As Pat Hynes reminded us, 15 December marked the 23rd anniversary of the Downing Street. Pat wrote that “That year of 1993 and in particular the weeks leading to the declaration, had been particularly brutal in terms of violence, with events like the Shankhill Road Bomb, followed by the Greysteele Bar attack, as well as the daily count of murders across Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.” Supported by a small group of officials, the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds undaunted and determined looked for a path from conflict to peace.
One of those officials was Séan Ó hUigínn, a towering figure in the peace process during its formative phase. What is often lost sight of in conflicts is the ideological or normative issue at stake. Violence and its inevitable condemnatory political response often suggests that the violence itself is the problem. Irish governments consistently and rightly understood that in fact the problem in Northern Ireland was political and the violence would only be ended through negotiation based on a sound understanding of the political issues.
Séan took this to its logical conclusion, diving deep with shamanistic verve into the conflict to come to its core, namely the violation done to national self-determination by the imposition of partition. He formulated a response that would address that wound and used that to construct a process of negotiation that he personally guided from the heartlands of the republican movement to the corridors of Downing Street. The outcome was the Downing Street Declaration. It produced the IRA ceasefire in 1994, less than a year after its promulgation.
The Declaration achieved this by setting out the principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.
Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, taking this on constituted political leadership of a very high order indeed on the part of Albert Reynolds.
The Good Friday Agreement and its endorsement in the joint referenda held North and South in May 1998 realised the prescription for peace set out in the Declaration. By the time we negotiated the GFA, Séan had moved on and the talks were lead by Dermot Gallagher who formed a talks teams of experts in various dimensions of the conflict.
Before all of this, Reynolds and Major knew that they were tantalisingly close to an historic peace. They appealed to all sides to grasp the opportunity for a new departure that would compromise no position or principle, nor prejudice the future for either community. In the stirring words of the Declaration’s concluding paragraph: “…..these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundations for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation.”
You can read the full text of the historic Downing Street Declaration here.
By the time we reach the 25th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration in 2018, we will find ourselves in changed circumstances thanks to Brexit that will directly affect the architecture of the GFA which in turn is based on the principles distilled and described in the Downing Street Declaration.
We should have a clearer idea by then of what the Brexit decision will mean for the border, for our relations with the UK and with Northern Ireland. Thanks to documents like the Declaration and the agreements that flowed from it, we have a very clear analysis and prescription to guide our response to that coming challenge.