Irish Peace Talks: Four-year switchback of elation and despair

David McKittrick tracks the road that led to yesterday's cliffhanger
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The Independent Online
THE last four years in Northern Ireland have been an extraordinary roller-coaster ride with peaks and troughs of progress and setbacks, of violence and politics, of sporadic despair and enduring hope.

The peace process which eventually brought about the first IRA ceasefire of August 1994 was perhaps the time of maximum hope, holding as it did the promise that the Troubles had finally entered their endgame - a hope strengthened when loyalist groups reciprocated a few months later.

But 1995 proved to be a year of activity rather than progress, as political wrangling slowed down the pace. Unionists were against entering talks with Sinn Fein, and John Major, as Prime Minister, was unwilling or unable to propel everyone to the conference table.

By February 1996, the IRA lost patience and, accusing the Government of bad faith, broke its ceasefire with the London Docklands bomb.

What followed, however, was not a return to a full-scale IRA campaign but rather what one republican called "strictly modulated military activity" - a lower level of violence which seemed aimed at marking time until the next general election.

In the meantime, community relations were poisoned by Drumcree 96, when loyalists successfully protested against police attempts to prevent an Orange march through a Catholic area. The deep aftershocks resulted in a new radicalisation of the nationalist community, which in turn led to a record Sinn Fein vote in the 1997 general election.

After its victory, Labour hit the ground running with Tony Blair announcing within weeks that his officials were reopening contact with Sinn Fein. It quickly emerged that the Government was dropping Mr Major's insistence that the IRA had to surrender weapons before Sinn Fein would be allowed at the talks table.

Drumcree 97 was another polarising experience, but within weeks the IRA took almost everyone by surprise by calling a second ceasefire. In the light of this, party representatives agreed to join the Stormont talks in September, leading to a simultaneous walkout by the Democratic Unionist leader, the Rev Ian Paisley.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, after much hesitation, stayed on. Though they at first announced that they were going into the talks to "confront" Sinn Fein, the Unionists instead applied the politics of the cold shoulder, which meant sitting in the same room but refusing to speak to them.

The talks moved on at a snail's pace, hampered by a lack of momentum on the inside and buffeted by bouts of violence from the outside. December of last year, and January of this, brought a security crisis which threatened to draw the major paramilitary groups back into major violence.

In the event, all of them indulged in violence. The penalty turned out, however, to be not permanent expulsion from the talks but temporary exclusion for a matter of weeks - with both the Ulster Democratic Party and Sinn Fein being consigned to the sidelines for a time.

On the outside, meanwhile, loyalist and republican groups opposed to the peace process did all they could to disrupt the talks with shootings, bombings and mortar attacks. But although the political vibrations were felt within the talks they did not derail the enterprise.

Several position papers brought forward by the British and Irish governments during the spring helped focus minds on the likely structure of new arrangements, though at that stage none of the parties was in the business of making concessions.

Negotiations continued not only at Stormont but also in London and Dublin, with Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern holding frequent meetings with the party leaders. Earlier this month, the two governments engaged in an intense period of negotiation, each acting as spokesmen by proxy for some of the parties in the talks.

Although they appeared to emerge from this with a common understanding, the parties themselves remained far apart. Then came the detailed working paper produced, after some delay, by the talks chairman George Mitchell. This was a 65-page document which encapsulated London-Dublin thinking and revealed the arrangements they favoured.

It provided the framework for the hectic burst of negotiation of the past few days. The political impetus came from the impending deadline and from the arrival in Belfast of the two prime ministers.

Working on the theory that the parties would only budge from their favoured positions under the twin constraints of time and political pressures, this created the hothouse atmosphere designed to produce a last-minute agreement.