Was it Washington that won peace in Ulster?: How London was sidelined in the final Irish-American push that led to the IRA ceasefire

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THE IRA has always had a flair for the unexpected. When the ceasefire announcement came last Wednesday - on a typewritten piece of paper so small that it looked, according to one Irish diplomat, 'as if it had been smuggled out of Long Kesh in a cigarette box' - the world rubbed its eyes in disbelief.

As Gerry Adams put it, nobody could have imagined such an IRA statement a year ago, a month ago, perhaps even a week ago. Many people - following the visit of an Irish-American delegation two weeks ago - had expected some kind of initiative, but probably a temporary, highly conditional ceasefire. In the end, as Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, insisted, it came as near to a permanent cessation of violence as anybody could reasonably hope.

British ministers were as surprised as anyone else. As recently as July, after a Sinn Fein conference in Letterkenny had seemed to reject hopes for peace, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was telling colleagues that there was not a chance of a ceasefire in the near future. Just seven days before the ceasefire announcement, Michael Ancram, the minister of state, was saying privately that rumours of an impending breakthrough could be just another IRA gimmick.

That was because London had, by then, virtually lost control of the peace process. In the final stages, Washington and Dublin were making all the running. It was not, as far as British ministers were concerned, meant to end this way. Sinn Fein made a clean sweep of the world's front pages, with American politicians heaping praise on Mr Adams for his 'courageous role' in bringing the IRA to peace. London seemed to be left on the sidelines, quibbling over words, while Mr Adams was gearing up for a meeting, later this month, with senior figures in the Clinton administration.

Inevitably, politicians are now falling over themselves to take credit. President Clinton, after his many foreign policy setbacks, was delighted at the prospect of playing a role in a new peace deal, perhaps culminating in another ceremony on the White House lawn. A jubilant Mr Reynolds seized the opportunity to postpone a debate on a politically threatening scandal in the Irish beef industry. The British government, which has to soothe Ulster Unionists, is understandably more cautious; it is not sure it wants to claim credit when many are sniffing a sell- out. For these and other reasons, the full truth about how the IRA was persuaded to lay down its arms - and who deserves most credit - may not be known for many years. But the broad outlines are clear.

AT THE time, Peter Brooke got a lambasting in the press and the soubriquet 'babbling Brooke'. It was 1989 and the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had given what seemed an indiscreet interview, only 100 days after taking office. Five years on, it reads unerringly well.

It was, he said, difficult 'to envisage a military defeat of the IRA', and the precondition for peace was 'a decision on the part of the terrorists that the game had ceased to be worth the candle'. Would Mr Brooke ever consider talking to the likes of Gerry Adams?

The minister replied: 'Let me remind you of the move towards independence in Cyprus and that a British minister stood up in the House of Commons and used the word 'never' in a way which, within two years, there had been a retreat from that word.'

Ministers were to use the word 'never' many times in the following years. But it was already dawning on them that there was potential for movement in the frozen wastes of Irish politics. Mr Brooke quoted the Duke of Wellington's principle that the important thing was to work out 'what was happening on the other side of the hill' - in the inner councils of the IRA.

Ministers noted an interview in which Martin McGuinness described the armed struggle as one which was very difficult to disengage from. Why was that being said if a debate was not going on?

Republicanism was evolving. The development of Sinn Fein, after its emergence as a party in the early 1980s, injected the culture of debate into the militarism of the IRA. There were signs of growing attempts to find a place in its ideology for northern Protestants - once dismissed as 'pseudo-Brits'. The party produced complex pamphlets about the road to peace. This was a seam tapped by John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, in the first of his dialogues with Gerry Adams in 1988.

Mr Brooke again provoked criticism when, in a speech to businessmen in November 1990, he argued that the British government 'has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland' - the exact words used by John Major and Albert Reynolds three years later in the Downing Street Declaration. A few months later, Mr Adams told Sinn Fein's annual conference in Dublin's Mansion House that he was 'prepared to take political risks'.

Were there contacts, at this point, between the IRA and the British government? Yes, although the details will probably take years to emerge. What is known is that two Roman Catholic Redemptorist priests, Father Alex Reid and Father Gerry Reynolds, hosted meetings between British and Irish officials and representatives of the IRA at the Clonard Monastery in Belfast, although the times and dates - as well as their importance - is difficult to judge.

A former British intelligence officer is also said to have conveyed messages to the IRA. Within the prison system, where IRA prisoners organise themselves like PoWs, there was also a well-organised channel of communication.

By the beginning of 1993, these contacts had blossomed into a lengthy and formal exchange of messages. According to the British government, on 22 February 1993, a message was received from the leadership of the Provisional Movement which began with the phrase: 'The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.' The Provisionals denied sending such a message but had already said that negotiations had been taking place. But by the summer of 1993 they seemed to have run out of steam.

Then Mr Hume announced that, in secret talks, he had reached agreement with Mr Adams on the principle of national self-determination.

Quite how well briefed London and Dublin were about these talks remains a mystery. One source close to the SDLP says that both sides were kept abreast and that Mr Hume regularly briefed Mr Major himself. A Northern Ireland Office source said: 'The Irish government were well-briefed but we were kept in the dark. We were all taken very much by surprise by Hume/Adams.'

In September 1993 Mr Hume indicated that agreement had been reached with Mr Adams and presented a document (which has still not been published) to the Irish government. In Dublin the initiative was rejected by Dick Spring, the Foreign Minister, and Mr Reynolds. But popular support for Mr Hume was eventually crucial in forcing both Dublin and London to find their own formula for achieving peace. Neither had any interest in allowing two Northern Ireland nationalist politicians to make all the running.

A second development raised the stakes for the would- be peace-makers. In October, 10 people died from a bomb in a fish shop on the Shankill Road where loyalists had an upstairs office. At first, the atrocity seemed to have scuppered Hume-Adams. But, within days, seven people had died in a revenge attack at the Rising Sun pub in Greysteel. By the end of October - only five days after rejecting the notion of concessions to the IRA as 'outrageous' - Mr Major was saying that 'new doors could open' if the violence stopped. On 29 October, Mr Major and Mr Reynolds met in Brussels and agreed formally to open a joint peace initiative. There is no doubt that Hume-Adams formed the basis of the negotiations: it was, according to Dublin sources, 'subsumed'. But, on British insistence, neither government would refer to the parentage of what became the Downing Street Declaration.

The road to the declaration was a rocky one. Relations between the two governments had been on an upward trajectory since Margaret Thatcher's Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. According to one source, they had learned to work together, 'to overcome British superiority and Irish pricklinesss'.

It also helped that the British Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, got on well with the Taoiseach's closest adviser, Martin Mansergh, once he discovered that he had been educated at King's School Canterbury and Christ Church, Oxford, and that he had an English accent.

But there were spectacular rows. The revelation in November that Britain had been talking to the IRA provoked fury in Dublin, which had been on the receiving end of lectures from London about staying away from Hume/Adams. But the declaration was duly launched in Downing Street on 15 December.

It offered Sinn Fein the prospect of exploratory talks within three months of a cessation of violence. It also affirmed that, in principle, the British government had no objection to Irish unification; but insisted that the people of northern Ireland, voting separately, had the right to determine their own destiny - the so-called Unionist veto.

The declaration's importance is difficult to overstate. Because of its wide acceptance on both sides of the Irish Sea and of the Atlantic, a stubborn Sinn Fein risked isolation. That Fianna Fail, historically 'the Republican Party', had come to accept a document like the joint declaration, illustrated that Sinn Fein had nowhere in Irish democratic politics to go for support. Nor, in Britain, was there any prospect of exploiting party differences. The 'troops out' element of the Labour Party had dwindled to nothing.

Yet Sinn Fein and the IRA seemed determined to stall. It was at this stage that the American dimension came into play. United States involvement was to give the final push to a ceasefire, but it was also to deprive the British government of much of the political kudos it might have expected.

FOR 150 YEARS, the Irish nationalist lobby in the United States has tried to enlist official Washington to its cause. But it has nearly always found itself on the losing side of the argument. Despite much anti-British feeling in America, the cause of Irish self-determination has carried little weight. Even when the Tammany Hall Irish immigrants had an armlock over the Democratic Party machine, America always sided with Britain on Irish affairs.

During the Clinton election campaign, however, two Irish- Americans - Niall O'Dowd, a journalist living in New York, and Bruce Morrison, a former Congressman - founded Irish Americans for Clinton and Gore. Their aim was to get Clinton elected and to persuade him to take a more direct interest in Northern Ireland.

They organised a political forum at the Hilton Hotel in New York at a time when Mr Clinton was facing a vital primary in the city. The aspiring President told the forum that, if elected, he would grant Mr Adams a visa and appoint a special peace envoy for Northern Ireland. His remarks stunned British diplomats.

According to some accounts, it persuaded the Conservatives to encourage their officials to provide detailed advice for the Bush re-election campaign, and possibly to search Home Office files in the hope of discovering that Mr Clinton had once applied for British citizenship to dodge the Vietnam war draft. That, in turn, increased Mr Clinton's determination to grant the Adams visa.

Nevertheless, once he got into the White House, Clinton backed away, under pressure from the FBI and the State Department, from giving Adams a visa. After several fruitless attempts to change his mind, the frustrated Irish-Americans travelled to Belfast in September 1993.

Simultaneously, and by prior arrangement, the IRA kept a seven-day unannounced ceasefire, intended as a signal of good faith to the White House. The American President remained unmoved, saying in November that 'credible evidence exists that Adams remains involved in terrorism'.

Back in Manhattan, Mr O'Dowd, with Bill Flynn, a businessman, tried another approach. After a meeting at a pizza restaurant with a man described as Sinn Fein's eyes and ears in the US, it was agreed that all Northern Irish political leaders, including Mr Adams, should be invited to a conference at the Waldorf Astoria on 1 February 1994. John Hume persuaded Senator Edward Kennedy to add his backing. Mr Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy-Smith, the American Ambassador to Dublin, also played an important role, as she was to do again last month in making the last vital steps to convince the IRA of the need for a ceasefire.

At last, and despite opposition from the British Embassy and the State Department, Mr Clinton granted the visa. The visit, one Irish official said, was crucial in enabling Mr Adams 'to see the glittering prospects of being involved in constitutional politics'. But, he added, 'it was made equally clear that if he didn't play ball he would not be coming back a second time'.

At first, it looked as if the visit had been a failure. Mr Adams's speech at the Waldorf conference was a disappointment: he equivocated on violence. At a St Patrick's Day party in the White House in March, Tony Lake, head of the National Security Council (which advises the President on foreign policy matters and had supported the Adams visit) grilled the Irish-Americans on whether Mr Clinton was being 'jerked around' by Mr Adams.

Mr Lake was convinced the IRA was serious; but he later wrote to Mr Adams, hinting strongly that, now that the Sinn Fein leader had had the glory of his New York visit, it was time for him to deliver on his part of the bargain.

On the other side of the Atlantic, too, peace prospects seemed to recede, and even the Dublin-London axis looked under strain. When Sinn Fein requested 'clarification' of the Downing Street Declaration, the British government agreed to give answers only after persuasion from Dublin. The British wanted to press ahead with constitutional talks without waiting on Sinn Fein; the Irish insisted on giving the peace process time.

The American administration attempted to widen its influence. James Molyneaux was invited to Washington and met the Vice-President. Even Ian Paisley was welcomed. Significantly, Mr Molyneaux last week received assurances that there was no American inspired sell- out both from officials in Washington and the Ambassdor to London, Admiral William Crowe. The message from both was that the United States is not pressurising Britain into accepting the Sinn Fein agenda.

Throughout this year, it seems, a fierce debate about the merits of a ceasefire, and the terms on which it should be announced, has been going on within the IRA. What, the hardliners wanted to know, had been gained? The Unionist right to self-determination remained. What if they determined a return to Stormont and all the abuses of 25 years ago? It was here that the transatlantic dimension came in: the Americans would see to it, said Dublin's intermediaries, that the outcome was a just one.

For months, some IRA leaders, notably in Tyrone and Armagh, remained sceptical. But, for those with eyes to see, Sinn Fein was clearly changing. At public conferences in the Republic, the clothes spoke volumes. Gone were the worn tweed jackets, leather jackets and big boots of the Armalite days. Instead, there was power dressing: Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams in crisp new dark suits and shirts. Pat Doherty appeared in neat lavender button-down shirts. The efficient general secretary, Lucilita Bhreatnach, had padded shoulders under a neat jacket and long dress, while women's department head Mairead Keane sported an elegant cotton two-piece suit.

By July, Dublin was receiving private indications that a ceasefire was in the offing, but only a temporary one, probably three months. Reynolds made it clear, before Sinn Fein's annual conference in Letterkenny, that this would make it impossible to talk - 'it would look like we were dealing with madmen'.

The Letterkenny conference looked like a setback - motions, passed unanimously, criticised parts of the declaration as 'negative and contradictory'. But Mr Reynolds remained hopeful. The conference had also voted for a 'democratic settlement', republican shorthand for a cessation of violence. The day after the conference, Mr Adams briefed those journalists still in Letterkenny. His tone was softer than it seemed in the public sessions. Later, over coffee, a senior republican and ex-prisoner advised: 'Don't be surprised by anything the IRA might do in the next few weeks.'

It was already apparent that the Irish-Americans were becoming impatient.

After Letterkenny, according to one source, 'it was put to the IRA that they needed to straighten out their language and declare that they were abandoning violence if they were to enjoy our active support for much longer'. Mr Morrison returned to Northern Ireland in mid-August, leading a new delegation of Irish-American businessmen, and making it clear that, although he was not an official envoy, he would report back to his old friend Bill Clinton.

This, he implied, was the IRA's last chance; Dublin had also indicated that time was running out - September, Mr Reynolds told the Sinn Fein leadership, was the cut-off for involvement in talks to be guided by the two 'framework documents' being produced by London and Dublin.

A US visa for the IRA veteran Joe Cahill proved crucial. Again, the British had objected but Mr Clinton said he would agree, provided his mission was to explain to IRA supporters in America why the organisation was abandoning the gun in favour of politics. He could hardly do that, the Americans pointed out, if the IRA was still committed to violence.

So the carrot and the stick got the IRA on the road to the negotiating table. For any British government, the prospect of peace in Ireland must be the supreme political prize. Yet, last week, the jubilation was in Dublin and Washington. Theirs was the glory; it remains for British politicians to face the hard political graft needed to achieve a lasting settlement.

THE nationalist community is looking for swift change, for concessions that meet the scale of the IRA's gesture. There is a valid comparison, as one observer noted, with South Africa, after Nelson Mandela's election victory. 'There, the blacks are frustrated because the ANC cannot deliver for three, maybe seven years. It will be pretty similar here. They think they will get results immediately, but they will not.'

In the short term, the nationalists want action on three fronts. First, they want the police and the Army to keep a lower profile in Republican areas, with fewer checkpoints and fewer house searches. This is probably the point on which they are most likely to get their way - though ministers say they will leave it to commanders on the ground, the logic of a cessation of violence is that there will be less need for security. But Mr Adams is unlikely to get any response to his call for the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Second, nationalists want some concessions on the treatment of what they regard as 'political prisoners'. Again there may be some movement - there is already a programme of moving convicted terrorists from the mainland to Ulster which is being gently encouraged from Washington - but the Government will certainly hold out against an amnesty. Third, the nationalists want the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein lifted, as it was in the Republic earlier this year. This would, in any event, have to be scrapped if the party enters the political process in three months' time.

The Government may look to the IRA to hand in its weapons. It is unlikely to do so. The Provisionals emerged in 1970 because the Official IRA was engaged in a ceasefire and was stripping its units of their guns. If they were to follow the same course it could lead to another Republican split. But, equally, the Loyalist paramilitaries will not hand in their weapons while the IRA is still armed.

The real test will come if and when Sinn Fein enters constitutional talks. According to opinion at Westminster, 'preliminary discussions' will begin no later than mid-November.

Once Sinn Fein joins the talks, only Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists will remain outside them, and the pressure on that party to join in will be intense. 'No one party is going to be allowed to hold the whole thing up,' said a Northern Ireland Office source.

'Certainly the DUP would not have a veto.'

The chasm remains, however. Sinn Fein's goal is for a united Ireland; even the moderate Unionists would oppose anything more than joint north- south authorities on such matters as tourism and transport. It took the political ingenuity of three governments to get an IRA ceasefire; it will take far more ingenuity to conjure a lasting settlement.

(Photographs omitted)