Major pulled back from Irish peace

PM was initially hostile to Dublin moves
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John Major repeatedly attempted to persuade the Irish government to abandon the peace initiative which led to the Downing Street declaration of 1993 and the following year's IRA ceasefire.

Confidential letters show the Prime Minister simply did not believe the Irish government's argument that the historic declaration would lead to a cessation of IRA violence. It also reveals the IRA and Sinn Fein played a significant role in writing the early drafts of the declaration.

The evidence undermines the conventional view in Britain that the Downing Street declaration, and the August 1994 IRA cessation, were the direct result of Mr Major's determined efforts. On the contrary, the material shows the Prime Minister opposed the thrust of the initiative and moved only with great reluctance.

It indicates Mr Major signed the declaration only after the most intense and sustained diplomatic and public pressure from the then Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and the SDLP leader, John Hume.

The research shows how the IRA and Sinn Fein had direct input into early drafts of the declaration, with Sinn Fein writing several drafts and passing them on at secret meetings with an Irish government representative.

The new material is presented in a book, The Fight for Peace, published yesterday, and in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme to be broadcast tonight.

It includes the text of highly confidential private letters between Mr Major and Mr Reynolds during the Anglo-Irish negotiations which led to the emergence of the Downing Street declaration in December 1993. Mr Reynolds sent a draft declaration to Mr Major, writing in a personal note: "It has the backing, so far as we can ascertain through our intermediaries, of those who can produce peace. There are risks, but peace is within our reach if we play our cards right."

Mr Major, however, after consulting the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the intelligence agencies, concluded the initiative stood no chance of producing an IRA cessation of violence. Sir Patrick favoured seeking an agreement through inter-party talks with the constitutional parties, to the exclusion of Sinn Fein.

In personal letters to Mr Reynolds, Mr Major argued: "There is clearly no hope of securing even tacit acceptance by the Unionist mainstream of a joint declaration along the lines of your draft." He added: "After giving it very careful consideration, with all the intelligence at our disposal, we have very reluctantly concluded that it will not run at the present time."

Mr Major subsequently changed his mind, after intense pressure following the eruption of widespread violence in Northern Ireland in late 1993.

The material shows the path to the Downing Street declaration began two years before it was signed, when Mr Hume wrote a first draft of the document. The book gives the text of 11 drafts which were circulated within a group that included Mr Hume, Mr Reynolds, Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, and the army council of the IRA.

The last of these drafts was passed on to Mr Major by Mr Reynolds in June 1993. The British and Irish governments later negotiated at least 15 further drafts before the final declaration was agreed.

The revelations follow the disclosure last weekend that the Government's secret contacts with the IRA and Sinn Fein were set in motion as early as 1990 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke.

Mr Brooke is known to have opened the contacts following a recommendation by John Deverell, a senior MI5 officer who was later killed in a helicopter crash.

Timetable to talks

1990: Peter Brooke at the Northern Ireland Office sanctions secret contacts with Sinn Fein and IRA.

1991: John Hume of the SDLP writes first draft of Downing Street declaration.

June 1993: Albert Reynolds sends 11th draft of declaration to Major.

October / November 1993: Major rejects draft; 10 die in IRA bombing on the Shankill; 8 die in loyalist gun attack on pub at Greysteel; London-IRA contacts end.

December 1993: Major accepts declaration.

August 1994: IRA announces cessation of violence.

Spring 1995: Contacts with IRA resume.

February 1996: Docklands bombing ends IRA ceasefire