Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has described the IRA ceasefire of 1994 as the most important peace-making decision in the past 100 years of Irish history.
The North's Deputy First Minister, who played a key role in making the ceasefire happen, was speaking ahead of its twentieth anniversary.
“It was the most important decision, not just in the last 20 years which has propelled this peace process forward, but in the last 100 years,” Mr McGuinness reflected.
“It has totally demilitarised the situation in the north. It has given people a life.”
On 31 August 1994, the IRA announced a complete cessation of military operations.
Just weeks later, loyalist paramilitaries also announced a ceasefire.
Mr McGuinness said he saw the IRA cessation as a “ground-breaking moment in Irish history”, but added that he still had some concerns at the time.
“I suppose I was concerned for, if you like, our own credibility because Gerry Adams and I were the public face of Irish republicanism and we had our own credibility to think of in terms of our own supporters - members of Sinn Fein but also our credibility with the IRA,” he said,
When the ceasefire was announced it was heralded with cavalcades in west Belfast, but there was also deep suspicion.
For then-Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux and the rest of unionist community a vital word was missing from the IRA’s statement - permanent.
John Taylor, the former UUP deputy leader, said: “The word permanent was tremendously important because if it only implied it was a temporary ceasefire, well then people wouldn’t trust it at all because they will come back to it. So you did have to have the word permanent.
“If the word permanent was there at least we would take a risk and run with it.”
Despite a loyalist ceasefire, a US presidential visit and moves to defuse the decommissioning row under the auspices of US senator George Mitchell, the political process soon began to falter.
In February 1996 - eighteen months after announcing its ceasefire - the IRA bombed Canary Wharf.
Mr McGuinness said: “I absolutely believe it was over the issue of decommissioning. This was the obstacle that was placed in the road. The IRA was of the view the British government were not serious about seizing the opportunity presented by the initial ceasefire.”
The fragile peace was shattered, and it would take another 17 months and a Labour government with a massive majority under Tony Blair before the IRA would call another ceasefire.
Derry man Tony Taylor, who has just been released from prison for his involvement with the ‘new’ IRA, believes the announcement of a ceasefire twenty years ago was badly timed.
He also said that any prisoners who questioned the republican movement’s direction were ostracised.
“There was a lot of internal discussions taking place at the time and concerns were raised about a number of issues, the main ones being political policing and decommissioning,” he said.
“We were told it would never happen - ‘not an ounce not a bullet’ - but a number of us didn’t believe that. I grew very quickly disillusioned. Some of the assurances they’d given us just didn’t add up and promises began to crumble away quite quickly.
“All that was being shoved at the prisoners was early releases and we were told the republican movement would be better and stronger as a result. There’s a perception that leading up to 1994, prisoners were kept up to speed on the details, but that didn’t happen.
“There was blind loyalty from some of the Belfast prisoners who would have believed anything (Gerry) Adams told them but there were others with legitimate concerns about what was happening.”
Mr Taylor, who was seriously injured in a premature bomb blast in 1994, said he was one of a number of people who thought Sinn Fein were too quick to agree to a cessation of violence.
“In my opinion it was too soon - the IRA was in a position of strength, the British government were under pressure and Sinn Fein played their hand too soon.
“A lot of new people came along once it was fashionable to be in Sinn Fein. But the people that got them to that point, well they were left to fend for themselves.”
Mr Taylor said the peace process that followed has failed republicans, with non-jury Diplock courts still being used in the north of Ireland. Dozens of republicans are currently in Maghaberry prison as breakaway IRA groups continue a sporadic campaign of armed struggle.
He said the political policing powers being used today were far in excess of what the RUC (police) had then.
“I’ve been put away by a Diplock court twice and there is no difference to the system 20 years on, if anything it has only got worse,” he said.
“Excessive political policing powers being used today are far in excess of what the RUC had. No-one can speak for our dead volunteers or what they’d think of where we are but I can say what they fought and died for are exactly the same principles than I still have to this day.”
‘QUALITY OF LIFE’
Former IRA prisoner Sean ‘Spike’ Murray, who later worked as a Sinn Fein official, said war weariness on both sides in 1990s meant some break in the cycle of violence was inevitable.
“You had a situation of military stalemate,” he said of the years leading up to 1994.
“We weren’t strong enough to defeat the British war machine and the British war machine wasn’t strong enough to defeat republicanism.”
Murray remembers it as a “challenging period” but believes there was an obligation on Sinn Fein and IRA to explore the potential for achieving their objectives through peaceful and democratic means.
“At the time I don’t think anyone thought the ceasefire was permanent,” he said. “It was more a case of let’s see what the response is like by way of demilitarisation and the quick convening of all-party talks.”
He said unionist demands for ‘decontamination and demilitarisation’ of the IRA and Sinn Fein eventually led to the breakdown of the ceasefire in 1996.
The election of Labour government the following year, however, created fresh momentum.
“(Tony) Blair took it on as a personal as well as political crusade. It was really only after the second ceasefire that there was a sense of permanence.”
As one of Sinn Fein’s negotiation team at the Haass talks, he concedes that the peace and political arrangements are far from perfect, but insists the alternative is much worse.
“People have a quality of life now that was unthinkable 20 years ago and it’s important to acknowledge that.”