and agreed with the Adams peace strategy it surely would have done so.
That was not however how the Christmas 1990 ceasefire was justified internally. McGuinness’ main argument was that it would be a popular move with the Nationalist public in the North and with Sinn Féin’s potential pan-Nationalist allies in the South. In briefings to the press however, out of the earshot of the Army Council and deniable as always, a clear link to the peace process was made. The Belfast Nationalist daily The Irish News reported a Republican source as saying that the ceasefire was "a temporary respite to demonstrate the willingness of the IRA to respond to any genuine appeal for peace". The following month Gerry Adams told the author that: "What the IRA has demonstrated is that when it has the will it can stop", adding that he personally was prepared to try "for the very, very big prize". Both statements were clear hints that he meant the three-day cessation as a signal to the British. But two days later he was giving the Sinn Féin faithful at their annual ard-fheis in Dublin the opposite message: "In recent months the print media, especially sections of the British print media, have carried stories of my alleged involvement in the preparation of ceasefire proposals for Oglaigh na hEireann," he told them. "If the issue were not so serious, these fictitious accounts could be ignored. Indeed they might even be the source of some amusement".
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The road to the IRA ceasefire of 1994 was littered with paper, in particular policy documents prepared by the Sinn Féin leadership which slowly, carefully and formally edged the Provisionals towards a theological position which Gerry Adams and his confidantes had reached privately long before. One the most important and revealingly ambiguous of these pieces of paper was the Sinn Féin policy document 'Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland', published in mid-February 1992 only days after Albert Reynolds had succeeded Charles Haughey as Taoiseach of Ireland and agreed to take up his peace torch. Hailed in most accounts of the peace process as a seminal stage in the IRA's journey towards a ceasefire, 'Towards a Lasting Peace' was carefully constructed and worded in such a way that both versions of the peace process could shelter comfortably underneath its ample roof.
The ‘soldiers’ on the Army Council would have had no problems with the document when they read it. Much of it repeated traditional Republican dogma, updated to accord with the pan-Nationalism that now imbued public IRA policy. None of them could have argued, for instance, with the document’s call on the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland "within a specified period". That was Army Council policy after all.
But buried in the paper’s text was a crucial concession. Unionists, it said, could not impede the right of the Irish people to "national self-determination" but nevertheless their consent would needed for the "constitutional, political and financial arrangements" in a united Ireland. In other words, the Unionists couldn’t stop the British from leaving Ireland but they had a veto on what replaced them. Unnoticed by most observers, "Towards a Lasting peace" had opened up an ideological can of worms. The document was conceding the Unionists’ right to consent in some circumstances but not in others. The point was that the right to consent is absolute and the document came close to acknowledging that, if only implicitly. Nevertheless by introducing the concept into public Sinn Féin discourse, Adams and his colleagues had edged the organisation towards a more explicit acceptance of the principle of consent per se, and that was a central plank in the Father Reid strategy.
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Jim Gibney had been a close friend and ally of Gerry Adams since they first met in the Long Kesh internment camp way back in mid-1970’s and after his release he had become a key member of the small group of mostly Belfast Republicans who acted as Adams’ advisers. Like others in the group, Gibney, who hailed from the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand in east Belfast, often floated controversial ideas on behalf of Adams to see how the IRA and Sinn Féin rank and file would react. It was a ploy which kept Adams himself comfortably distant from controversy.
It fell to Gibney in the summer of 1992 to make public the real agenda of the Reid-Adams diplomacy in a move which once again served to highlight both the Army Council’s ignorance of what was happening behind the scenes and the extent of potential division at the top and, by extension, the bottom of the IRA over the real peace process. The logic of the Reid-Adams enterprise, the logic of "Stepping Stones" and the hidden logic of ‘Towards a Lasting Peace’ was that British withdrawal as Republicans normally envisaged it had been recognised as unrealistic and unrealisable by Adams. If there was going to be political settlement at the end of the peace process it would, by necessity, be based on the existing constitutional status quo albeit with sufficient institutional concessions to Irish Nationalism to enable the Sinn Féin leadership to present the settlement as a "transitional" stage to Irish unity. Michael Collins had presented the 1921 Treaty in the same way. There were no surprise stops on the journey undertaken by Adams.
Gibney gave the annual Bodenstown address at the grave of Wolfe Tone in June 1992 and sparked a unprcedented flurry of ceasefire speculation in the media. The fuss was caused by one sentence in his address. "We know and accept", he said, "that the British government's departure must be preceded by a sustained period of peace and will arise out of negotiations involving the different shades of Irish Nationalism and Unionism." The crucial phrase was "will arise out of negotiations", a formulation which suggested that an IRA ceasefire would precede a British commitment to leave Ireland, a reverse of the sequence which was Army Council policy. Gibney's version set the stage for a transitional settlement, was totally consistent with the Reid-Adams diplomacy and was the logic of accepting, in practice, the principle of consent.
Normally Bodenstown speeches were cleared beforehand by the Army Council to ensure that they conformed to IRA policy but Gibney's had not been. There was another row, this time between Adams and McKenna and Gibney ended up carrying the blame. Adams said his speech had been drafted at the last minute, written partially during Gibney’s journey to Bodenstown with the result that the crucial sentence had been clumsily worded. But journalists had received a neatly typed advance copy of the speech faxed to their offices before the speech. Adams also gave a sympathetic response to Gibney's remarks, as The Irish Times reported: "The Sinn Féin president, Mr Gerry Adams said that Mr Gibney's speech did not signal a shift in policy but 'an elaboration of themes democratically agreed by the party over the past number of years.' He also said that...the points about British withdrawal and the need for negotiations should not be dismissed." The affair hardly looked like a mishap. A very important cat had been let out of the bag and the governments in London and Dublin took due notice.
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To imagine that Gerry Adams constructed the peace process with all its complexities and subtle strategies by himself or at most in concert with Father Reid would be to bestow upon the Sinn Féin leader talents and powers which not even his closest friends would claim for him. Adams had gathered around him over the years a small group of trusted confidantes and advisers who had helped to navigate his way first to the top of the IRA and then to the leadership of Sinn Féin. Born in the confines of Cage Eleven, the Adams’ ‘Think-Tank’ would perform a similar task with the peace process.
The role and influence of the ‘Think-Tank’ was one of the reasons behind the row between McKenna and Adams. Within the group of ‘soldiers’ on the Army Council resentment at the growing power of the group had been festering away.
Not surprisingly Adams had placed like-minded people on to the "Think Tank", people who were not only reliable but talented and inevitably, given the demands of the task, more likely either to have been ex-IRA or in some cases never in the IRA. The most important figure in the "Think Tank" aside from Adams himself was a man who was virtually unknown outside the closed world of Republicanism. A former Second Belfast Battalion commander like Adams himself, Ted Howell was a highly secretive figure who for many years used a pseudonym in public, the legacy, it was said, of years spent on the European continent liasing with foreign groups on behalf of the IRA leadership during which he had to avoid the attentions of various intelligence agencies, not least of them the British Secret Service, MI6. Adams made a reference to Howell, his nom de guerre and the "Think Tank" in the acknowledgements to his book, 'A Pathway to Peace' published in 1988. "This essay could not have been written without the co-operation and encouragement of the 'Kitchen Cabinet'", he wrote. "I thank them. Thanks also to.....Eamonn 'Ted' McCrory for access to (his) material..."
Ted Howell, alias Eamonn McCrory, was arguably one of the most influential figures in the Provisionals. While he was chairman of the "Think Tank" in the years leading up to the 1994 ceasefire, hardly a document submitted to the British and Irish governments or to the SDLP by the Republican movement that was not either written, vetted or whose contents he had not influenced. By the time of the 1998 negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement he was indispensable to the Sinn Féin leadership, as one story told about the talks illustrated. "During the 1998 talks Adams came into the room", recalled one source "and somebody asked him what's going on. His reply was I don't know but Ted Howell does, and he's the only one who does." Howell had another brief which was every bit as important. He was the link between Adams and the Provisional support groups in North America, initially Noraid and Clann na Gael but later he would set up communication channels with the figures in corporate Irish-America, Congress and the White House who would smooth Adams’ passage to the corridors of power in Washington.
There were six or seven other members of the "Think Tank" in the years prior to the 1994 cessation. Jim Gibney, whose Republican nickname was 'God's little helper', God being Gerry Adams, was a personable and friendly character who spent a great deal of time briefing the press whose company he evidently enjoyed. He had been on the "Think Tank" since the late 1970's as had Tom Hartley, another former press officer for Sinn Féin, who went to some trouble to cultivate the view that he had no IRA track record at all. A grumpy and often imperious disposition disguised a sincere if somewhat insecure personality but it was those negative qualities that made him less than popular with many Republican activists and therefore vulnerable. Like other members of the "Think Tank", Hartley would often float controversial ideas on behalf of Adams. If they went down well Adams would eventually adopt them; if not Hartley would carry the can. Once a rising star in the Sinn Féin firmament Hartley was made a sacrificial lamb in 1995 to deflect criticism from the leadership when the peace strategy ran into difficulties. While other less talented figures went on to become Assembly Members in the new power-sharing arrangement, Hartley has languished in Belfast City Council.
Aidan McAteer was Adams' personal assistant and a son of a former Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer and nephew of the former Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer. Once on the staff of Belfast Brigade, McAteer had left under a cloud in the 1970's not long after his arrest but was brought back by Adams despite reservations at some levels of the IRA. Danny Morrison had been a founder member of the "Think Tank" but after his arrest and imprisonment in 1990 his input dwindled. Even so it appears he was still in the loop. He would receive regular prison visits from Fr Alec Reid during his incarceration and it was Morrison who gave the first hint of the coming ceasefire during a pre-release break from jail in the summer of 1994. Gerry Kelly, the Adjutant General was another member and in the period leading up to 1994, so too was Martin McGuinness.
By far the most unpopular and controversial member of the "Think Tank" as far the Army Council 'soldiers' were concerned was Mitchel McLaughlin, not least because he had joined the Republican movement in 1966 yet had never been in the IRA. Once famously dubbed "the draft dodger" by an unkind Unionist Assembly Member, McLaughlin was a refrigeration engineer by trade who had spent much of the early part of the Troubles working in the Middle East. He returned to Ireland at the time of the 1981 hunger strikes and almost immediately was talent-spotted by Adams and began rising through the Sinn Féin bureaucracy. McLaughlin's principal role in the late 1980's and early 1990's was to take the IRA to task for botched and bungled operations and he later became the acceptable face of Republicanism, the first to shake hands with British ministers, for example. His lack of any association with the IRA was made an asset..
When Adams revived the Revolutionary Council, McLaughlin was brought along to expose IRA commanders to criticism and this drove the activists wild especially when, on occasion, he would repeat the censure publicly. IRA activists could take reprimands from one of their own but not from someone who had never seen active service. At one stage the Army Council, on the insistence of Kevin McKenna, ordered him gagged, saying that he would have to clear all his public statements with the IRA. There were even calls from figures on Northern Command for his expulsion from the Movement. At another point senior figures recommended his exclusion from important decision making but Adams ignored them. His continued presence at Revolutionary Council meetings led some figures to stay away and contributed to its eventual demise.
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The "Think Tank" acted in an advisory capacity to the Army Council mostly on political matters but occasionally on military strategy as well. During the preparation of the blueprint for the "Tet" offensive for instance it strongly advised against plans to launch rocket attacks on British embassies in Europe on the grounds that this would almost certainly alienate potentially friendly or neutral governments. It was during the peace process however that the "Think Tank" came in to its own.
The sheer volume of work involved in administering the process meant that the Army Council was forced to look outside its numbers for assistance. The Council was particularly ill suited for the task. It met only once a month and most of its meetings would be spent discussing detailed IRA matters while nearly all its members held down busy jobs elsewhere in the IRA structures or Sinn Féin. The peace process required specialised skills and the undivided and virtually full-time attention of a secretariat. Since the Army Council could not do it the task was taken on by the "Think Tank".
During the years after Reynolds' elevation to Taoiseach through to the first and second IRA ceasefires and beyond, virtually every single position paper presented by the IRA in its own name or through Sinn Féin to the British and Irish governments and to the SDLP was meticulously prepared by the "Think Tank". The process was exhaustive. If a document came into the IRA from say the Dublin government the "Think Tank", or more often a subcommittee of the group headed by Howell or Gibney, would draft several papers in response. One would be an analysis of the Dublin paper, another would be a draft reply and a third would attempt to anticipate what Dublin's response might be. The Army Council would have to recommend a reply, that would go back in skeleton or outline form to the "Think Tank", which would prepare a final draft. That would then have to go back to the Army Council for final approval before being sent on to Dublin. The same process would be repeated with communications with the British, the SDLP and anyone else involved in the process, sometimes all at the same time. This complicated bureaucracy helped to explain the at times laboriously slow pace of the peace process, an aspect of the negotiations which often perplexed and frustrated the two governments.
The role palyed by the "Think Tank" gave Adams a massive edge over other members of the Army Council. The body was, to begin with, his creation and he alone decided who would sit on it. By definition it was loyal to him above all else. It also generated a huge amount of paperwork for the Army Council to read on top of the usual workload that greeted its members at their monthly meeting and that worked in Adams’ favour. While Adams, McGuinness and Kelly would already be familiar with the material, having generated or helped to generate much of it, the rest of the Army Council, especially the 'soldiers' would come to it new.
Some of the paperwork could be mind-boggling in its complexity. It would not be unusual for some of the analytical documents to be written in three different typefaces, bold, normal and italics. To read the document required constant reference to a key that would explain, for example, that bold represented the Republican position, italics the Dublin or British government position and normal what Republicans might end up negotiating. Since Army Council members were not allowed, at least in the early years of the process, to hold on to the documentation - while "Think Tank" members could have regular access - it was hardly surprising if much of it went unread or was only partially scanned. The volume of paperwork became so great that the Army Council gave Adams and McGuinness, and occasionally Kelly, the authority to approve "Think Tank" final drafts without them going back to the Council. Some of the most important communications from the IRA went to the Taoiseach in Dublin or to the British unread by the IRA leadership. The "Think Tank" effectively developed into a shadow Republican leadership; some came to believe that it was more powerful than the Army Council.
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The "Think Tank" also played a crucial role in one of the most intriguing and puzzling episodes of the peace process, the nearly three years of secret dialogue between the Army Council and the British government between 1990 and 1993. A conduit that had come into existence, almost casually, just after the 1972 ceasefire facilitated the talks. The inspiration came from a Derry businessman, Brendan Duddy who has since gone on to become something of a player on the international peace circuit. After the ceasefire collapsed he approached Ruairi O Bradaigh with a suggestion. SDLP figures such as John Hume and Paddy Devlin had helped mediate the truce terms but the effect of that was that the Republicans had lost control of the direction of events. The IRA, he said, should use another way of communicating with the British in the future.
A source familiar with the episode described what happened next: "Later he came back and said if you ever want a way of communicating with the British then I can do it for you. The opportunity came when the Anglo-Irish aristocrats, Count and Countess of Donaghmore (who lived part of the year in Ireland) were kidnapped in Dublin in June 1974 in an attempt to force the transfer of the 1973 London bombing team, including the Price sisters, from Brixton jail back to the North. The prison dispute was settled and so O Bradaigh contacted the conduit who passed the message on to the British that the Donaghmores would be released. Another opportunity arose when a British officer wandered into Donegal. He was captured by the IRA and then released and again the pipeline was utilised. Later the conduit was involved in the 1975 ceasefire passing messages to and from us and the Brits."
Over the years the conduit expanded to include two other figures, only one of whom, the former Derry priest turned community worker, Denis Bradley, has ever publicly admitted his role. The third figure, who played the more prominent role in the 1990-93 dialogue, was another Derry businessman, a businessman involved in the energy industry. Contact between the British and the Army Council had been intermittent over the years and from the IRA's point of view largely unsatisfactory.
According to well-informed Republican sources efforts to resume contact between the IRA and the British, as distinct from the Adams-Reid pipeline, began in the late 1980's when Michael Oatley of MI6 attempted to make contact with Martin McGuinness. The trigger for the contact was the capture of the Eksund and British Intelligence’s realisation that many more tons of weaponry had been successfully smuggled to Ireland. The contact was made at around the same time as the IRA began moving the Libyan weaponry northwards in preparation for the "Tet" offensive and the Army Council concluded that Oatley was on a fishing expedition to tease out the IRA's intentions. It responded warily to his advances and nothing came of the approach.
More substantive if desultory and largely one-sided contact with the Army Council was reopened on the initiative of the British in early 1990. From the pace and content of the messages it seemed the British were keen to test the IRA's mind. Thanks to the secret dialogue facilitated by Fr Reid which stretched way back to Tom King's day they had been given an insight into the sort of settlement which might be acceptable to Gerry Adams. But what they could not know for certain was whether Adams was speaking for the Army Council, or what the Council’s bottom line in negotiations might be. When these talks became public in 1993 the news caused a sensation. While most attention was directed at a clumsy attempt by the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew to minimise the contacts, especially a British offer to hold talks in the event of an undeclared IRA cessation, there was a much more significant chapter which was largely overlooked. Details of this emerged in two documents published when Sinn Féin released a partial account of the dialogue in late 1993.
The first document had been sent to the IRA by the British side on March 19th, 1993. Known as the "Nine Pointer", it set out the parameters of the British negotiating position, parameters which echoed the secret diplomacy facilitated by Fr Reid. Like a fisherman casting for trout the British had landed a large fly over the IRA’s nose to see whether it brought a rise.
The kernel of the "Nine Pointer" was in paragraph seven. "(The British government) has no blueprint", it read. "It wants an agreed accommodation, not an imposed settlement, arrived at through an inclusive process in which the parties are free agents......The British Government cannot enter a talks process, or expect others to do so, with the purpose of achieving a predetermined outcome....." If talks went ahead on that basis and reached agreement, it continued, "the British Government would bring forward legislation to implement the will of the people..." Although framed in blunter language paragraph seven represented a repetition of the core sentiments contained in the secret British reply to Adams' in 1987, in particular the key redefinition of British withdrawal. The British had secretly offered a deal to Adams back in 1987 and now they wanted to see if he was genuine.
Unaware of the secret Reid-Adams diplomacy, the Army Council rejected the "Nine Pointer" out of hand, with the ‘soldiers’ dismissing it as falling far short of the Council policy on British withdrawal formulated in 1988. There was no indication in the document that the British were prepared to commit to withdraw; there was certainly no timetable for withdrawal in the document nor any indication either that the British would override the Unionist veto. At this point the Army Council 'soldiers' urged that the dialogue be halted; if the British were not prepared to budge on such fundamental points there didn't seem much point in continuing. But Adams argued otherwise: the British should be tested all the way, he urged. To walk away at this point would be to abandon the moral high ground to the enemy, the contact should not be broken off, he said. He got his way. Not for the first time Adams succeeded in keeping the process on the rails and by so doing limited the Army Council’s ability to retrace its steps.
Eventually on May 10th 1993, nearly two months later, the IRA sent a reply, an eleven-point document. It was delicately worded, testament to the lengthy wrangling that had gone on inside the Army Council. The IRA was, as the British hoped, ready to respond positively to an offer of talks in return for a short, two-week ceasefire and would also set up a secretariat headed by Martin McGuinness which could help organise the subsequent face-to-face contact. That was the good news for the British. The bad news was that the document repeated, in strong language, the Army Council's 1988 bottom lines. The British would have to leave Ireland, said the document. The free exercise of national self-determination, it went on, required a process that "culminates....in the end of (British) jurisdiction". The Unionist veto was a major obstacle. If the British were not prepared to override the veto, as the "Nine Pointer" suggested, it meant that the British had predetermined the outcome of the process in favour of the Unionists. The veto had to go.
The Republican document attempted to perform a balancing act between a 'yes' and a 'no', between wanting to signal a willingness to keep the process going – as Adams wanted - and a need to draw lines in the sand – as the Army Council ‘soldiers’ insisted. But notwithstanding the IRA document's use of subtle language it had failed to disguise a fundamental reality; the Army Council's position fell far short of what the British had been hearing in private about what figures such as Adams would accept. The talks went downhill afterwards and that autumn eventually deteriorated into bickering and mutual recrimination. If the British had set out to test the IRA waters they had found them as chilly and inhospitable as ever. The peace process had once again fallen victim to the amiguity which Adams had built into it.
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If there was one ploy which Adams and his allies on the Army Council used with great effect to keep the peace process on the rails, until finally a ceasefire was within reach, it was the ability to persuade the ‘soldiers’ not to walk away from the enterprise even when it seemed there was no point in doing otherwise. The gap between the secret peace process and the process which the Army Council thought it was following was at times so great that with hindsight it was Adams’ greatest achievement that he managed so skilfully to stop his more military-minded colleagues from pulling the plug. That he was able to do so created the time and space for the hidden agenda to finally triumph.
There was no better example of this in practice than the talks between Adams and the SDLP leader John Hume which had continued in secret after 1988, even though to the public mind they had ended in sharp disagreement. Hume was acting as the de facto representative of the Irish government at the suggestion of Charles Haughey and while the discussions had mired they were revived when Albert Reynolds succeeded Haughey as Irish prime minister in early 1992. By this point the aim was to construct a joint British-Irish declaration outlining Britain’s attitude and intentions towards Northern Ireland. The Army Council had authorised the talks on the basis that somewhere in the declaration the British would indicate their desire to withdraw and, crucially, would give a date by which this would be completed, albeit one perhaps two decades later.
On the face of it this was a daunting and even impossible task. A huge ideological rift separated the Provisionals from Fianna Fail and the SDLP. The Republicans officially rejected the consent principle whereas for the constitutional Nationalist parties, securing Unionist assent to a united Ireland was a defining point of principle.
Such was the magnitude of this gulf that in practice the only way in which an agreed position between Republicans and Nationalists could be reached would be for one or the other to compromise fundamental beliefs. Neither the Irish government nor the SDLP was prepared to do that. Dublin in particular made it clear to the Republican negotiators, as one authoritative account described it, that "any formula to do with Irish unity must involve consent of a majority within Northern Ireland". To do otherwise would have caused a rupture with Britain and serious internal political instability.
On the other hand the secret diplomacy begun by Adams and Reid had demonstrated the Sinn Féin leader's readiness to make that fundamental compromise, although as far as the Army Council and most of their senior IRA and Sinn Féin colleagues were concerned, the rejection of the Unionist veto, as the consent principle was termed by the IRA, remained a cornerstone of their beliefs and officially guided the talks between Adams and Hume.
The Army Council brief for the Hume-Adams dialogue was based upon the 1988 policy change on British withdrawal. While it was prepared to be flexible about the time scale for British disengagement and would even accept a secret rather than a public pledge from the British to quit Ireland, the Council’s view was that it would not compromise on the demand for a specific time line by which the process of disengagement had to be completed. Nor would the IRA leadership bend on the issue of the Unionist veto. While it was prepared to give Unionists the final say on the alternatives to partition, they would not be allowed to prevent British withdrawal.
That was the official Army Council line and as such it threatened to throttle the Reid-Adams diplomacy. The task facing the Sinn Féin leader was to stop that happening. The story of the Hume-Adams dialogue is the story of how that was done.
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Work on drafting the joint British-Irish declaration began in late 1991, during the dying months of the Haughey administration and when Albert Reynolds succeeded Haughey the pace of events quickened. So did the traffic of paper between Hume and Adams. The number of drafts of the joint declaration multiplied. In June 1992 the Adams' "Think Tank" drafted, for Army Council approval, a version of the joint declaration that eventually became known as the Hume-Adams document. Cleverly and carefully enough worded to allow for ambiguity, one paragraph - Four - encapsulated the IRA's 1988 policy position.
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These read: "4 - The British prime minister reiterates, on behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish, strategic, political or economic interest in Northern Ireland, and that their sole interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among the people who inhabit the island. The British Government accepts the principle that the Irish people have the right collectively to self-determination and that the exercise of this right could take the form of agreed independent structures for the island as a whole. They affirm their readiness to introduce the measures to give legislative effect on their side to this right (within a specified period to be agreed) and allowing sufficient time for the building of consent and the beginning of a process of national reconciliation. The British Government will use all its influence and energy to win the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland for these measures. They acknowledge that it is the wish of the people of Britain to see the people of Ireland live together in unity and harmony, with respect for their diverse traditions, independent but with full recognition of the special links and the unique relationship which exists between the peoples of Britain and Ireland.
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That part of June 1992 Hume-Adams document echoed the 1988 Army Council policy almost exactly. All that needed to be done was to fill in the blank space after the commitment to withdraw to indicate how long it would be before the British left Northern Ireland. But the paragraph flagrantly offended the consent principle and flew in the face of established policy on Northern Ireland. The notion that either the British or Irish governments or the SDLP could accept such a formulation was approaching fantasy.
On the other hand the Army Council seemed to be unalterably committed to its view on British withdrawal as a message sent to Reynolds in April 1993, and unearthed by the writers Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick, revealed. While the leadership was ready to consider alternative ways in which the British could make this announcement - a private agreement underwritten by international figures and released some months after the joint declaration was one suggestion – the message unequivocally declared that the IRA preference "is for a joint declaration which embodies a clear and specified time" for achieving national self-determination. The gulf between the constitutional forces and the Provisionals seemed to be a wide and unbrideable as ever it had been
It was at this point, in April 1993, that SDLP leader, John Hume saved the process. He put his name to the June 1992 draft in all respects save one, the part of Paragraph 4 which referred to the yet to be agreed time scale for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. This was of course the defining section of the so-called Hume-Adams document and unless there was agreement on it the paper would remain largely an academic exercise. Nevertheless, Hume's act allowed Adams to go to the Army Council and argue to keep the initiative alive, not least on the grounds that the Hume-Adams double act was irritating the Unionists and annoying other anti-Provisional forces in the Republic, as was demonstrated by the barrage of criticism directed at Hume when his secret dialogue with Adams was revealed, also in April 1993. It intensified when Hume and Adams joint called for "national self-determination" in Ireland, although the critics could not have known that the term had been fundamentally redefined by the Sinn Féin leader and his Redemptorist helper.
Hume’s move strengthened Adams’ hand in another way, one which began to impact on the IRA’s military strategy and push the organisation towards a ceasefire. On the same day in April 1993 that Hume and Adams called for "national self-determination", a ton of fertiliser-based explosives packed into a lorry exploded right in the heart of the City of London, killing one man, injuring over thirty and devastating Britain's financial centre. One estimate of the damage put the cost at £Stg 1 billion. It was a devastating blow, the latest in a series of blockbuster attacks in England master-minded by the South Armagh IRA.
The explosion of April 1993 was however the last big IRA bomb in London during this part of the peace process. On the urging of Adams and his allies, the Army Council was persuaded "to hold back" on the English bombing campaign, as one of Adams's "Think Tank" advisers later told the author. "It was held back because it threatened to clash with the Hume-Adams process and because there were signs that Reynolds was beginning to move back into the British camp", he explained. "The risk was that we would be marginalised". The IRA had stumbled on what was possibly the most successful military tactic since the start of the Troubles yet agreed to suspend it in order to preserve a political strategy whose effectiveness had not been tested.
Albert Reynolds had handed over the June 1992 draft, the so-called Hume-Adams document, to John Major in June 1993 but, as he told Mallie and McKittrick, there was no way that he believed he could sell it to the British prime minister and he told the Provisionals so via the doughty Fr Reid. "I said 'If you're talking about a time frame, forget it. I can't sell that.....There is no way we are going to adopt that role, and if you persist in that argument then forget that side of the discussion because we simply are not going to persuade the Unionists to do anything....My feeling was telling me that the British wouldn't run with what was in the document". Reynolds was right. The British were distinctly cool about the paper and zeroed in on what the document had to say about consent and a time scale for withdrawal. In October 1993 Major formally rejected the Hume-Adams document – there was no way his government would or could impose Irish re-unification on the Unionists.. After a series of often difficult meetings with Reynolds, the two leaders decided to start drafting their own declaration, one that would incorporate the principle of consent yet offer enough to the Provisionals to ensure that rejection of the declaration by them would attract opprobrium and blame. It would also contain all the essential elements of the Reid-Adams diplmacy.
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The result of Reynolds’ and Major’s work was unveiled in mid-December 1993 at a press conference in Downing Street, London and the event was staged in such a way as to emphasise its historic importance. The world's press was invited to witness the signing ceremony and the Irish government sent along a large political and diplomatic delegation headed by Reynolds and his Tanaiste or deputy, Labour leader Dick Spring. The Irish group posed for the TV cameras and press photographers beside a large Christmas tree parked outside the doorway of Number Ten. The spectacle of the British and Irish governments making common cause on the seemingly intractable Northern Ireland problem was welcomed around the globe and added enormously to the pressure on the Provos to accept the shared analysis.
The Downing Street Declaration (DSD), as the joint British-Irish statement was called, conceded the principle of self-determination but in such as way as to weave the principle of consent through it. The relevant section of the new Paragraph 4 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 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. They reaffirm, as a binding obligation, that they will for their part, introduce the necessary legislation to give effect to this, or equally to any measure of agreement on future relationships in Ireland which the people of Ireland may themselves freely so determine without external impediment".
The Downing Street Declaration conflicted fundamentally with the Army Council's 1988 policy position. There was no commitment by the British to withdraw, no time scale for withdrawal and no rejection by the British of the Unionist veto. But the declaration was fully consistent with the secret Reid-Adams diplomacy and encapsulated perfectly their redefinition of British withdrawal.
Unsurprisingly the formulation on national self-determination in the declaration had ruffled no Unionist feathers; in fact many Unionists were pleasantly surprised by what it said. The declaration’s acceptance of the consent principle on the other hand dismayed the Provo grassroots; there were mutterings against Reynolds and Hume. Three days before the DSD was published, Adams anticipated his supporters’ mood, and echoed the official Army Council line. In an interview with The Sunday Tribune, he said: "The Six Counties cannot have a right to self-determination, that is a matter for the Irish people as a whole to be exercised without impediment. However the shape of a future Ireland is a matter to be determined by all groups in Ireland obviously including the Unionists". One senior Belfast republican summed up the general mood of IRA despondency in the wake of the Downing Street summit: "What we're talking about here is that if we accept this we accept that everything we stood for in the last 25 years is for nothing, that's what we're talking about." Neither he nor most other IRA supporters knew that the principle had actually been conceded by their leadership years before.
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A key factor in shaping events in the aftermath of the Downing Street Declaration was a growing public expectation that a peaceful settlement to the Troubles was now possible. Hopes for peace had risen following the disclosure of the secret Hume-Adams talks back in April and they soared in September 1993 when Hume and Adams issued another statement claiming that they had forwarded a report on their deliberations to the Reynolds government in Dublin for consideration. No such report existed. The statement was merely a ploy to force movement from Reynolds but it had the effect of raising Nationalist hopes and unsettling the Unionists.
Northern Ireland’s one million Protestant and largely Unionist population had been watching the developing Hume-Adams diaologue with growing alarm and despondency. The sight of their two enemies, one supposedly committed to non-violence, the other unashamedly a supporter of armed struggle, sitting down and finding common cause filled them with dismay. This turned to anger when the British began negotiating directly with Hume as, on the sidelines, the Irish government seemingly urged them on. Ever distrustful of the British, the Unionists suspected the worst and concluded a deal to throw them out of the union with Britain was being hatched.
Unionism’s extremists, the Loyalist paramilitary groups, had a history of turning to violence when they believed their constitutional position was threatened and the September 1993 Hume-Adams statement was the trigger for a burst of bloody savagery that claimed the lives of three Catholics and injured dozends more. The Loyalists mounted an average of one attack a day throughout the ensuing month, October 1993.
The Loyalist onslaught was a challenge to the IRA's raison d'etre and the pressures on the organisation in Belfast to respond were enormous. After all the Provisionals had come into existence to defend the city's vulnerable Catholic communities and any failure to hit back at those behind the Loyalist attacks would risk uncontrollable freelance operations by IRA units. In a worst case scenario these could even precipitate a split in the organisation. The Ulster Defence Asociation, the largest loyalist grouping, was behind a majority of the attacks, in particular the so-called 'C' Coy. of the organisation's Second Battalion on the Shankill Road, a tough loyalist district of north Belfast. Led by a notorious, muscled gunman called Johnny Adair, the UDA was causing mayhem in the IRA’s strongest areas.. In the face of all this the IRA decided to hit back. Plans were put forward by the IRA in Belfast to assassinate Adair and to wipe out the bulk of the UDA leadership.
The proposal to remove the UDA leadership was endorsed at the highest level in the IRA. The Army Council had already moved to tighten its control over the organisation when, in September 1993, it issued an order saying that in future all IRA operations had to be approved by Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna. On the urging of Adams and his allies, the Council had taken this action for fear that a "bad" operation might endanger the fragile relationship with Hume. Accordingly the plans to attack the UDA leadership were vetted at the highest level in the IRA before approval was given to any one particular plan. Eventually one plan was given the go-ahead.
So it was that a car carrying three IRA men from the Ardoyne area of north Belfast drew up outside Frizzell's fishmonger's shop on the afternoon of Saturday, October 13, 1993 and set in motion one of the worst bombings in the history of the Irish Troubles. Situated half way along the Shankill Road, in the middle of the city’s toughest Loyalist district, Frizzel’s was packed with shoppers that Saturday afternoon when two of the IRA men, both sporting white coats of the sort worn by delivery men, carried a bomb inside the shop. As one held up the customers and staff with a handgun the other, a 23-year-old single man, Thomas Begley suspended the device from the ceiling and lit the fuse with a cigarette lighter. Above the shop was the local headquarters of the UDA and usually on Saturday's the group’s commanders, including Adair, would gather there for a meeting. That particular Saturday, however, the UDA leaders had left early and the IRA operation went disastrously wrong. The fuse lit by Begley had been cropped short to give the customers in the shop just enough time to get out but not enough for the UDA men to escape downstairs. But the fuse had been cut too short and exploded almost instantly, killing Begley and collapsing the ancient, Victorian brick building on top of the early afternoon shoppers. Nine other people died in the explosion, four of them women shoppers and two schoolgirls, one seven years old, the other 13. All the victims aside from Begley were Protestants. At Begley's funeral a few days later Gerry Adams helped carry the coffin, a decision that brought expressions of outrage and condemnation from mainstream politicians and the media. What none of them knew was that as a member of the Army Council, which had approved the bombing, Adams had little choice.
The Shankill bomb ushered in a period of unprecedented terror in Northern Ireland. Following the Shankill disaster the UDA issued an ominous statement. "John Hume, Gerry Adams and the nationalist electorate", it warned, "will pay a heavy, heavy price for today's atrocity." (28) Over the next six weeks Loyalists killed 16 people, all but one of them Catholics. The UDA was responsible for 13 of the deaths. The worst single incident was in the small Co Derry village of Greysteel where two UDA gunmen opened fire indiscriminately on a crowd of 200 people celebrating the Halloween holiday in the Rising Sun restaurant and lounge bar. Eight people died in the hail of bullets and 19 were wounded. One of the gunmen shouted "Trick or Treat?" before pulling the trigger.
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The weeks between all this slaughter and the publication of the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993 rank amongst the most tense and dreadful that veterans of the Troubles could remember. Belfast became a ghost town in the evenings as workplaces and shops closed early. Most pubs and restaurants were deserted or didn't bother opening. Catholic areas braced themselves for further slaughter while the nightly television news programmes were dominated by emotional scenes of grieving relatives and friends as one funeral followed another.
It was in these circumstances that the IRA was presented with the Downing Street Declaration, a document whose rejection by them would surely have brought censure and denunciation raining down on its head. The effect of the terrible violence was profound. Most people, not least Catholics on the receiving end of the loyalist violence, yearned for an end to the killing and were prepared to give the Downing Street Declaration a chance to bring peace. There were also hints of tough security reprisals if the IRA rejected the document. Albert Reynolds said the Irish public would expect "a strong security response" if violence resumed its past levels while the British press reported accounts of Cabinet briefings suggesting an all-out offensive against the IRA if the Declaration was not accepted.
The Adams leadership had one option which, according to his advisers, was only briefly considered and then discarded. This was to publish the original Hume-Adams document of June 1992 and embarrass Reynolds and Hume by revealing that they had initially accepted the proposition that Britain should withdraw from Northern Ireland, a very different view than that contained in the Downing Street Declaration..
Putting the June 1992 document into the public arena would certainly have disconcerted both Reynolds and Hume and would have gone a long way to reassure a Republican grassroots increasingly unsettled by the growing claims that it differed little from the Downing Street Declaration. But doing that would have had two irrevocable consequences. It would, in the words of one of the "Think Tank" advisers, "have destroyed the pan-Nationalist alliance" and demolished the relationship between Adams and his putative partners, Albert Reynolds and John Hume. More importantly publicising the document would have drawn a line in the sand beyond which Adams could not have retreated without incurring criticism from his grassroots activists and showing weakness to his political opponents. The Army Council had walked, or had been walked, into a trap from which there was no retreat.
There was one other consideration, a factor which would figure more and more in the calculations of Adams and the "Think Tank" as the peace process progressed. The peace process was beginning to bring benefits to Sinn Féin of a sort the party had not seen in years. A month or so after the disclosure of the Hume-Adams meeting in Derry, in May 1993, elections were held to the North's local councils and for the first time in a decade Sinn Féin's vote rose and the number of seats won increased by twenty per cent. In October there was an even more dramatic example of this electoral bonus when Sinn Féin won a council by-election in Derry, transforming a 60:40 vote for the rival SDLP into a 55:45 vote for the Republican candidate. Nationalist voters, it seemed, were ready to reward Sinn Féin every time the party edged towards a ceasefire and the lesson was not lost on Adams and his allies.
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Electoral considerations were not foremost to the mind of the Army Council, at least not as far as its ‘soldier’ members were concerned. The Downing Street Declaration was simply unacceptable – it made no mention of British withdrawal and set the principle of Unionist consent in textual stone. The Council voted to reject it in January 1994 with 'Slab' Murphy, Kevin McKenna and Micky McKevitt openly contemptuous of its contents.
No-one spoke up for the declaration but once again Adams was able to persuade the Council not to take precipitative action and argued, successfully, that the Council should keep its rejection of the document secret from the outside world but pretend that it was still being considered. Play for time, Adams had urged. History may well judge this to be one of the most crucial, if not the most crucial move of the entire process, one which made an IRA ceasefire inevitable and merely a matter of time and management. Having refused to say no, openly and publicly, the IRA was really saying yes.
Once again the argument that won the day was the same - keeping the game with Reynolds and Hume alive was paramount. Two delaying mechanisms were set in place. One, a Peace Commission was established under Pat Doherty with the brief of travelling around Ireland to hold hearings. It was supposed to report by the end of January 1994 but didn't conclude its deliberations until June when, not surprisingly it revealed that half the submissions received had opted for an IRA ceasefire. What started off as a delaying ploy ended by mobilising pressure to end the war. The other delaying tactic was a Sinn Féin demand for clarification of the Declaration. An elaborate game was played in which senior Republicans suggested that there might be a hidden message buried somewhere in the text of the document which the British could be teased into revealing.
While these moves clearly kept open the possibility of a ceasefire in early January, 1994 Army Council Chairman, Martin McGuinness was dispatched to give the Provisional grassroots a reassuring message, a role he would play many times both publicly and privately before the ceasefire would be declared. In a lengthy interview with The Sunday Business Post, McGuinness warned that unless the British had a private position which was different from the one expressed publicly by John Major then the Downing Street Declaration was "worthless", adding that "anything short of a British government decision that they are leaving this country is unacceptable".
Hinting at the 1988 Army Council decision he went on to say that the timetable for British withdrawal was nevertheless negotiable and that the IRA might be prepared to negotiate terms which went beyond the lifetime of a British parliament but on the issue of an IRA ceasefire he was unequivocally hardline, as the IRA Volunters expected their Northern Commander to be. A cessation, he warned, would require an Army Convention but as things stood Republicans would regard even a three-month ceasefire as "particularly long". But hidden behind this hard-line message was another signal, that the Army Council was not yet prepared to dismiss the Downing Street Declaration. Republicans needed clarification, McGuinness said, and in the meantime the leadership would continue to consult with their grassroots. Not for the first nor last time tough language masked private flexibility.
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The period following the Downing Street Declaration was a bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland time for rank and file Republicans as they tried to work out why their leaders had not immediately rejected the Declaration. In the ensuing weeks the Sinn Féin leadership hosted so-called "family meetings" around Northern Ireland for Republican activists which were addressed by leading members of the "Think Tank", particularly Gibney and Hartley whose unenviable task it was to act as lightning rods for grassroots confusion and anxiety. Hundreds of grassroots Republicans would turn up at drinking clubs and community halls expecting or hoping to hear that Adams and McGuinness had a secret trick up their sleeves, only to be disappointed.
Instead they would be re-assured not to worry and counselled to have faith and trust in a leadership they knew would never sell out, there would be no ceasefires, no dilution of the struggle. As soon as they went home they would switch on the TV news to hear the same figures sending out completely opposite signals. One West Belfast Republican described the internal turmoil in the opening weeks of 1994: "We go to meetings and there seems to be a consensus that everyone agrees on but every time you look at them on television or read something in the paper it seems to be taking a different direction.....There is confusion. I don't know whether they know what the base thinks. I don't think they're out of touch, they've had so many meetings. And they're getting the same message from the meetings. So what's the name of the game?" Another rural activist put it more bluntly, although this judgement was made with the benefit of hindsight: "They told their people lies. I was at (our local) meeting...and their interpretation of it all was that they would run it to its natural conclusion, they would expose the Brits, the SDLP and the Free State government and then it would be back to the war. There would be no ceasefire and certainly no return to Stormont."
Eventually Sinn Féin submitted a series of inconsequential questions about the Downing Street Declaration to the British via Albert Reynolds in May 1994 and the British sent a formalistic reply. Those Republicans who were expecting sensational admissions from the British were disappointed. A few days later Suzanne Breen, a reporter in the Belfast office of The Irish Times, filed a story quoting Republican sources explaining why the IRA had refused to reject the Declaration out of hand. The anonymous interview infuriated Adams' press handlers who denied it and privately blamed a leading Sinn Féin councillor for the leak. But the story had the touch of authenticity. "We don't want to be written off as being negative", the paper quoted the Republican source as saying. "We don't want to be portrayed as the people who have rejected peace. Our reply when it comes, will be a balancing act. Sure we're playing games but what do you think the British are doing? They know damn well that we won't accept what's on offer. They would love us to be hot-headed but we've no intention of doing that". It was back to playing word games.
The reality was that once the Army Council had refused to reject the Downing Street Declaration the die was cast. It was only a matter of time, management and negotiation before the IRA was obliged to call a ceasefire. Albert Reynolds' congenial press secretary, Sean Duignan later wrote that the Taoiseach constantly used the analogy of a hooked trout to describe the Provos in the wake of the Declaration. It was just a matter of keeping a tight line and reeling them in. In January, 1994 the hook was driven deeper. A promise given by Reynolds to Adams during 1993 to scrap the 18 year old ban on radio and television interviews with Sinn Féin in the Republic as soon as there was a ceasefire was fast-forwarded. With Sinn Féin measurably closer to being treated like a normal, respectable political party, rejection of the Downing Street Declaration became unimaginable.
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It was time to play the American card or, to be more accurate, the Clinton card. The American President had been assiduously wooed by Adams’ allies in the US and, in April 1992, when Clinton was seeking the Democratic nomination for the upcoming Presidential election he promised that if elected he would grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. Clinton had astutely realised that there were votes, Irish-American votes, to be won by such a popular move and at a relatively low cost. Once Clinton arrived in the White House, however, it was a different matter. Both the State Department and the British embassy lobbied heavily against giving Adams a visa. The Provisional leader had been barred from entering the US for twenty years and if they had their way, that’s the way it would stay.
For the best part of two years Clinton refused to defy his advisers in Foggy Bottom but a combination of Irish government diplomacy, lobbying by John Hume and the secret blandishments of "Think Tank" chairman, Ted Howell paved the way in February 1994 for a dramatic initiative. Much to the public fury of the British, Adams was granted a 48 hour visa to visit New York to attend a conference on Northern Ireland hosted by the deeply establishment National Committee on American Foreign Policy whose members included such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Schultz, David Rockefeller and, later, Margaret Thatcher. For years Sinn Féin had championed the cause of many of America’s ideological foes in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba. Now, in the interests of the peace process, the Sinn Féin leader was supping at their enemy’s table.
The visit was a public relations triumph for Adams. The time-limited nature of his visa and the whiff of gun-smoke that trailed after him ensured that his visit became a matter of intense media interest. He was a guest on CNN's "Larry King Live", and appeared on other TV talk shows. The Irish writer Edna O'Brien was clearly bewitched by Adams' charm and composed the sort of profile in The New York Times that publicists only dream of. "Given a different incarnation in a different century, one could imagine him as one of those monks transcribing the Gospels into Gaelic", she wrote. The American media treated Adams like a cross between Emile Zapata and Michael Collins. An intoxicated Irish-America, made drunk by Britain's anger at the Adams' visa, responded as though the Easter Rising was being re-fought in front of their eyes. Wealthy supporters paid for Adams to stay in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria where de Valera had lived during his lengthy American exile during the Anglo-Irish war. Meanwhile back in Ireland, Adams' colleagues in the IRA predicted ruefully that after tasting life on Fifth Avenue, Adams would find it difficult to return to the diet of cold ham sandwiches and damp country beds that life on the Army Council offered.
The Adams' trip to New York sent some highly significant political messages. The invitation had come from a group of figures from corporate Irish-America, people like billionaire businessmen Charles 'Chuck' Feeney and insurance magnate, Bill Flynn, recruited to Adams' cause by Howell allies such as New York publisher Niall O'Dowd. They had invested a lot of credibility in the Sinn Féin leader and expected him to deliver peace. The same people had access to the wealthiest political benefactors in America and, if the Provisionals played their cards right, Sinn Féin could expect a generous share. The IRA leadership had already declared an unofficial ceasefire for American mediators but they expected more. Adams hinted they would get it. At one function he promised not to disappoint those "who had stuck their neck out for him" and noted privately that he knew there was no such thing as a free lunch. As The Irish Times US correspondent, Conor O'Clery later wrote, he was quite specific about his plans: "In the limousine on the way to JFK airport, according to George Schwab (President of The National Committee on American Foreign Policy), Adams said, 'George, I promise you we'll never return to the old ways.' "
Adams scrupulously honoured the terms of the Clinton visa. There were no efforts to fund-raise for the Republican cause and no public reference to the armed struggle, much to the disappointment of some of the hundreds of Irish-Americans who had turned up to hear him speak. "I come here with a message of peace", he told the crowds gathered at the Sheraton Hotel for his only speech. Only two public figures were allowed on the platform, the former Congressman Bruce Morrison and the aged and ailing Irish-American lawyer, Paul O'Dwyer. No one from Noraid was allowed on the stage, least of all the group’s long-time spokesman Martin Galvin. This was perhaps the most meaningful of all the signals sent during his two day sojourn. Noraid had been the backbone of Provisional support in the US during the war. Unpaid Noraid activists had spent countless hours fund-raising for IRA prisoners, organising petitions, mounting protests at British policy and finding jobs and new identities for IRA fugitives in cities along the east coast for the best part of 25 years. More secretly, Noraid sympathisers had funnelled guns, equipment and cash to the IRA. Some had gone to jail for their activities. No they could be forgiven for believing that Adams had turned his back on them.
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Political circumstances had by mid-1994 been managed and contrived in such a way that the Army Council found it more and more difficult to avoid talking about the terms for a ceasefire. Rejecting the Downing Street Declaration was by this point not an option, while establishment expectation of an IRA cessation in Washington and Dublin had been heightened and, via the Adams’ visa and the scrapping of Section 31, had already been partly paid for.
Adams introduced the idea cautiously, suggesting that a short exploratory cessation could be called. This would test the water, and determine whether Dublin could be relied upon to back the pan-Nationalist agenda of Sinn Féin and whether the British were prepared to discuss withdrawal. If it failed then the IRA could return to war and nothing would have been lost – in fact the British and Irish governments would be exposed as blameworthy.
Adams won approval to explore possibilities with Reynolds and the shuttle diplomacy between Reid, Mansergh, who was still the Irish government’s principal point man on Northern Ireland, and members of the ‘Think Tank’ intensified. The manner of these talks signalled another huge shift. The apparent collapse of talks with the British meant that these negotiations were premised not on a promise of withdrawal by the British, as they traditionally had been, but on the construction of a pan-Nationalist alliance with the Dublin government and the SDLP leader John Hume. This was the core proposal in the lengthy message Fr Alec Reid had brought from Gerry Adams to Charles Haughey way back in 1987; it had taken seven years of patient management by Adams and his allies to reach the point where the proposal could become reality.
Not long after Adams' return from New York, in February 1994, the "Think Tank" began work on producing the strategy paper that would underpin the ceasefire while McGuinness and Kelly, who had both joined the "Think Tank" by this stage, negotiated detailed terms with the Reynolds government on behalf of the Army Council, mostly using Fr Reid, by now assisted by another Redemptorist, Fr Gerry Reynolds, to ferry messages to and from Martin Mansergh. The "Think Tank" was now in almost total control of IRA strategy.
The "Think Tank" came up with an acronym for the ceasefire strategy that illustrated better than any other feature of the peace process the ambiguity that underlay the Adams approach. They called it TUAS but were careful not to spell out in any document what the word actually meant. When the strategy document was eventually circulated to the IRA rank and file in the late summer of 1994 they were told that TUAS stood for Tactical Use of Armed Struggle and that fitted in perfectly with the assurances given by the leadership that armed struggle was not being abandoned, merely refined. The explanation given to the grassroots implied that if the ceasefire tactic failed then armed struggle would resume.
The other players in the peace process, principally Sinn Féin's putative Nationalist allies, were given the opposite spin. They were told that TUAS stood for Totally UnArmed Strategy and that conveyed the message that Adams and his colleagues on the Army Council were genuine about the ceasefire and really did want to find a way to end the war and enter normal politics.
TUAS was constructed around the notion that a political consensus could be reached amongst the Dublin government, the SDLP and Sinn Féin on a set of principles and a common negotiating position. In fact the "Think Tank" had to admit that this part of the mission had failed as it always was going to. Neither Dublin nor the SDLP would agree that British sovereignty over Northern Ireland breached the principle of national self-determination nor that the wishes of the Unionists could be overridden.
In place of IRA violence leverage on the British would be applied by the Irish nationalist parties in concert, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Reynolds government. This pressure, said the TUAS strategy, would be augmented by the Irish-American lobby led by the Clinton White House and supported by corporate and Congressional allies. On paper it looked like a formidable combination but it failed to disguise that the constituent parties had conflicting strategic goals. While the Republican side said it sought Irish unity the priority of constitutional Nationalists was to see IRA violence ended and stability restored to the island. In that sense their agenda was shared by the British.
The Clinton White House had its own reasons to get involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was popular with Irish-American voters, a not inconsiderable factor given that Clinton would stand for President again in 1996. Northern Ireland also offered Clinton the prospect of at least one foreign policy success during his administration. But the underlying strategic interests of the United States were the same as those of the Irish and British governments, as Clinton's National Security adviser Nancy Soderburg told Conor O'Clery: "The truth is we don't and I don't know whether there'll ever be a united Ireland or not. I don't really care whether there is a united Ireland or not. All I care about is that there not be violence and that the North gets developed economically and politically so that it's a functioning society."
The pace of activity accelerated during the late spring and early summer of 1994. At Easter-time, the Army Council was persuaded to call a three-day ceasefire to mollify Reynolds who was pressing for more fundamental decisions from the IRA. But the counterveiling need to reassure the IRA rank and file led to a series of mortar attacks on Heathrow airport in March. These were popular with IRA activists but angered Irish-Americans who had argued for the Adams visa. The Heathrow mortars were puzzling. The Army Council was told they had malfunctioned but Republican sources in Belfast suggested the devices had been doctored to ensure they would not explode. The forensic evidence later supported that view. What really happened to the Heathrow mortars has never been satisfactorily explained.
Despite the attack the negotiations between Reynolds and the McGuinness-Kelly team intensified and Army Council meetings began happening with increasing frequency until at the end they were weekly events. Eventually a fourteen-point proposal was put together and placed in front of the Army Council. If there was a ceasefire Reynolds said, his government would implement the initiatives immediately:
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1) Sinn Féin would be treated like any other political party and would not be subjected to harassment or marginalisation. To demonstrate the Dublin government's bona fides a meeting would be held within days of the ceasefire announcement between Reynolds, Adams and Hume;
2) Within two weeks of the ceasefire Reynolds would meet privately with Adams;
3) Adams and Reynolds would consult as regularly as required thereafter;
4) There would be regular consultations between Sinn Féin and the Irish government at all levels as required by events;
5) There would be regular consultation between the government and Sinn Féin on wider issues, including briefings of Irish government ministers as regularly as required by Sinn Féin representatives on the full spectrum of issues affecting the peace process and Sinn Féin's constituents;
6) Arrangements to set up a Forum on Peace and Reconciliation proposed by Reynolds in the Downing Street Declaration would go ahead with immediate discussions on the matter between Sinn Féin and the government;
7) Sinn Féin would be guaranteed full participation in the Forum;
8) The ending of all measures aimed at the isolation and marginalisation of Sinn Féin and all republicans in general;
- Reynolds will set out to persuade the British to scrap all their measures which isolate and marginalise Sinn Féin including dropping the broadcasting ban;
- Reynolds will also set out to persuade the Clinton White House to allow an Army Council representative to visit and win over supporters in the US before news of the ceasefire breaks;
- Reynolds will set out to persuade the Clinton administration to lift the general visa ban on Sinn Féin members;.
- Reynolds commits the government to repeal repressive legislation and agrees to the speedy release of IRA prisoners;
- Reynolds and Hume will press the British to open cross-Border roads, scrap repressive legislation and deal speedily with the question of IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland and British jails;
- Reynolds would commit the Department of Foreign Affairs to seek foreign support for the peace strategy especially in the United States and friendly states with ethnic Irish communities. (39)
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The political terms for the ceasefire were being worked out in some detail but so too were the military conditions . If a ceasefire was called, according to secret terms agreed to by the Army Council, the IRA would put an embargo on new recruits, would cease all military training and would stop targeting activity, i.e. end all actions aimed at gathering intelligence for operational purposes in the South. The same commitments were made about IRA activity in the North. In return surveillance, arrests and harassment of IRA members by the security forces, North and South would cease. The British were well aware of the impending ceasefire and had been party, via various intermediaries, to the negotiations. The notion that the 1994 ceasefire was an affair confined to the IRA and the Reynolds' government was not strictly true.
Army Council meetings were characterised not just by endless discussion of these terms but also by growing pressure from Adams on his colleagues to call a ceasefire. As the summer of 1994 advanced, he put forward two major arguments. The first was that if the Council did not agree to a cessation, Reynolds would remove everything from the table and Republicans would be more isolated and friendless than ever. The second was that Dublin was hinting broadly that the pan-Nationalist alliance could force the British to talk about disengagement. The IRA, he would say, had little to lose by seeing what might be on the table. If Dublin was wrong then war could be resumed in more favourable circumstances. But the reality was that the Army Council had been manouevred into a corridor which got narrower with each step forward. It had reached the point where wriggle room was virtually non-existent.
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Towards the end of the third week in August 1994, the Army Council gathered at a location in south Donegal to decide whether or not to call the ceasefire. The weeks of debate had ended, and now it was time to make up minds. The proposal – for a four month, exploratory cessation - was formally put by Gerry Adams and seconded by Army Council chairman, Martin McGuinness. The debate and argument did not last that long and soon the vote was taken. Five men were in favour - Adams, McGuinness, Pat Doherty, Joe Cahill and the South Armagh adjutant of Northern Command - while only Kevin McKenna, the Chief of Staff voted against. 'Slab' Murphy abstained. Micky McKevitt and Gerry Kelly, QMG and Adjutant-General respectively, spoke – McKevitt against the ceasefire, Kelly for it – but neither man could vote.
'Slab' had been thrown into confusion by the way the meeting had gone, in particular by Joe Cahill’s behaviour. Cahill had given IRA colleagues the impression that he was against a ceasefire. If Cahill voted no, then 'Slab' would follow suit. That would mean the best vote that Adams could get for the ceasefire would be four to three, too narrow a majority to risk going ahead. But during the meeting Cahill suddenly announced his support for the ceasefire proposal; unsure how to respond 'Slab' decided to sit on the fence and abstain. A five-to-one majority for the ceasefire gave Adams and his allies a comfortable margin.
Within days Cahill was winging his way to New York's JFK airport in fulfilment of Reynold's pledge that a Republican figure would be allowed into the United States before the ceasefire became public to settle the fears of IRA activists and supporters on the east coast. His trip was later extended by fifteen days and he was allowed to visit California and other western States.
The question of getting a visa for Cahill had been the focus of intense diplomacy for a week or ten days before the Army Council meeting. It had involved US ambassador to Dublin, Jean Kennedy-Smith, Albert Reynolds, the National Security Council and eventually Clinton himself. The affair puzzled some in the IRA. It was not so crucial that nerves in the United States had to be calmed. The IRA in America had been loyal to the Adams leadership up to then, and it was likely that it would remain so, especially if it became clear that the organisation in Ireland remained united. Nor was Cahill a particularly well-respected figure in the United States. There were other figures who would have carried as much if not greater weight with the IRA there. But someone had decided that without an assurance that Cahill would get to New York the ceasefire vote in the Army Council might be lost.
A few days later, on Wednesday, August 31st the formal announcement came. The IRA declared a complete cessation of military operations as from midnight that day. There was no time limit attached to the declaration. Eight months earlier Army Council Chairman, Martin McGuinness had told the IRA faithful that there would have to be an IRA Convention before a ceasefire could be called and that anything short of a British declaration to withdraw would be unacceptable to the IRA leadershp. The IRA had ended its violence, at least for the time being, without either.
It was without doubt an historic moment in Ireland’s history and was greeted accordingly by the media and political world alike. The long, slow and complex journey to the cessation had been watched with a mixture of fascination and hope by millions in Ireland and aboroad. Few of them could have realised just how long, slow and compex the oddysey had really been.
October 17, 2002
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