From Exclusion to Inclusion
One of the key underlying principles for both the British and Irish governments when dealing with Northern Ireland has been that they do not talk to terrorists. Policy towards Northern Ireland has, by and large, been shaped by this principle. Although there have been brief periods when the British government has entered into talks with the IRA these have been the exception and were usually followed by a hardening of attitude towards terrorism. All the major attempts to make progress in Northern Ireland post- 1968 (the Sunningdale Agreement, the Constitutional Convention; the Atkins Talks, Jim Prior’s Rolling Devolution, the Anglo–Irish Agreement [AIA] and the Brooke–Mayhew talks) were based on the principle of exclusion. The logic behind the exclusion policy was that the key to the Northern Ireland problem was to broker an agreement between the constitutional parties of unionism and nationalism. It was believed that when the constitutional parties had reached agreement on how to govern Northern Ireland the extremes of republican and loyalist terrorism would become more isolated and increasingly irrelevant. Yet by the early 1990s elements within the two governments were beginning to question the rationale behind exclusion. Dublin and London began to consider whether a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion might not be more successful. The focus of intergovernmental cooperation began to shift from how to shore up the centre and protect it from the extremes to how to entice the extremes into the centre.
Eamonn O’Kane, University of Wolverhampton
Contemporary British History, Vol.18, No.1, Spring 2004, pp.78–99
ISSN 1361-9462 print/ISSN 1743-7997 online
DOI: 10.1080/1361946042000217310 q 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
Why then was there this policy shift? By the early 1990s there appeared to have been a re-evaluation of tactics and analysis within both unionism and republicanism. The apparent movement within republicanism towards a possible non-violent strategy was instrumental in persuading the two governments to consider an inclusion-based policy. The challenge for the two governments was how to respond to this apparent shift, encourage the debate within republicanism, and yet not alienate the majority unionist community in Northern Ireland. The two governments chose to try and reconcile these competing ideals by producing a joint declaration. This led to the signing of the Downing Street Declaration (DSD) in December 1993. The DSD was designed to facilitate the inclusion of republicanism into mainstream politics without resulting in unionism’s isolation. The declaration was one of the most significant events in the development of the Northern Ireland peace process. It highlighted not only the importance of intergovernmental cooperation on the issue but also the factors that make such cooperation difficult. This article seeks to look behind the DSD and the movement from exclusion to inclusion, explain how it was achieved, and what purpose it served.
From Exclusion to Inclusion
When the two governments began to contemplate a shift to an inclusive policy in the early 1990s the suggested vehicle was a joint British–Irish declaration. The object of the declaration was to persuade the IRA to end the violence. The obvious question that such a policy shift begs is why was it that after so many years of seeking to exclude the IRA and insulate the political process from them, the two governments began to consider how republicans could be coaxed into the political process? The explanation lies in a series of interrelated events and reappraisals: the failure of the latest exclusion based initiative, changes of personnel within the two governments, and evidence of a strategic reappraisal within the republican movement and of the republican movement. Another reason recently proffered as an explanation for changes in governmental policy, the impact of the international dimension, is rejected as unconvincing as a determining factor but it is argued it has played an important supporting role in the development of the peace process.
The Failure of the Brooke–Mayhew Talks
All the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, along with the British and Irish governments, held a series of talks in 1991–92 designed to try reach agreement on creating new structures for governing Northern Ireland.
The talks became known as the Brooke–Mayhew talks, after the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke (1989–92) and his successor, Sir Patrick Mayhew (1992–97). The two governments portrayed the collapse of the talks in 1992 as a disappointing but temporary setback. Publicly the two governments remained committed to restarting the inter-party talks and indeed as late as September 1993 the Northern Ireland Office minister, Michael Ancram, was delegated to attempt to get agreement from the party leaders to restart the talks process.1
In reality though, by this time there was little chance of restarting the talks on the same basis. By the end of the Brooke–Mayhew talks process the SDLP were portrayed as distracted and less than fully engaged. The suggested reason for this apparent lack of commitment was believed to be the SDLP leader, John Hume’s, pre-occupation with his dialogue with the leader of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, Gerry Adams.2
Unionists were deeply suspicious of the Hume–Adams dialogue and were unlikely to re-enter the talks process whilst Hume was in contact with Adams. By 1993 Hume seems to have been convinced that it was possible to persuade the IRA to end violence and he was primarily pursuing this initiative.
Although the Brooke–Mayhew talks had made progress they did not come close to reaching agreement on how Northern Ireland should be governed. They were the most successful round of all party talks since the 1973 Sunningdale negotiations but like all the others they had failed to make a breakthrough. The institutionalisation of a role for Dublin under the 1985 AIA had succeeded in changing the parameters of the debate in Northern Ireland. The determination of the two governments to stand by the AIA had forced the unionists to confront a new reality. If they were to get rid of the agreement unionists had to engage with Dublin, as both governments had made it clear that whilst they would consider a replacement for the AIA, they would not abandon it. This new reality forced the unionists to engage with the Irish government and so de facto acknowledge the right of the Irish dimension. It had not though caused the unionists to accept that dimension to the extent that nationalists demanded. The failure of yet another initiative based on exclusion may have resulted in the British government becoming more receptive to the idea of inclusion.
There is also evidence that towards the end of the Brooke–Mayhew talks the British government was actually becoming concerned that too much progress might be made. By 1992 elements within British policy-making circles were questioning the value of an agreement between all the constitutional parties if republicanism subsequently ended violence and fully entered the political process. As Sir John Chilcott (head of the Northern Ireland Office, 1990–97) explained, successful ‘all party-talks minus Sinn Féin would present a hell of a problem if they succeeded’ as ‘to get Sinn Féin in subsequently would be far too difficult. You’d have to renegotiate the whole thing’. As a result Chilcott admits he was not necessarily unhappy when the talks collapsed. ‘I said to myself, and I think to others, I thought this was very good news because this means that Hume thinks the game is on with Sinn Féin’.3
Changes in Government Personnel: New Leaders, New Opportunities?
Another key factor in creating conditions ripe for the adoption of an inclusion- based policy was the change in leadership in London and Dublin. The ousting of Mrs Thatcher in November 1990 was widely seen as a positive step in terms of Northern Ireland policy. Republicans loathed Margaret Thatcher as a result of her handling of the 1981 hunger strikes in which 10 republican prisoners died. Mrs Thatcher reciprocated the republican loathing as a result of the killing of the Conservative Party’s Northern Ireland spokesman, and her close friend, Airey Neave by the smaller republican terrorist group, the INLA, in 1979 and the IRA’s attempt to kill her and most of her government with the 1984 Brighton bomb. These feelings made it highly unlikely that Mrs Thatcher would have been willing to pursue a policy that rested upon inclusion. Her successor, John Major, came without baggage having had no previous ministerial experience of Northern Ireland and, by his own admission, ‘knew very little of Northern Ireland’.4
This lack of baggage was summed up by Sir Robin – now Lord – Butler, who served as Cabinet Secretary under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Margaret Thatcher was more conscious of the unionist past of the Conservative Party. By the time John Major became Prime Minister, really by the time he became an MP, the Conservatives were no longer the Conservative and Unionist Party, so he didn’t have emotionally in his political background that link with the unionists.5
This is obviously not to suggest that John Major had no attachment to the Union or any love of republicans. The ousting of Mrs Thatcher though did remove a potential obstacle to the British agreeing to pursue a policy that was at least in part designed to appeal to republicans and address their analysis of the Northern Ireland question.
Similarly the replacing of Charles Haughey as Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) by Albert Reynolds in 1992 removed a potential obstacle on the Irish side. Haughey was at least as distrusted by unionists as Mrs Thatcher was by republicans. Although Haughey would not have been averse to an initiative based on inclusion, and had indeed authorised covert contacts between his adviser on Northern Ireland, Dr Martin Mansergh, and Sinn Féin whilst in office, the distrust in which he was held by unionists may have been problematic. The development of an inclusion-based policy was a fraught exercise and both governments were very keen to avoid alienating unionists as far as possible. Reynolds, like Major, had no history of involvement on Northern Ireland and was seen, and saw himself, as a pragmatic politician. As Reynolds’s Press Secretary, Séan Duignan, explained, ‘many, many people in Irish politics have strong beliefs about all this. Reynolds is just a business guy; I don’t think he would have a republican bone in his body and indeed not even a nationalist bone really’.6
Whilst the unionists may not have trusted Reynolds they did not have the antipathy to him that they had to Haughey and were less suspicious of him as a result. It is obviously impossible to categorically state that the joint declaration idea could not have happened under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey. For all her professed unionism Mrs Thatcher had signed the AIA and Haughey although mistrusted by unionists may have found it even easier to deal with republicans than Reynolds did. It is the case though that the change of leaders removed prejudices that were held by both communities in the North towards the leaders of the two governments. Individuals are less important than the events on the ground but leaders can do more than merely respond to the events, they can be instrumental in shaping them. In this respect the commitment of Major and Reynolds to the joint declaration initiative, coupled with the less stringent attitude the other participants in the conflict had towards them, was a contributory, though not the defining factor, in the move from exclusion to inclusion. The change in personnel is unlikely to have altered the character of the Declaration itself, which was fashioned by the negotiating process that formed it, but the personnel changes perhaps made the negotiations more likely.
Changes in Republican Thought: A Re-evaluation of Political over Military Tools?
By the early 1990s the electoral fortunes of Sinn Féin had reached a plateau. In the North Sinn Féin consistently polled around 11 per cent – only around half the vote of the SDLP – but secured less than 2 per cent in elections in the Republic. Sinn Féin had entered the electoral arena in the early 1980s with the avowed intention of replacing the SDLP as the main voice of nationalists in Northern Ireland. However, the continuance of the armed struggle made this stated intention unrealistic. It was impossible to ‘take power in Ireland’ with ‘the ballot paper in one hand and the Armallite in the other’, as Sinn Féin’s Danny Morrison had advocated in 1981.7
Atrocities such as the Enniskillen bombing in 1987, when the IRA killed 11 people attending a Remembrance Day parade, prevented Sinn Féin appealing to a wider electoral base. Gerry Adams acknowledged the damage that Enniskillen did to such plans, claiming, ‘Our efforts to broaden our base have most certainly been upset in all the areas we have selected for expansion. This is particularly true for the South and internationally. Our plans for expansion have been dealt a body blow’.8
These events were seen as important in leading to a rethink within the republican movement. As one commentator argued ‘The evident contradiction in the “armallite and ballot box” strategy, together with the failure to displace the SDLP and political marginalisation in the Republic, had begun to generate debate within republicanism.’9
Given the secretive nature of the IRA it is difficult to know the extent of the divisions within the republican movement but there was undoubtedly a debate within republicanism regarding the role of violence and its impact upon republicanism’s political appeal. Whilst the IRA campaign of violence continued it was highly unlikely that the SDLP, Dublin, or mainstream Irish–America would openly cooperate with Sinn Féin. Although it is difficult to comprehensively state the reasons for, and nature of, the debate within republicanism most commentators agree that a debate was taking place. Recent work on the IRA has suggested several reasons why the republican movement was beginning to contemplate ending violence. These included: infiltration of the IRA by British intelligence sources at the highest levels, making it very difficult for the IRA to carry out operations; an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the impact that IRA activity had on electoral support for Sinn Féin; the increasing levels of loyalist violence against the Catholic community; the commitment of sections of the IRA leadership, notably Gerry Adams, to move the movement away from violence;10
a recognition that there was a military stalemate with the British; the chance of ending ‘political ghettoization’ if the violence ceased; and an increasing appreciation of unionism’s position.11
Whatever the accuracy of such analyses, by the early 1990s the two governments appear to have believed that this debate could herald a change of thought within republicanism regarding military activity and that the republican movement might be amenable to overtures designed to persuade them away from violence and towards exclusively political methods. How susceptible, and what the overtures should be, remained matters of dispute between the two governments.
London’s Changing Attitude Towards Republicans?
Closely linked to the debate within the republican movement is the issue of whether the early 1990s saw a change in the British government’s attitude towards the IRA and Sinn Féin. As early as 1989 Peter Brooke appeared to be making overtures towards Sinn Féin when he noted that the IRA could be contained but not defeated and spoke of the British government being ‘flexible and imaginative’ if the IRA were to end violence.12
Over the next few years both Brooke and his successor, Patrick Mayhew, were to make speeches designed to highlight the benefits that republicans could secure if the violence was ended. Even during the launching of the Brooke talks the Secretary of State repeated that in the event of a ceasefire Sinn Féin would be allowed to join the talks, stressing that there would then be a ‘totally new situation’.13
(Indeed the British side secretly kept republicans informed of the progress being made in the Brooke–Mayhew talks. According to John Chilcott this was part of the process to try and engage republicanism and to prevent misunderstandings. Chilcott acknowledges that the British also passed copies of key speeches to Sinn Féin, as ‘it was so important that they didn’t pick up wrong messages or fail to pick up the right ones’.14
) Peter Brooke made his most transparent overture on 9 November 1990 in the ‘Whitbread speech’. In a speech at the Whitbread Restaurant in London, Brooke repeated his assertion that republicans would be allowed to enter the talks after violence had ended. On this occasion Brooke went further and directly addressed the key raison d’eˆtre of IRA violence. Brooke stated:
The British Government has no selfish or strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain’s purpose. . .is not to occupy, oppress or exploit but to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice. Partition is an acknowledgement of reality, not an assertion of national self-interest.15
The traditional republican analysis of the British presence in Northern Ireland rested on British imperialistic self-interest. During his talks with Gerry Adams in 1988 John Hume had tried to convince Adams that the AIA showed the British were neutral towards Northern Ireland, and the real barrier to Irish unity was the opposition of Ulster unionists, not British imperialism. Hume was unsuccessful at that stage and Sinn Féin published Towards a Strategy for Peace, which expressly rejected Hume’s interpretation. According to the document, ‘Britain’s continuing involvement in Ireland is based on strategic, economic and political interests’.16
By directly addressing Sinn Féin’s analysis Brooke was attempting to remove the central tenet that justified the armed struggle. Perhaps unsurprisingly republicans did not accept British assertions of neutrality. Republicans argued that the stipulation that the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland was necessary for constitutional change meant the British still gave unionists a veto.17
Yet this willingness to address republican concerns openly can be seen as at least an indication that the British government were attempting to create conditions that could facilitate an inclusive approach.
As noted at the outset one of the central tenets of British policy has been that they do not talk to terrorists, yet this tenet is far from set in stone. Since the outbreak of The Troubles there have been periods of contacts between representatives of the British government and republicans, often taking place in secret, whilst publicly politicians stated they would not countenance talking to terrorists.18
The public overtures of the late 1980s and early 1990s were accompanied by renewed contacts between the government and republicans. According to ‘the British version’ contacts between the British government and the IRA were renewed with Peter Brooke’s agreement in 1990 because the existing British link to the republicans was about to retire. According to Brooke, ‘it was his retirement which occasioned the question of whether it should be reactivated’.19
The decision was taken to reopen the channel to introduce the new British government representative to the ‘contact’ who acted as the go-between for communication between the British and the IRA. The series of exchanges between the British government and the IRA continued intermittently between 1990 and 1993. However, Ed Moloney has recently revealed that an indirect link was opened between the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, and the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King, much earlier, perhaps as far back as 1986.20
Who instigated the exchanges in the more sustained period between 1990 and 1993, what the purpose of the exchanges were, and what the British were asking of the IRA in return for entry into the talks was to become a subject of dispute once the existence of the contact was revealed by The Observer in November 1993 (as well as causing widespread anger in Dublin as the Irish government had been unaware of the link).21
The exchanges did play a part in persuading some on the British side that there might be a possibility that the IRA were contemplating an end to violence and as such this possibility should be pursued.22 Yet it would be wrong to suggest that as a result of the exchanges the British decided to embrace inclusiveness and abandon exclusiveness. There was a caution on the British side over the bone fides of the apparent re-evaluation occurring within republicanism. This British caution was very important in shaping the development of the peace process and led to marked friction between the two governments by late 1993.
Dublin’s Changing Attitude Towards Republicans?
The British government was not the only one secretly talking to the IRA during this period. In May and June 1988 Haughey had authorised two meetings between Fianna Fàil’s main Northern strategist, Dr Martin Mansergh, accompanied by a Fianna Fàil backbencher, Dermot Ahern, and the Sinn Féin leadership. Haughey stopped the meetings as Sinn Féin had failed to persuade Mansergh and Dermot Ahern that they were seriously contemplating an end to violence.23 John Hume kept Dublin informed of his own contacts with the republicans and there was some movement towards the possibility of a joint declaration by the two governments as an attempt to persuade the IRA to abandon violence. Charles Haughey had told John Major at a summit 5 December 1991 that there was a mood for peace within the republican movement. Major, although sceptical, agreed to examine the possibility of working on a joint text. This initial work had to be abandoned in February 1992 when Haughey was ousted from office. Haughey’s successor, Albert Reynolds, was told of the exercise in a ‘one minute brief from Haughey’ and adopted the idea.24 Reynolds also authorised the re-opening of Mansergh’s contacts with Sinn Féin in 1992. Through the Mansergh–Sinn Féin dialogue, as well as the reports Dublin received of the Hume–Adams dialogue, the Reynolds government began to believe that there might be an increasing willingness within republicanism to abandon violence. Dublin began to formulate a strategy for the two governments to act in concert with the aim of enticing the IRA to move in this direction. By the early 1990s then some elements within republicanism were beginning to question the efficacy of violence, and this debate was having some influence upon British and Irish government thinking. Yet the British government in particular were cautious about the extent of this debate and whether it actually represented a possible change in direction for the IRA. Robin Butler notes the mixed reaction that the apparent suggestion from the IRA that they were contemplating an end to violence had on British government thinking.
Was this a trap? Was this a way of trying to draw us into direct contact with the IRA which they would then publicise and use it to try and embarrass the Government? On the other hand [there was] the recognition that this was a tremendous opportunity and if genuine then of course we did want to help the IRA to bring the armed conflict to an end and to [enter] proper political life.25
Whilst this apparent movement by republicans offered opportunities that needed to be pursued by intergovernmental cooperation other factors conspired to make such cooperation difficult.
The International Dimension
The role that international actors have played in shaping the peace process has been an area of increasing academic debate in recent times.26 Much of this debate has centred upon the role of the US and, particularly, the impact of the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton had a genuine interest in Northern Ireland and did give the issue a greater saliency than his predecessors,27 but there is little to suggest that either the British or Irish governments embraced inclusion as a result of this interest or, at a more general level, that their Northern Irish policy was determined by American pressure or considerations.28 The impact of American pressure on republicans has perhaps been more marked. The chance of increasing access to Washington in the event of a movement away from violence and the attempts to utilise Irish–American opinion to push the republican agenda were considerations for the IRA. The international dimension has played an important facilitating role in the peace process, and the desire to maintain the support of international actors and agencies has been a consideration for all sides. But the international dimension has rarely had a defining impact upon the Northern Ireland conflict, and explanations for the movement towards inclusion and the development of the peace process are more profitably sought at the ‘domestic’ rather than international level.
Factors Constraining Intergovernmental Movement Towards Inclusion
Although the factors identified above seemed to create the conditions necessary for the two governments to act in concert towards enticing the IRA away from violence and into the political process, other countervailing factors made it difficult for the two governments to move in this direction. Although as early as 1991 John Major had agreed to discuss with the Irish government the possibility of a joint declaration, designed in part to appeal to republicans, the negotiation of what became the Downing Street Declaration (DSD) was a particularly stressful period in intergovernmental relations. To explain why this was the case it is necessary to examine the factors that made it difficult for the British and Irish governments to agree a common position. Although in principle London and Dublin were willing to sign up to a joint declaration in the hope that it would persuade the IRA to abandon violence, the pressures on the two governments came from different directions, limiting their ability to find common ground. The two governments were hampered by unease within unionism, intra-governmental opposition, and as a result of the continuing intra-nationalist dialogue, the Hume–Adams talks.
One of the greatest constraints on the British side during the negotiation of the DSD was Ulster unionist opinion. Although, as was noted earlier, the AIA had changed the parameters of the debate within Northern Ireland and had been supported over unionist opposition, the British were not willing to repeat the experience. The 1985 agreement had been negotiated without any unionist input or consultation and the unionist reaction had shocked at least some on the British side, notably Margaret Thatcher. The British were determined that any subsequent intergovernmental initiative would not alienate mainstream unionism to the same extent. In order to redress the fears that the perceived existence of a ‘pan-nationalist’ front between the Irish government, SDLP, Sinn Féin and Washington caused for unionists, the British government ‘needed to sustain an image of a pan-unionist front’.29 To this end the Major government decided to consult the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), James Molyneaux, and show him drafts of the proposed joint declaration. This was not a decision that the British took lightly, as Robin Butler explained.
One of the most difficult decisions we had to make was at what point we brought in the unionists? John Major was always anxious that if he did it behind the unionists’ backs he was asking for trouble. If, however, he brought in the unionists there could have been an explosion, not a physical explosion, but a political explosion, and unionists could have said, ‘this is outrageous’ and published the whole thing and said they weren’t going to have anything to do with it; and of course that would have wrecked it. I think someone who should take tremendous credit from this is Jim Molyneaux. I remember the nervousness with which John Major told him, showed him the draft that we had got from Reynolds, and the ways in which we were seeking to amend it.30
The consultation with James Molyneaux was instrumental in leading to amendments in the draft declaration. Albert Reynolds had passed a proposed draft to the British in June 1993. The dialogue Hume had been having with Gerry Adams, as well as the contacts Mansergh had had with Sinn Féin, heavily influenced this draft.31 The draft had the British acknowledging their desire to see ‘the people of Ireland live together in unity and harmony’ and pledging to act as persuaders for unity.32 According to John Major the draft ‘was simply not a starter’; it was ‘a Nationalist manifesto, not a potential agreement’.33 The reaction of Molyneaux when he was shown the draft originally persuaded the British government to drop the whole idea of a joint declaration and Robin Butler was despatched to Dublin to tell Reynolds of the decision.
The position of Ulster unionists and particularly James Molyneaux’s UUP was further strengthened by arithmetic at Westminster. By mid 1993 John Major’s government was in a somewhat precarious position with its majority badly eroded due to a split within the Conservative Party over Europe. Major’s courting of the UUP support for a vote of confidence over the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty in July 1993 led many to speculate that a deal had been done between the two parties. Although both sides denied there had been a deal the incident further strained British–Irish relations and Albert Reynolds threatened to raise his concerns in the US and Europe if the Select Committee the unionists had long called for at Westminster was set up as a result of the issue.34
Although the desire of the British government to avoid alienating mainstream unionism and the numbers game at Westminster may have increased unionist influence over British policy formation, it did not, however, allow unionists to dictate the form of the joint declaration initiative. Molyneaux was able to secure a more balanced declaration – and it is highly unlikely that the original drafts would have been acceptable to the British even without the opposition of Molyneaux – but he was not able to dictate what the declaration said. The unionist leader was unhappy about the eventual inclusion of the ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ statement in the final document but was unable to persuade the British to remove the line.35
What is striking about the joint initiative idea is the way in which not only the British but also the Irish government were very keen to ensure that Ulster unionists would not be alienated by the outcome of the talks. It was not only London that wished to avoid the unionist backlash that the AIA had caused, Dublin was also keen to limit any likely unionist rejection of the joint declaration. The traditional view of the relationship between each government and the communities in Northern Ireland has been that the nationalists are the ‘clients’ of Dublin and the unionists the ‘clients’ of London. This is not to say that each community will follow commands from its sponsor government, but historically for cultural, historical and ideological reasons, nationalists have looked to Dublin to protect their interests and unionists to the British government.36 (Though the relationships have often been very strained and the unionist–British relationship was all but destroyed by the AIA.) Albert Reynolds felt the relationship that each government had with ‘their’ community in the North would be advantageous in the attempt to move to an inclusion-based policy. Reynolds argues that the negotiations were to a large extent underpinned by each government liasing closely with their respective northern constituency. Reynolds told Major,
You take responsibility for the unionists and the loyalists and I’ll take responsibility for the nationalists and the republicans’. John worked with James Molyneaux and he’d come back to me to see what adjustments could be made. By the same token Martin Mansergh got me all the inputs from the other side so I knew what was [needed so] we could strike the balance.37
The British often felt that the Irish had an unrealistic view of the British– unionist relationship. Robin Butler recalled, ‘Repeatedly they would say, “Look, just make an agreement with us, why do you need to worry about the unionists? Tell the unionists. You’re the Government”. Whether they really believed this I never knew’. There was also unease within British circles regarding the reliability of Albert Reynolds’s analysis of the situations. John Chilcott recalls,
with Haughey you knew exactly where you were, where he was coming from. . . .Because Reynolds didn’t have these profound roots and set of values and attitude it wasn’t clear how to interpret him or how much weight you could place on his judgement at any given tactical turn. . . .It was the first time I saw us asking the question to ourselves, ‘is that guy reading his side right?’38
The actions of the Irish government during the process do suggest that Dublin had a greater understanding of the constraints that unionist opposition placed on the British government’s negotiating position and so, ultimately, on the movement towards inclusion, than Reynolds’s comments indicated. The Irish sought to assuage unionist concerns regarding the joint declaration idea and the rationale of reaching out to republicans that underpinned it. After Robin Butler had informed Albert Reynolds of the British decision not to pursue the joint declaration initiative Reynolds asked the British to delay until he had consulted unionist opinion in the North. To this end the Reynolds government liased with the unionist community (and loyalist paramilitary groups) through two Protestant clergymen, Archbishop Robin Eames and Rev. Roy Magee. Reynolds recalls he asked Roy Magee to find out from loyalists ‘what they were fighting for, what they wanted protecting in any new movement and they gave me six principles. . . I didn’t change one word of them, I got John Major to agree and we put them in. So when the Downing Street Declaration came out they could identify with it’.39 The changes that the Irish made to the draft as a result of these consultations were instrumental in persuading the British to continue exploring the joint initiative idea.40
The difference between the AIA and DSD objectives to some extent explains the changed attitudes and heightened sensibilities of the two governments towards unionists’ concerns. The AIA had, in part, grown out of frustration with the unionists’ failure to reach an accommodation with nationalists and agree to a power-sharing devolved structure for the North.41 As a result the AIA was, at one level, designed to create a structure for better intergovernmental liaison on Northern Ireland in spite of events on the ground in Northern Ireland. The DSD, however, and the whole idea of inclusion, was based on the desire to entice the IRA away from violence (and ultimately the loyalist paramilitaries who had always claimed their violence was a reaction to the republican threat). This was, though, just the first step in the overall peace process ideal. The desire for peace, although an important end in itself, was to be followed by a wider settlement between all parties to the conflict. The hope was that peace would transform the situation in the North. If peace was to lead to a wider rapprochement within Northern Ireland it was obviously necessary to avoid alienating the largest community within the North, the unionists. This meant that both governments were aware of the need to keep unionism on board. As a result of the reappraisal that unionism had undertaken after the AIA the unionists were perhaps more wary about ignoring or rejecting intergovernmental overtures. Dermot Nally, the former Irish Cabinet Secretary, who was involved in all major British–Irish negotiations since the 1970s and was the official primarily responsible, along with Robin Butler, for the DSD negotiation, stresses the changes that the AIA had caused in unionist analysis.
The atmosphere was different. The unionists now understood that if they didn’t get involved the two governments were going to act anyway so they better get involved if they wanted to have an influence. There was that pressure on them all the time. The AIA had been drawn up over their heads and that hurt a lot. I think that feeling of hurt began to influence them to the point where they said ‘we’d better come into this in some way or another’, and hence their interest in the Downing Street Declaration. They would not have become involved at all in the negotiation of the AIA because that was at a different stage of their history. But because the AIA existed they felt they had to get involved in the work of the Downing Street Declaration.42
The other major reason, of course, that they did not get involved in the AIA negotiations was that they were deliberately excluded from them. The transformation in the situation by 1993 is remarkable with not only the unionists being more receptive to the intergovernmental overtures but the two governments being more aware of the need to make these overtures if their wider objectives were to be fulfilled.
Unease Within Governments
Disquiet regarding the initiative also came from sources much closer to the two prime ministers. Although the former Northern Ireland Office Minister, Richard Needham, has claimed that by 1990, ‘It was clear that we would have to open a dialogue with Sinn Féin. The time had come to draw them into the net’,43 such views were not universally held within the British government. Elements within John Major’s own cabinet were uneasy about the idea of constructing policy, at least in part, around what may be acceptable to republicans. Robin Butler acknowledged the need for Major to proceed cautiously as ‘there were elements in his cabinet and certainly in the party that were profoundly sceptical of all this, felt that it was a conspiracy to edge Britain into abandoning the unionists. They had to be reassured all the time’.44 When John Major decided to widen the circle of cabinet colleagues who knew of the secret contacts with the republican movement, many senior colleagues were apprehensive about the initiative. The Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, was unenthusiastic about the idea of holding talks with Sinn Féin in response to an unannounced ceasefire. Clarke admits he was ‘very cautious’. ‘I was deeply suspicious. . . I found myself spelling out what seemed to me the obvious very very high risk in this and that it was not something that John [Major] should embark upon.’45 Sinn Féin were told that Clarke had warned against taking ‘such a radical departure from their previously publicly successful anti-terrorist line’.46 Similarly there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm within some elements of the cabinet for the joint declaration initiative. The Irish side believed that the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was particularly sceptical.47
The British Prime Minister was not alone in facing disquiet from colleagues. Albert Reynolds was also taking a huge risk in pursuing a secret policy that involved officials meeting with Sinn Féin and seeking to engage republicanism whilst IRA violence continued. Reynolds was also potentially hindered by the fact that he was in a coalition government with the Labour Party. Like Major, Reynolds decided to keep knowledge of the inclusive initiative and the indirect links to Sinn Féin restricted to a very few people, one of whom was his coalition partner, Labour leader, Dick Spring. Spring’s chief advisor, Fergus Finlay, shows some of the disquiet felt at the initiative. Finlay notes after being told of the initiative to bring the republicans ‘in from the cold’:
I struggled with this concept for several days, as I think Dick [Spring] had struggled before me. It flew in the face of everything we had done and said and believed about Northern Ireland throughout my involvement in politics. For years we had argued about the need to marginalise the men of violence.
But Finlay became persuaded of the logic of the initiative on the basis that marginalisation had failed.48
Those close to Reynolds held similar reservations. Séaan Duignan and Bart Cronin (Head of the Government Information Service) were shocked when Reynolds told them of his plans in March 1993 regarding the joint declaration and contacting Sinn Féin. Duignan recalls: ‘It is difficult to pitch back now, when everyone’s shaking hands with these guys, how I actually had said to him “you could be destroyed”. You have no idea how untouchable these people were. They were terrorists’.49 Yet Duignan, like Finlay, became convinced of the logic. Reynolds was fully aware of the potential effect that such a shift in government policy could have if it became public knowledge and so strictly limited the circle of people who knew of the initiative both within his cabinet and his department. ‘My government knew. . .that I was engaged in some kind of discussions but it had to be held extremely tight. . . That’s why it was only myself and Dr. Martin Mansergh involved in my own department, nothing on the official files or records. That’s the way it was done.’50
Intra-Nationalist Dialogue: Hume–Adams Upping the Ante
The dialogue that John Hume had been conducting with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams during the early part of 1993 had been instrumental in establishing under what circumstances the IRA may be prepared to end their violence. Whilst this was advantageous to the peace process, once the discussion of the joint declaration idea was moved onto the intergovernmental stage the two governments saw the continuing Hume–Adams dialogue as unhelpful. From the British point of view the reason that the continuing dialogue, and more importantly the joint statements Hume and Adams were issuing, became problematic was linked to unionist unease. The British, even though they were themselves secretly in discussion with Sinn Féin, were very cautious about being seen discussing anything that could be linked to Gerry Adams. (As late as 1 November 1993 John Major told the House of Commons that an implication from Dennis Skinner ‘that we should sit down and talk with Mr Adams and the Provisional IRA. . . would turn my stomach and those of most honourable members; we will not do it’.51) On 24 September 1993 Hume and Adams issued a statement claiming to have concluded their discussions and announced they were passing on their findings to Dublin. Hume further increased the pressure on 22 October in the House of Commons. Hume claimed the dialogue he was having with Adams ‘has been the most hopeful sign of lasting peace that I have seen in 20 years’ and he urged the two governments to ‘hurry up and deal with it’.52
The Irish were at least as frustrated by Hume’s pronouncements as the British. The Irish government’s annoyance was increased as there seemed to be little that was new coming from the Hume–Adams dialogue and the announcement that they had made in September was not followed by a report of the dialogue arriving in Dublin.53 Séaan Duignan noted in his diary: ‘I have rarely seen the Taoiseach or Mansergh so upset’. The Irish felt that Hume was ‘disconcertingly upping the ante’.54 This unease within the Irish ranks was not just a result of the fear that the pronouncements of Hume–Adams would cause the British government to abandon the joint declaration initiative. At least part of the desire by Albert Reynolds to reduce John Hume’s input into the intergovernmental negotiations, and Hume’s unwillingness to be sidelined, was the result of both men having one eye on the role that would be attributed to them by future historians. Séaan Duignan frankly admits,
I think the Hume–Reynolds thing is basic personal jealousy. John Hume would see himself . . .as the man who started it all, with Adams. He took huge risks, he ran it and he wasn’t about to let Reynolds take the lion share of the credit. . . These guys were ankle-tapping one another on the way to Oslo for the [Nobel] peace-prize. It wasn’t pleasant to watch but that’s politics, that’s the way it works. . . they didn’t trust one another.55
The two governments made an effort to distance the initiative from Hume– Adams with a joint statement issued after a meeting in Brussels on 29 October. The statement noted that the two leaders ‘agreed that any initiative can only be taken by the two governments, and that here could be no question of their adopting or endorsing the report of the [Hume–Adams] dialogue’. The statement concluded ‘the two Governments must continue to work together in their own terms on a framework for peace, stability and reconciliation’.56 Although the public rebuke of John Hume caused Albert Reynolds problems at his party Ard Fheis [conference] the following week,57 its purpose was an attempt to distance the forthcoming joint declaration from Gerry Adams in order to placate Ulster unionists.
Re-evaluating the Downing Street Declaration
Despite the constraints discussed above the two governments did successfully negotiate a joint declaration and the DSD was signed on 15 December 1993. Neither government was confident that the declaration would necessarily be appealing enough to the IRA to persuade them to end violence and enter the political process. The Irish were concerned that the declaration had become too watered down during the negotiations to appeal to republicans and the British were still unsure how real the apparent consideration of an end to violence was within republicanism. Why then sign the declaration? Like many intergovernmental initiatives on Northern Ireland the reasons are multifaceted. Yet the factors analysed above did suggest that republicans were considering a change in tactics and that, although mainstream unionism would not warmly embrace the declaration, neither would it denounce it. It was an attempt to move the situation in Northern Ireland forward. It was not seen as a panacea by either government nor was either government completely happy with it, but it was acceptable to both. The intergovernmental negotiations had, as in the past, taken on a dynamic of their own, and during the process the two governments had become convinced of the rationale behind, and possibility of, shifting towards an inclusive approach. But it is important to appreciate the changes that the proposed declaration had undergone during the negotiations.
Although the joint declaration idea had undoubtedly been an Irish initiative, originating with John Hume and pressed by Albert Reynolds for most of 1993, the final document illustrates how far both governments had moved during the negotiating period. One of the problems with the existing literature on the negotiating of the DSD and the origin of the peace process is that it has a tendency to portray the movement from exclusion to inclusion as a victory for Irish negotiating skills, with the British dragged along reluctantly. In what remains the most informed and informative account of the process, Mallie and McKittrick assert ‘the Declaration was in effect the culmination of a line of documents which had an input not only from Dublin but also from Hume, the army council of the IRA, loyalist paramilitary groups and Protestant clergymen’.58 The glaring omission from this list is the British government. Yet a comparison between the various drafts that Mallie and McKittrick reproduced in their appendices and the final DSD suggest a far more balanced document than that originally proposed by the Irish government, John Hume, and Sinn Féin at various stages.
In the original draft sent to London the British government were to assert that ‘the Irish people have the right collectively to self-determination’, that they wished to see the people of Ireland live in ‘unity and harmony’, and pledge to ‘use all their influence and energy’ to secure agreement for this unity. By the time the DSD was finalised the right of Irish self-determination although acknowledged was to be exercised ‘on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South’. This meant that the unit of consent for a united Ireland had changed from being the island as a whole to two units within Ireland: Northern Ireland and the Republic. In the DSD the British stated their wish ‘to enable the people of Ireland to reach agreement on how they may live together in harmony and partnership’ rather than stating their desire to see them live in unity. Clearly many of the key elements that had made the original drafts an unacceptable ‘nationalist manifesto’ had been cleverly reworded and watered down during the negotiating process.
The Irish government’s commitments in the earlier drafts of the joint declaration are harder to ascertain as the appendices of Mallie and McKittrick’s work, in the main, only contain extracts that relate to the British government’s undertakings. However, in the full text of the original document drawn up by Sinn Féin in February 1992 the Irish government was to note that Irish unity would ‘be best achieved with the agreement and the consent of the people of Northern Ireland’.59 But the agreement of a majority in the North was not a stated prerequisite. This remained the Irish position in the draft sent by Dublin to London in June 1993.60 In the actual DSD the undertakings of the Irish government are far more explicit. The need for the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland to any change in Northern Ireland’s status is included five times. The Irish government acknowledged that ‘it would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland, in the absence of the freely given consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland’. The Irish also agreed to measures designed to address unionist fears and suspicions of the South. In the DSD Dublin undertook to review any aspect of Irish society that might be seen ‘as a real and substantial threat to [the unionist] way of life and ethos’ or could be seen as inconsistent with ‘a modern democratic and pluralist society’. The Irish also pledged to propose changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution [which laid claim to Northern Ireland] ‘in the event of an overall settlement’.
So the final DSD was a far more balanced document than that originally proposed. Yet its purpose was still primarily the movement to inclusion: to induce the IRA away from violence and into the political process. The balance that was put into the document during the negotiating process was to remove or dilute those elements that would risk alienating unionists to an unacceptable extent and counteract those that they would find unpalatable with undertakings by the Irish government designed to reassure them. The problem was that much that was unacceptable to the unionists was seen by the Irish as essential to ensure the IRA abandoned violence. The result of this is the somewhat tortuous DSD wording that tries to gloss over differences and be all things to all sides. The former British official, Sir David Goodall, who had been one of the key negotiators of the AIA, summed up this aspect of the DSD.
Goodall called the DSD ‘a tribute to [the British and Irish] officials who, by skilful drafting and an abundant use of coded language, have laid a veneer of unanimity over what are still divergent and in some respects directly conflicting interests. The result is a minor diplomatic masterpiece’.61 So the Irish people had a right of self-determination, but this could not be exercised by the Irish nation as a single unit; the British would be facilitators for peace, but not persuaders for unity; the British had no strategic selfish or economic interest in Ireland, but would uphold the union whilst that was the wish of the majority in the North.
By the end of 1993 with the signing of the DSD both the Irish and British governments had moved to accept the inclusive agenda. This acceptance was not undertaken without much soul-searching on the part of both states. This shift in policy was primarily the result of a growing belief in both London and Dublin that there was a movement within republicanism towards pursuing their objectives via the political rather than military route. It was this movement above all other factors that persuaded the Major and Reynolds governments to attempt to find a joint position that would encourage this debate within republicanism. This policy shift needs though to be kept in perspective. At a fundamental level it is necessary to acknowledge what the movement to inclusion was not. Although the shift did mark an important change in how the two states structured their Northern Ireland policy, in one way the inclusion policy and the declaration which underpinned it was an important reiteration of an even more fundamental aspect of policy: the principle of consent. The move towards inclusion was facilitated by the changes that were apparent in republican thinking and tactics. The British and Irish governments responded with a degree of pragmatism to these changes. But such pragmatism had its limits, and for the British the limit was, as has been shown, any suggestion of abandoning the consent principle and becoming persuaders for unity. To this end although inclusion represented an important tactical shift by the two governments, it can also be seen as being consistent with previous policy. Viewed in this light the shift by London and Dublin in trying to entice republicans into the political process rather than seeking to insulate the process from republicans can be seen as a ‘tactical adjustment’ rather than a complete break with past policy.62
Yet the desire for peace was not, on its own, enough to ensure that the pillar of inclusion rather than exclusion underpinned intergovernmental policy. As has been shown London and Dublin faced pressures from other quarters to continue with an exclusion-based policy. Both governments faced constraints caused by suspicion of those within Northern Ireland, their own governments and the wider public. Also at times the caution of the British government led to frustration within the Dublin government, while the apparent haste of Dublin to tailor policy towards reassuring republicanism deeply concerned many in the British government. That the two governments were able to overcome these constraints and formulate a common stance designed to persuade republicans to abandon violence, whilst not completely alienating mainstream unionism, was no mean achievement. The DSD was not, nor was it designed to be, a solution to the Northern Ireland question. What it was was the institutionalising of a new stage of intergovernmental cooperation based upon inclusion rather than exclusion. Its origins are complex and contradictory. It owes its existence in part to the exclusion-based intergovernmental initiative of the AIA, which had a marked affect on unionism; the failure of the exclusion-based inter-party talks of 1991–92; the re-evaluation of tactics and outlook within republicanism; the risk-taking of key personnel in both governments and by leaders within Northern Ireland. The movement to inclusion as a basis for intergovernmental policy formulation enshrined in the DSD had a marked influence on the politics of Northern Ireland. It did not though herald the arrival of complete agreement and harmony in intergovernmental cooperation on Northern Ireland. Disputes and recrimination were still frequent between London and Dublin post-1993.
The DSD was an important event in the unfolding Northern Irish peace process. Yet it is important not to overstate the significance of intergovernmental cooperation or the ability of London and Dublin to ‘solve’ the Northern Ireland conflict. Given the focus of this article much has been made of the outcome of intergovernmental cooperation and the attempts to shift to a policy of inclusion. Yet the two states were, of course, to a large extent reacting to events on the ground in Northern Ireland. Intergovernmental cooperation can encourage, facilitate and to some extent shape the actions of the two communities within Northern Ireland, but it cannot dictate them. The British and Irish government are not omniscient; they are not the orchestrators of some Machiavellian master plan. Their influence can and has been important but like all the other participants in the conflict they can only work within the parameters set by what is possible. The DSD was an example of the value of intergovernmental cooperation and its ability to set the agenda, but not determine the outcome, of events in Northern Ireland.
The author would like to thank Christopher Norton, Paul Dixon and Peter Anthony for comments on an earlier draft of this article.
1. The Independent, 11 Sept. 1993.
2. John Major, The Autobiography (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p.439.
3. Sir John Chilcott, interview with the author, 20 Mar. 2001.
4. John Major, Autobiography, p.433.
5. Lord Butler of Brockwell, interview with the author, 9 Nov. 2000.
6. Séan Duignan, interview with the author, 25 May 2000.
7. Bew and Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles 1968–1999 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1999), p.157.
8. Sharrock and Davenport, Man of War, Man of Peace? (London: Macmillan, 1997), p.256.
9. Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion (London: Serif, 1997), p.218.
10. Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London: Penguin, 2002)
11. Richard English, Armed Struggle. A History of the IRA (London: Macmillan, 2003) pp.307–12.
12. Bew and Gillespie, Northern Ireland, p.227
13. The Times, 5 Feb. 1990.
14. Sir John Chilcott, interview.
15. Peter Taylor, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998), p.318.
16. Quoted in E. Mallie and D. McKittrick, The Fight For Peace (London: Macmillan, 1996), p.83.
17. Henry Patterson, Politics of Illusion, p.226.
18. See, for example, Paul Dixon, ‘British Policy towards Northern Ireland 1969–2000’,
The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 3/3 (2001) pp.340–68.
19. Peter Brooke, interview with the author, 21 Aug. 2000.
20. Ed Moloney, Secret History, p.247.
21. The Observer, 28 Nov. 1993. The differences between the two accounts led Sinn Féin to publish Setting the Record Straight (Dublin 1993), which contains what they claim is all the correspondence between the two sides. For an analysis of how Sinn Féin’s and the British versions differ see The Independent, 5 Dec. 1993. Also see John Major, Autobiography, pp.446–7.
22. Lord Butler, interview with the author.
23. Mallie and McKittrick, Fight for Peace, pp.86–90.
24. Albert Reynolds, interview with the author, 26 May 2000.
25. Lord Butler interview. Lord Butler was referring to the statement John Major claims to have received from the IRA in February 1993 stating: ‘The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close’ (John Major, Autobiography, p.431). Sinn Féin claim that such a statement was never sent (Setting the Record Straight, p.7). Leaving this aside, Lord Butler’s comments do suggest the problems that the British saw in entering into dialogue with the republican movement.
26. See, for example, the collected chapters in M. Cox, A. Guelke and F. Stephen (eds), A Farewell to Arms? (Manchester: MUP 2000).
27. See Conor O’Clery, The Greening of the White House (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1997).
28. For a fuller discussion of the impact of the international dimension see Eamonn O’Kane, ‘The Republic of Ireland’s policy towards Northern Ireland: The International Dimension as a Policy Tool’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 13 (2002), pp.121–33.
29. Paul Dixon, ‘Political Skills or Lying and Manipulation? The Choreography of the Northern Ireland Peace Process’, Political Studies, 50/4 (2002), p.731.
30. Lord Butler, interview.
31. For an account of the evolution of the draft see Fergus Finlay, Snakes and Ladders (Dublin: New Island Books, 1998), pp.188–90; Martin Mansergh, ‘The Background to the Peace Process’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 6 (1995); and Mallie and McKittrick, Fight for Peace, Ch.9.
32. Reproduced as an appendix in Mallie and McKittrick, p.380.
33. John Major, Autobiography, p.449.
34. The Independent, 30 July 1993. (A select committee was eventually set up after the DSD was signed in December 1993, The Guardian, 17 Dec. 1993.)
35. Lord Butler, interview.
36. For an interesting discussion of the relationship between the two communities and their respective governments see F. Cochrane, ‘Any Takers? The isolation of Northern Ireland’, Political Studies, 42 (Sept. 1994) and the exchange on the issue between Cochrane and Paul Dixon, Political Studies, 43 (Sept. 1995).
37. Albert Reynolds, interview.
38. Chilcott does though, like many of the interviewees, cite Reynolds’s lack of ideological baggage and willingness to make a deal as an important factor in advancing the process. Sir John Chilcott, interview.
39. Albert Reynolds, interview.
40. Albert Reynolds and Lord Butler, interviews.
41. David Goodall, ‘The Irish Question’, Ampleforth Journal, 97 (1993).
42. Dermot Nally, interview with the author, 2 Nov. 2000.
43. Richard Needham, Battling for Peace (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1998), p.207.
44. Lord Butler, interview.
45. End game in Ireland, BBC Television, screened 1 Jul. 2001.
46. Sinn Féin, Setting the Record Straight, p.35.
47. Séan Duignan and Albert Reynolds interviews.
48. Fergus Finlay, Snakes and Ladders, pp.184–6.
49. Séan Duignan, interview.
50. Albert Reynolds, interview.
51. House of Commons, Debates, vol. 231, col.35, 1 Nov. 1993
52. House of Commons Debates, vol. 230, col. 530, 22 Oct. 1993.
53. Séan Duignan, Dermot Nally and Albert Reynolds, interviews.
54. Séan Duignan, One Spin on the Merry-go-Round (Dublin: Blackwater Press, 1995), p.104.
55. Séan Duignan, interview.
56. The Independent, 30 Oct. 1993.
57. Irish Times, 5 Nov. 1993.
58. Mallie and McKittrick, Fight for Peace, p.271.
59. Mallie and McKittrick, ibid., p.374.
60. John Major, Autobiography, p.449.
61. David Goodall, ‘Terrorists on the Spot’, The Tablet, 25 Dec. 1993/1 Jan. 1994.
62. For a discussion of the continuity/discontinuity debate see Paul Dixon, ‘British Policy Towards Northern Ireland, 1969–2000’ British Journal of Politics and International Relations 3/3 (2001).
Source: University of Vienna