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Northern Ireland peace process

When discussing Northern Irish history, the Peace Process is generally considered to cover the events leading up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the end of most of the violence of The Troubles, the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement, and subsequent political developments.



Towards a Ceasefire

1993 saw the Hume-Adams talks between John Hume of the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin (SF), the party associated with the Provisional IRA. These talks led to a series of joint statements on how violence might be brought to an end.

In November it was revealed that the British authorities had also been in talks with the IRA, although they had long denied it.

On Wednesday 15 December 1993 the Joint Declaration on Peace (more commonly known as The Downing Street Declaration) was issued by John Major, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Albert Reynolds, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), on behalf of the British and Irish Governments. This included statements that:

  • The British Government had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland
  • The British Government would uphold the right of the Northern Irish People to decide between the Union with Great Britain or a United Ireland.
  • The British and Irish Governments would work for an agreement among all the people of Ireland, embracing "the totality of relationships".
  • The Irish Government recognised that "Irish self-determination" [meaning, in this context, a United Ireland] required the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
  • The Irish Government would try to address Unionist fears about the nature of the Irish state.
  • A united Ireland could only be brought about by persuasion.
  • Peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence

Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party opposed the Declaration, James Molyneaux of the Ulster Unionist Party argued that it was not a "sell-out" of Unionists, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin requested dialogue with the government, and clarification of the Declaration.

Towards Negotiations

On Wednesday 31 August 1994 the IRA announced a "Cessation of Military Operations" from midnight. Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), said that he accepted the IRA statement as implying a permanent ceasefire. Many unionists were sceptical. Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux, in a rare slip, declared "This (the ceasefire) is the worst thing that has ever happened to us."

In the following period there were disputes about the permanence of the ceasefire, whether parties linked to paramilitaries should be included in talks, and the rate of "normalisation" in Northern Ireland. Loyalist bombings and shootings, and punishment beatings from both sides, continued.

There now follows an abbreviated list of events of significance in the lead-up to all-party negotiations:

  • Wednesday 22 February 1995: Framework Documents published:
    • A New Framework For Agreement, which dealt with North/South institutions, and
    • A Framework For Accountable Government In Northern Ireland, which proposed a single-chamber 90-member Assembly, to be elected by proportional representation.
      The proposals were not welcomed by Unionists ? the Democratic Unionist Party described it as a "one-way street to Dublin" and a "joint government programme for Irish unity".
  • Sunday 13 August 1995: Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin President, addressed a demonstration at Belfast City Hall. A member of the crowd called out to Adams to, "bring back the IRA". In an unscripted reply Adams said: "They haven't gone away, you know".
  • Friday 8 September 1995: David Trimble was elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, replacing James Molyneaux.
  • Friday 24 November 1995: A referendum in the Republic of Ireland to change the constitution to allow divorce was narrowly approved, with 50.2% in favour.
  • Tuesday 28 November 1995: A Joint Communiqué by British and Irish Governments, outlined a "'twin-track' process to make progress in parallel on the decommissioning issue and on all-party negotiations". Preparatory talks were to lead to all-party negotiations beginning by the end of February 1996. US Senator George Mitchell was to lead an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue.
  • Thursday 30 November 1995: Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, visited Northern Ireland, and spoke in favour of the peace process to a huge rally at Belfast's City Hall. He called terrorists "Yesterday's Men".
  • Wednesday 20 December 1995: Blaming the IRA for recent killings of drug dealers, the Irish government decided not to give permanent release to a further 10 Republican prisoners.
  • Wednesday 24 January 1996: Dated 22 January, the report of the International Body on arms decommissioning (also known as the Mitchell Report) set out the six "Mitchell Principles " under which parties could enter into all-party talks, and suggested a number of confidence building measures, including an "elective process". The main conclusion was that decommissioning of paramilitary arms should take place during (rather than before or after) all-party talks, in a twin-track process. The report was welcomed by the Irish Government and opposition parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party. It was accepted as a way forward by Sinn Féin and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), who both had paramilitary links. The moderate Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) expressed reservations, and the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rejected it.
  • Monday 29 January 1996: Twin-track talks began with the SDLP, the Progressive Unionist Party, and the UDP. The UUP declined the invitation.
  • Friday 9 February 1996: One hour after a statement ending their ceasefire, the IRA exploded a large lorry bomb in the London Docklands, killing two people, injuring 40, and causing £150 million worth of damage. The IRA ceasefire had lasted 17 months and 9 days. The ceasefire was ended as a response to a boycott of Sinn Fein by the British government.

Towards Another Ceasefire

  • Friday 16 February 1996: There was a large peace rally at City Hall, Belfast, and a number of smaller rallies at venues across Northern Ireland.
  • Wednesday 28 February 1996: After a summit in London, the British and Irish prime ministers set a date (10 June 1996) for the start of all-party talks, and stated that participants would have to agree to abide by the six Mitchell Principles and that there would be preparatory 'proximity' talks.
  • Monday 4 March 1996: Proximity talks were launched at Stormont. The Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party refused to join, and Sinn Féin were refused entry again.
  • Thursday 21 March 1996: Elections to determine who would take part in all-party negotiations were announced. The elections would be to a Forum of 110 delegates, with 90 elected directly and 20 'top-up' seats from the 10 parties polling the most votes.
  • Thursday 18 April 1996: The Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations) Act was passed at Westminster. 30 parties and individuals were to take part in the election.
  • Monday 20 May 1996: Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, said that SF was prepared to accept the six Mitchell Principles if the other parties agreed to them.
  • Thursday 30 May 1996: In the Forum Elections, with a 65% turnout, the UUP won 30 seats, the SDLP 21, the DUP 24, Sinn Féin 17, the Alliance Party 7, the United Kingdom Unionists 3, the Progressive Unionist Party 2, the Ulster Democratic Party 2, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition 2, and Labour 2 seats. Northern Ireland's Conservatives were encouraged by the Conservative UK Government not to stand.
  • Tuesday 4 June 1996: The Northern Ireland Office invited nine political parties to attend initial talks at Stormont. Sinn Féin were not invited to the talks. Mary Robinson, then President of the Republic of Ireland, began the first official state visit to Britain by an Irish Head of State.
  • Friday 7 June 1996: The IRA killed Jerry McCabe , a Detective in the Garda Síochána (the Irish police service), during a post office robbery in the Republic of Ireland.
  • Monday 10 June 1996: All-party negotiations (the 'Stormont talks') began in Stormont. Sinn Féin were refused entry again.
  • Friday 14 June 1996: The Northern Ireland Forum met for the first time in Belfast. As before, Sinn Féin were excluded.
  • Saturday 15 June 1996: The IRA exploded a bomb in Manchester, which destroyed a large part of the city centre and injured 200 people. Niall Donovan (28), a Catholic man, was stabbed to death near Dungannon, County Tyrone by the loyalist UVF.
  • Thursday 20 June 1996: An IRA bomb factory was found by Gardí in the Republic. In response the Irish Government ended all contacts with Sinn Féin.
  • Sunday 7 July 1996: The Royal Ulster Constabulary prevented a march by Portadown Orangemen from returning from Drumcree Church via the Garvaghy Road. This decision was followed by widespread protest in the unionist community, and by rioting in unionist areas.
  • Thursday 11 July 1996: Hugh Annesley , then Chief Constable of the RUC, reversed his decision and ordered his officers to allow the Orange march to pass along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. No music was played as the parade passed the disputed area. This was followed by nationalist protests, and riots in republican areas.
  • Saturday 13 July 1996: A republican car-bomb attack on a hotel in Enniskillen injured 17. The Continuity Irish Republican Army later claimed responsibility. The SDLP announced that it would withdraw from the Northern Ireland Forum.
  • Monday 15 July 1996: A committee to review parades in Northern Ireland (the Independent Review of Parades and Marches) was announced.
  • Thursday 30 January 1997: The Report of the Independent Review of Parades and Marches (The North Report) recommended setting up an independent commission to review contentious parades. Most Nationalists welcomed the review but Unionists attacked it as an erosion of Freedom of assembly. A period of "further consultation" was announced.
  • Wednesday 5 March 1997: Stormont Talks adjourned until 3 June, to allow the parties to contest the forthcoming general election.
  • Sunday 27 April 1997: In Portadown Robert Hamill, a Catholic, was severely beaten in a sectarian attack by a gang of loyalists. Hamill later died from his injuries. Royal Ulster Constabulary officers who were nearby did not intervene to save him.
  • Thursday 1 May 1997: A general election was held across the UK. The Labour Party won a majority and formed a government for the first time since 1979. In Northern Ireland Sinn Féin had increased its share of the vote to 16%, becoming the third largest party in the region, and winning two seats: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were their new MPs. The Ulster Unionist Party won 10 seats, the Social Democratic and Labour Party 3, the Democratic Unionist Party 2, and the United Kingdom Unionist Party 1.
  • Friday 16 May 1997: Tony Blair, the new British Prime Minister, endorsed the Framework Documents , the Mitchell Report on decommissioning, and the criteria for inclusion in all-party talks. He stated that he valued Northern Ireland's place in the UK, suggested that the Republic of Ireland should amend Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, and indicated that officials would meet Sinn Féin to clarify certain issues.
  • Wednesday 21 May 1997: In Local Government Elections the UUP remained the largest unionist party, and the SDLP the largest nationalist party, though they lost control of Belfast and Derry city councils respectively.
  • Sunday 1 June 1997: Gregory Taylor, an off-duty Constable, died following a beating he received from a Loyalist mob. It was later disclosed that Taylor had used his mobile phone to try to summon help from the local police station but no car was available to come to his aid.
  • Tuesday 3 June 1997: The talks resumed at Stormont. The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and the Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA) were both proscribed.
  • Friday 6 June 1997: There was a general election in the Republic of Ireland. The ruling coalition government of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left was defeated by a coalition of Fianna Fáil, Progressive Democrats, and independent members. Sinn Féin won its first seat in the Dáil Éireann, since it had ended its policy of abstentionism in 1986.
  • Wednesday 25 June 1997: The British and Irish governments gave the IRA 5 weeks to call an unequivocal ceasefire. 6 weeks later Sinn Féin would be allowed into the talks (due to resume on 15 September).
  • Sunday 6 July 1997: The Drumcree Parade was again permitted to go ahead, after a large Police operation. This was followed by violent protests in Nationalist areas.
  • Saturday 12 July 1997: After an earlier decision by the Orange Order to reroute seven of their marches, the "Twelfth" parades across Northern Ireland passed off peacefully.
  • Wednesday 16 July 1997: The DUP and the UKUP left the Stormont talks in protest at what they claimed was a lack of clarification by the British government on decommissioning.
  • Friday 18 July 1997: John Hume and Gerry Adams issued a joint statement. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness called on the IRA to renew its ceasefire.
  • Saturday 19 July 1997: The IRA announced the renewal of its 1994 ceasefire as of 12.00pm on 20 July 1997.

Towards Agreement

  • Tuesday 26 August 1997: The British and Irish governments jointly signed an agreement to set up an Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD). U2 held a concert at Botanic Gardens, in Belfast, with an audience of around 40,000.
  • Friday 29 August 1997: The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, accepted the IRA ceasefire as genuine and invited Sinn Féin into the multi-party talks at Stormont.
  • Tuesday 9 September 1997: Representatives of Sinn Féin entered Stormont to sign a pledge that the party would abide by the Mitchell Principles .
  • Thursday 11 September 1997: The IRA said that they "would have problems with sections of the Mitchell Principles", but that what Sinn Féin decided to do "was a matter for them".
  • Monday 15 September 1997: Multi-Party Talks resumed. The Ulster Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, and the Ulster Democratic Party instead attended a special meeting at the UUP headquarters, and re-entered the talks on Wednesday.
  • Wednesday 24 September 1997: Procedures were agreed at the Multi-party Talks, decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was side-stepped, and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was formally launched.
  • Tuesday 7 October 1997: Substantive talks began at Stormont.
  • Friday 17 October 1997: The Parades Commission was announced. Its membership and powers attracted criticism from unionists.
  • Thursday 6 November 1997: Around 12 members of Sinn Féin resigned in protest at the acceptance of the Mitchell Principles.
  • Sunday 9 November 1997: During a radio interview on the tenth anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb which killed 11 people on 8 November 1987, Gerry Adams said he was "deeply sorry about what happened".
  • Saturday 27 December 1997: Inside the Maze Prison, members of the Irish National Liberation Army shot and killed Billy Wright, the LVF Leader.
  • Friday 23 January 1998: The Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name for the Ulster Defence Association, reinstated their ceasefire. This was taken as an admission that they had been responsible for the murders of several Catholics.
  • Monday 26 January 1998: The talks moved to Lancaster House in London. The UDP were barred from the talks, following UFF/UDA involvement in 3 more murders. The governments stated that the UDP could re-enter the talks if the UFF maintained its renewed ceasefire.
  • Thursday 29 January 1998: Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, announced a new inquiry into "Bloody Sunday" in Londonderry on 30 January 1972. This inquiry became known as the Saville Inquiry . The previous inquiry was widely regarded as a whitewash.
  • Friday 20 February 1998: The British and Irish governments announced a 17 day exclusion of Sinn Féin from the talks because of IRA involvement in two killings in Belfast on 9 and 10 February 1998. Sinn Féin organised street protests over their exclusion.
  • Monday 23 March 1998: Sinn Féin agreed to rejoin the talks, following the expiry of their exclusion a fortnight before, on 9 March.
  • Wednesday 25 March 1998: The Chairman of the talks, Senator George Mitchell, set a two week deadline for an agreement.
  • Friday 3 April 1998: The "Bloody Sunday" Inquiry, chaired by Lord Saville, an English Law Lord, opened.
  • Thursday 9 April 1998: Talks continued past the midnight deadline. Jeffrey Donaldson, who had been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party talks team walked out, causing speculation about a split in the Party.
  • Good Friday, 10 April 1998: At 5.36pm (over 17 hours after the deadline) George Mitchell stated: "I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement". It emerged later that President Clinton of the USA had made a number of telephone calls to party leaders to encourage them to reach this agreement.

The agreement, which included a devolved, inclusive government, prisoner release, troop reductions, targets for paramilitary decommissioning, provisions for polls on Irish Unification, and civil rights measures and parity of esteem for the two communities in Northern Ireland is the subject of a separate article.

The Referendum Campaign

The agreement was to be approved by a referendum in Northern Ireland, and a separate referendum was to be held in the Irish Republic to approve the necessary change to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. The people of the Irish Republic overwhelmingly endorsed the agreement, but the campaign in Northern Ireland was more controversial, and the result less predictable.

The pro-agreement campaign framed the question as progress versus stalemate, as a struggle between intolerant bigots with no solutions on the one hand, and moderates with a constructive way forward on the other. The agreement was promoted to the Nationalist community as delivering civil rights, inclusive government, recognition of their Irishness, and a peaceful route to Irish reunification. To the Unionist community, it was presented as bringing an end to the troubles, a guaranteed end to paramilitaries and their weapons, and a guarantee of the Union for the foreseeable future.

On the Republican side, the "No" campaign seemed to concentrate on the purity of the republican ideal of complete and absolute independence from Britain. In this view any compromise, however temporary, on the goal of Irish unity (or the right to wage the armed struggle) was depicted as a betrayal of those who had fought and died for Ireland. Decommissioning of weapons and an end to paramilitary activity was portrayed as surrender to the British. The principle of consent was represented as a unionist veto, as it meant political progress would be almost impossible without unionist participation. It was pointed out that the agreement accepted partition. The state and its institutions would remain hostile to the Republican community, claimed the critics. Despite these misgivings, the vast majority of republicans voted yes, with only some tiny unrepresentative parties on the nationalist side advocating a No vote.

On the Unionist side, the "No" campaign was much stronger and stressed what were represented as concessions to republicanism and terrorism, particularly the release of convicted terrorists (often those who had murdered friends and relatives), the presence of "terrorists" (by which they meant Sinn Féin) in government, the lack of guarantees on decommissioning, the perceived one-way nature of the process for moving towards a United Ireland, the lack of trust in all those who would be implementing the agreement, and the erosion of British identity.

It was widely agreed that the Nationalist community would endorse the agreement. As the vote approached, Unionist opinion appeared divided into those who supported the agreement, those who opposed the agreement on principle, and those who welcomed agreement, but still had major misgivings about aspects like prisoner release and the role of paramilitaries. The fear among the Agreement's supporters was that there would not be a majority (or only a slim majority) of the unionist community in favour of the agreement, and that its credibility would be fatally undermined.

The Votes

In the Irish Republic, the results of the vote to change the constitution in line with the agreement were:

Electorate: 2,753,127
Turnout: 1,545,395 (56%)
Valid votes: 1,528,331
Votes in favour: 1,442,583 (94.4%)
Votes against: 85,748 (5.6%)
Spoiled votes: 17,064

In Northern Ireland, the results of the vote on the agreement were:

Electorate: 1,175,403
Turnout: 953,583 (81%)
Valid votes: 951,845
Votes in favour: 676,966 (71.1%)
Votes against: 274,879 (28.9%)
Spoiled votes 1,738

There is no official breakdown of how the Nationalist and Unionist communities voted, but CAIN, the Conflict Archive on the Internet, estimated that the overwhelming majority (up to 97%) of Catholics and Nationalists in Northern Ireland voted 'Yes'. Their estimate of Protestant and Unionist support for the agreement was between 51 and 53 per cent.

Complicating matters for the calculation was the turnout, with a substantial increase over elections in many traditionally unionist areas, whilst the turnout was close to that for elections in staunch nationalist areas. Approximately 147,000 more people voted in the referendum than in the subsequent Assembly elections, though it is estimated that there was also some deliberate abstentions by republican voters.

The referendum was calculated centrally so it is not clear what the geographic spread of voting was, but an exit poll found that only Ian Paisley's North Antrim stronghold voted against the Agreement.

The pro-agreement result was greeted at the time with relief by supporters of the agreement. However, the scale of sceptical and anti-agreement sentiment in the unionist community, their continued misgivings over aspects of the agreement, and differing expectations from the Agreement on the part of the two communities were to cause difficulties in the following years.


- The Northern Ireland Assembly made a good start. However, it has since been suspended because unionist anger at the IRA's failure to decommission their weapons. Elections have carried on nonetheless and voting has polarised towards the more radical parties - the DUP and Sinn Féin.

- Although the Royal Ulster Constabulary has now been replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the PSNI is still mistrusted by many Catholics and is not accepted by Sinn Féin.

- The whole peace process has been hung up on the lack of decommissioning by the IRA, even though the British government has not yet demilitarised and the unionist paramilitaries have not decommissioned. No weapons were decommissioned until October 2001, and not all the IRA's weapons have yet been put beyond use.

- Many people feel that the early release of prisoners was simply to appease paramilitaries. It hurts especially the loved ones of victims of the prisoners being released.

- While killings and bombings have been almost eliminated, lower level violence and crime, including "punishment" beatings, extortion and drug dealing continue. Paramilitary organisations still have considerable control in some less affluent areas.

See Also

Further Reading / External links

  • - the Conflict Archive on the Internet
Last updated: 05-23-2005 10:13:41