The day I heard about the ceasefire
The day I heard about the ceasefire
Danny Morrison recalls the day ten years ago this month, when the mainstream IRA declared a unilateral, opened cessation of military activity.


Ten years ago I was in jail when a newsflash on Radio Ulster announced an IRA ceasefire. It wasn’t totally surprising: when, in December 1990, the IRA called a Christmas ceasefire for the first time in 16 years I had suspected - and it was later revealed - that there had been tentative contacts between the republican leadership and the British Government.

The ceasefire became possible because of a number of factors.

The IRA was actually in a position of strength (it is less difficult to manoeuvre when one is weak), having significantly re- armed in the previous years.

British military leaders were publicly admitting that the IRA could not be defeated and the new Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, outlined that nothing could be excluded from negotiations in the event of peace.

To unilaterally ceasefire meant that one was dropping all previous preconditions. It meant that one was moving away from fundamentalist demands. It meant the adoption of a pragmatic approach and an understanding that there would be compromises.

Not all republicans realised that and ultimately some - a minority - could not accept that.

Unionists welcomed the ceasefire with cynicism: how do we know it is permanent?

Loyalists daubed provocative slogans on the walls of the Shankill welcoming the ‘IRA surrender’.

The British Government introduced tests that had never been mentioned in the foregoing contacts.

In the jail there was a reflection on the sorrows of war, a mixture of trauma and relief, which soon turned to anger as the integrity of our leadership was called into question. Those emotions have been rekindled many times in the years that followed.

Eventually, the Belfast Agreement was reached. It meant compromise all round and could have transformed the situation and led to a more rapid withdrawal of the IRA from the scene had unionists demonstrated their willingness to share power with their former foes.

Instead David Trimble, for 18 months, refused to allow the Executive to be nominated. I don’t have to reprise all the ups and downs of the peace process.

Of course, the fact that the IRA still existed and was suspected of still being active became unionists’ justification for holding up progress. Republicans pointed to the fact that the Special Branch, the British Army and loyalist paramilitaries were themselves more than still active, but this fell on deaf ears.

In reality, unionists did not like the outworking of the Agreement and the DUP was able to exploit fears and anger within the unionist community, enough so to undermine the power-sharing Executive. The IRA, which was committed to its own timetable for change, was not prepared to kow-tow to unionist demands that smacked of surrender and the symbolism of defeat.

The IRA’s first role in 1969 was to ensure that the nationalist community, particularly in Belfast, was never left defenceless again.

Thus, the importance of the demand from republicans that we create a police service which is made up of both communities and which enjoy cross-community support.

In 1969 the RUC led many of the attacks.

However, unionist resistance to the Patten Report again raised republican suspicions and distrust.

Republicans also believe that the unionist demand for decommissioning is absurd. If unionists don’t trust republicans, and neither unionists nor British Intelligence knows the full extent of the IRA’s importation of weapons, how then can they know if the IRA has fully decommissioned?

Furthermore, the IRA could re-arm or supplement its capabilities through the use of homemade explosives.

Again, it appears as if the demand for ‘transparent’ decommissioning is designed to atavistically satisfy unionists that they have witnessed the substance of an IRA surrender.

Because of this simplistic obsession they are missing the true picture.

It is obvious that the IRA and Sinn Féin are committed to the peace process.

Firstly, a long ceasefire is extremely damaging to the maintenance, structure and operational capability of a guerrilla army, so why, other than its peaceful intentions, would the IRA have risked its organisation?

Secondly, the IRA allowed weapons inspectors access to large arms dumps to verify that they hadn’t been used; then actually put significant tranches of weapons beyond use.

Politically, Sinn Féin, as a gesture towards unionism, campaigned for the amendments of Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution (which unionists used to describe as the raison d’etre of the IRA campaign).

It also amended its own constitution and dropped its traditional policy of abstentionism towards a ‘hated’ Northern assembly.

Yet, none of this appears to have made an impression on unionist leaders.

The one concession to the nationalist experience of 50 years of unionist misrule was David Trimble’s remarks that the by Danny Morrison ‘North’ might have been ‘a cold house’ for nationalists.

But he has since been supplanted by Ian Paisley’s DUP and that party’s rhetoric has made reaching agreement even more difficult.

Our conflict was long and bloody - but it is over. Republicans accept that unionists view themselves as British but unionists have to realise that nationalists cannot be excluded from government, which means they have to deal with Sinn Féin as equals and that Sinn Féin will continue to pursue its aspiration of Irish unity by peaceful means in a post-Agreement situation.

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