IRA ceasefire still splits opinion in the North

A brave step towards peace or grudging acceptance that military defeat was inevitable – the IRA’s historic ceasefire of 1994 still sharply divides opinion in the North 20 years on.

Ahead of this weekend’s anniversary of the landmark announcement, which at the time was met with victory celebrations in republican areas across the region, Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has hailed it as the most important single step in the entire peace process.

“I think of all of the decisions that have been taken, if you are asking what was absolutely key and critical to end the war, and end the conflict that has existed to the detriment of all of us for far too long, the most important decision of all of the decisions taken in the last 20 years was that decision,” said the Sinn Féin veteran and former IRA commander.

“Because that has brought us to where we are today.”

Unsurprisingly unionists are less willing to praise the IRA.

Lord Maginnis, a former Ulster Unionist MP who was a key figure in the political sphere in the 1990s, said he would not deprive anyone who contributed to ending the Troubles of credit.

But he said he is angered at the suggestion from republicans that the IRA made the move from a position of strength, that they had somehow been winning their “war”.

“There was no way IRA activity was going to bring anything but further suffering,” said the former Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) major.

“And as far as the IRA itself was concerned they were defeated – I was on the other side and I know they were defeated.”

He added: “It was an acceptance of reality and it does make me quite grumpy when I see history being rewritten 20 years on.”

The IRA declared a complete cessation of military operations on August 31 1994.

A similar announcement from loyalist paramilitaries would follow weeks later.

The IRA returned to violence in February 1996, when it blew up London’s docklands.

It called another ceasefire in July 1997 – a move that paved the way for Sinn Féin’s inclusion in political negotiations that culminated in April 1998 with the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement.

While the 1994 cessation did not last, the announcement still effectively signalled the beginning of the end of a bloody 25-year conflict that claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people.

The cessation came after a period of secret back-channel talks between republican leaders and the British government.

But Mr McGuinness has downplayed the significance of those encounters, which were exposed publicly in late 1993, in terms of prompting the ceasefire.

He insisted his party leader Gerry Adams’ engagement with John Hume, the leader of the then largest nationalist party, the SDLP, was more influential in creating the circumstances that ultimately convinced the IRA to make the move.

Mr McGuinness also cited the proactive engagement of the Clinton White House and the then Irish premier Albert Reynolds as crucial in that context.

He claimed the British government got “cold feet” over suggestions to further develop engagement with republicans.

“What that confirmed for us was that route wasn’t going to be one that would see a peace process develop,” he said.

“So all of our efforts went into developing the Hume/Adams strategy, getting Irish America involved, getting the White House involved, having the Irish government involved and having, if you like, the northern nationalist/republican community united behind the two big leaders (Hume and Adams).”

Addressing a recent community event in west Belfast, he continued: “What brought about the ceasefire was Irish America coming together, Clinton in the White House, Albert Reynolds in Dublin, John Hume and Gerry Adams.

“And what then turned out to be a unilateral decision by the IRA, after Gerry Adams and I had travelled all over the country convincing people that if the IRA called a ceasefire that that would lead to a real opportunity to move a peace process forward and bring about a process of inclusive negotiations.”

Lord Maginnis said he and his colleagues were sceptical about the IRA announcement when it came, pointing out there was no mention that the ceasefire would be “permanent”.

“We took things as they were announced with a grain of salt because there were so many false dawns that one never quite knew if this was simply another tactical move or whether in fact it was real,” he said.

“We lived in hope, we worked in hope and I suppose at the end of the day we have something that’s better than we had then, a great deal better – we are not having people being murdered.”

He added: “It’s sometimes difficult to look back and imagine the number of funerals of colleagues, of ordinary decent hard working people who were murdered ... all those callous and sectarian murders – and they were sectarian, make no mistake about it, and that applied to both sides – they were heart-breaking at the time and it always appeared that one was on the back foot, so when good news did come you took it with a pinch of salt.”

Mr McGuinness said the ceasefire was crucial in paving the way for power-sharing between republicans and unionists at Stormont, with the once unimaginable scenario of Sinn Féin entering government with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists in 2007.

Lord Maginnis, who saw the UUP slowly eclipsed by the DUP in the wake of the 1998 agreement, readily acknowledges the North has come a long way since the Troubles.

But he is critical of the performance of the current Stormont administration, branding it “terribly disappointing for those of us who worked our way through the hard times”.

“There doesn’t appear to be any medium or long-term promise that we are going to take the next step and move to doing better for the people of Northern Ireland,” he added.

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