Irish Republican News · July 27, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Joe Cahill and the last steps to peace
An extract from the biography of Joe Cahill, A Life in the IRA, written by Brendan Anderson and published by O’Brien press.


The IRA leadership and the Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle knew that conditions were now almost right for calling the long-awaited ceasefire.

Gerry Adams met the IRA leadership and gave them his assessment of the situation. The IRA, however, needed just one more assurance before the final piece of the jigsaw would drop into place. There remained one element of the wider republican support base, a very important element, which needed to be reassured that there had been no sell-out, no abandonment of principle - that element was Irish-America.

The importance of the role played by republican supporters in the United States has often been underestimated, but the leadership in Ireland knew the value of their power base there. Many Americans were even more hard-line in their republicanism than people in Ireland. If the announcement of a cessation was not handled properly, there was as much chance of a schism in the movement occurring there as in Ireland. It was imperative, therefore, that an emissary be sent to the USA to brief the support base when news of the cessation broke.

As far as the republicans were concerned, there was only one man who had the necessary authority and respect, and whose word was most likely to be accepted by Irish-Americans - Joe Cahill.

“We knew that if the IRA decided to go for a ceasefire it would come as a surprise, even to a lot of active republicans. There was an air, an impression, that something was happening, but, because of the type of talks that were taking place, the information was kept within a very tight circle. It would be important to keep everybody on board, both at home and in America.”

Cahill had been advised by the Sinn Fein leadership to apply for the visa and did so. He knew there was political involvement at a high level in pushing his case, but it was only later he became fully aware of just how close the application came to being thrown out.

He had, after all, been convicted on a murder charge and sentenced to hang, as well as being a convicted gunrunner.

But the IRA had staked much on Cahill being in the States at the right time. A refusal to grant him entrance would have had serious implications for the possibility of a ceasefire and the peace process in general. Brought to basics, the message was stark - no visa for Cahill, no ceasefire.

Once more, Father Alex Reid proved to be hugely influential as he worked in the background, constantly providing Albert Reynolds with analysis and updates while urging him to contact President Clinton. The priest wanted Reynolds to impress upon Clinton the importance of granting a waiver of the ban on Cahill entering the United States. Reynolds was, of course, very supportive of the ceasefire attempts but, at the height of the holiday season, he was having great difficulty in contacting his usual channels to Clinton.

“Jean Kennedy Smith,” Cahill recalls, “was the American ambassador to Ireland during that period, and she was always willing to help. She was very interested in the peace process. But she was on holiday in France. After being contacted several times by Reynolds, she broke her holiday and returned to Dublin to see what she could do. I remember later going to her and apologising for upsetting her holiday plans.”

The ambassador’s first move was to contact Nancy Soderberg, staff director of the National Security Council and one of Clinton’s leading foreign policy advisers. Kennedy Smith rang Soderberg several times, but found she was reluctant to get involved. Soderberg had used her good offices earlier in the year to provide a visa for Gerry Adams, on the understanding that it would help achieve an IRA ceasefire. Adams had had a hugely successful visit to the United States, but now Soderberg wanted the ceasefire signed, sealed and delivered before she considered any more concessions.

ONLY the insiders knew that if everything was favourable, the IRA would announce a cessation of military operations on Wednesday, 31 August. Reynolds, at Kennedy Smith’s instigation, was regularly on the telephone to Nancy Soderberg. On Monday evening, 29 August, he made his final pitch, shamelessly attempting to capitalise on the fact that the American was one-quarter Irish. Soderberg eventually agreed to contact Clinton who was holidaying at Martha’s Vineyard, an island resort just off the coast of Massachussetts. The result was that Clinton telephoned Reynolds.

“[Reynolds] said to Clinton in a telephone call during the night that it was imperative that I be in America,” says Cahill. “I assumed that Clinton knew by now just what was happening, because he had asked to see the file on me. He got back on to Reynolds and he asked him if he had seen my CV - did Albert realise what kind of man he was seeking a visa for? Reynolds is said to have passed some remark like, ‘What did you expect, a parish priest?’

“Reynolds told him that if things didn’t work out, he could send me back home on the next plane. I think at this stage that Clinton was on the verge of taking the decision to grant a waiver, but Albert still had a wee bit of work to do.

“Bill Clinton asked Reynolds about the proposed wording of the ceasefire statement,” says Cahill, “but Albert said he would have to get back to him on that. Albert contacted Father Reid and was then able to ring Nancy Soderberg and tell her a bit about the form the statement would take. From what I heard, Nancy was excited and contacted another senior foreign policy advisor, Tony Lake. They then immediately informed Clinton of the wording.”

The few lines from the IRA statement had helped Clinton to make up his mind. He told Reynolds to ‘have the two gentlemen’ (Joe Cahill and Monaghan Sinn Fein councillor Pat Treanor) at the American embassy in Dublin at 9am the following morning. Meanwhile Cahill, who had been joined at this stage by his wife Annie, was waiting on tenterhooks for Clinton’s decision: “The evening before I was due to fly out, there were several phone calls. It was a case of, maybe it’s on, maybe it’s not. There was nothing clear. The last phone call that I got - fortunately I had a phone beside the bed - was early on the morning of the day I was to go to America. We were booked onto a flight at midday. Annie was going with me, because my health was not good. I think she was getting a bit browned off with the phone calls - she said to me to tell them to go to hell.

“That last call told me I had to be at Hume House, across the road from the embassy at Ballsbridge, at nine o’clock. I was to be there in the anticipation that I was going to America, but at this stage, at 6.30 in the morning, there was nothing definite. I arrived at Hume House at nine. There were officials waiting and they ushered us into an office. We were offered tea and biscuits. I still didn’t actually know what was happening at this stage, because no-one had said you are getting your visa or not getting it. They came over to ask the odd question or some clerk would come in to have some form filled. Around ten o’clock in the morning, I was told I was being granted a visa. The flight was just two hours later. We were standing at the airport, with our suitcases and ready to travel, and we still did not have the visas. They were eventually delivered to us by courier.”

Just before he left for the airport, Cahill privately received confirmation that the cessation statement would be released the following day.

Few journalists linked Cahill’s trip to the USA with speculation about an IRA ceasefire. It was, however, a different story on the other side of the Atlantic.

“There was no great sign of media interest in Ireland about me going to America, no media at Dublin airport. But when I arrived in America, I was surprised to be informed by people who met me that there was a big lot of media waiting outside. Rather than go through the crowd, it was arranged that we would use a back entrance at the airport.

‘The day we arrived in America I attended a function in Hartford, Connecticut. This was accepted as an ordinary Northern Aid function with nothing special to it. But I have a very vivid memory of talking to people that night and knowing that the next morning, at around six o’clock American time, the ceasefire was to be announced. It was sort of a wee bit strange. I was talking to them about support and continuing their work for prisoners and the political work that they were doing, and all the time knowing that within a few hours this whole thing would be changed. I had to be very careful.”

The next morning in Dublin, a journalist working for the national broadcasting service, RTE, played an audio-taped IRA statement to his excited bosses. It had been handed to him earlier by a republican source. The contents were revealed to the Irish public in a newsflash at 11.25am. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, the IRA army council had not put a time limit on their ceasefire. It was to be open-ended.

Over in Connecticut, Cahill had stayed up all night. He found he was somewhat surprised at his own emotions as he watched media coverage of reaction to the cessation. He had worked towards this day for years, had indeed been one of the leading advocates of the Irish peace process. Now that it had arrived, he felt more melancholy than elated.

“I still clearly remember watching the announcement of the ceasefire on television next morning and seeing the celebrations in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere - the car cavalcades, the joy in the faces and expressions of the people. I felt isolated and away from it all, and I felt sad that I was in America and not in Ireland. I was also afraid that people might have gone a bit overboard. As I watched the television pictures, I said to myself that if the talks didn’t work out it would be a terrible disappointment to people, and we could lose support if the IRA had to go back to war.”

Despite the warmth of their welcome, many American supporters made plain to Cahill and Treanor that they did not intend to blindly accept a ceasefire at any price and demanded explanations: “When I say we were very well received, that’s not to say that people did not ask questions. People were worried. They were asking why a ceasefire was called at this stage, what was the reasoning behind it. Naturally they had awkward questions to ask. Some of our supporters were ex-IRA who had set themselves up with a new life out there, and people of that ilk can be very critical.

“At the same time, while there were people who asked awkward questions, there was nothing asked that I couldn’t answer. I was able to satisfy everybody there was no sell-out or anything like that. I assured them that no deal had been done, that the ceasefire was called to allow negotiations between republicans and the British. As far as the ceasefire was concerned, I said, it was a unilateral cessation, which left the IRA in the position that if negotiations failed, they could go back to war. The reception everywhere was beyond our expectations. Supporters were optimistic, and even in a jubilant mood.”

Back once more in Dublin, Cahill said he was relieved to find that people were not regarding the ceasefire as a victory - which was what the leadership feared - but were just happy that the IRA had called a cessation to pursue a changed strategy.

“It was for many republicans a deep psychological shock, even though the process had been underway for some years.

“The strategy had been outlined in terms of building alliances with other political forces in Ireland and outside Ireland, of trying to build a peace process which would deal with the core issues, including the British presence.

“This initiative, an open-ended cessation, was huge in republican terms, enormous.”

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© 2004 Irish Republican News