Newly released State papers from the 1990s have cast a new light on efforts by unionists in Belfast and London to frustrate the peace process – and how much the peace depended on the Sinn Féin leadership, particularly Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
A British Direct Rule Minister in June 1995 described Adams and McGuinness as “irreplaceable” and the “last hope for progress” in ending the conflict.
It would be unwise to push them too hard to demand an IRA arms surrender, said John Chilcot, according to state papers released in Dublin over the New Year.
As unionists and British extremists sought to unravel the peace process with calls for an IRA weapons handover, Mr Chilcot said “Martin McGuinness had indicated that his life would be in danger from within his own movement if he agreed to British demands. Adams had made the same point”.
His advice to an Irish diplomat was reported in papers declassified at the National Archives in Dublin.
A stalemate in peace efforts eventually lead to a complete collapse and to the Provisional IRA’s Canary Wharf bombing in London. It marked the end of the Provisional IRA’s first ceasefire, but triggered a fresh round of secret talks.
In a meeting held days after the attack on London’s financial district, Gerry Adams told Irish officials he could not have stopped the strike, according to the papers.
Mr Adams said that “he did not know in advance” about it and that he was glad of this “because it would have raised serious dilemmas in terms of the moral imperative to prevent or report it”.
He told officials the breakdown of the ceasefire left him with “a hard decision to make” on whether to continue with his peace strategy.
He accepted the London bombing had delivered the peace process “an awful kick in the balls” but he asked for recognition “that we were in the end game of all of this”.
He said that there were “different views among republicans about the bombing of Canary Wharf”.
“Some people thought it was the best thing ever. Some felt it was justified by the experience of the previous 18 months. However there were others who saw beyond this, and the debate was continuing.”
By November 1996, former SDLP leader John Hume claimed to have drafted a second Provisional IRA ceasefire statement to bring a decisive end to their armed campaign.
Hume made the claim during a meeting with then Taoiseach John Bruton. He said he drafted the statement after meeting with British Prime Minister Major who complained to him about “a range of difficulties” over which he was “consulting widely”. Mr Hume blamed people he described as “Eurosceptics” for opposing a renewal of the ceasefire.
He gave details of an alleged draft PIRA statement and argued Adams and McGuinness had “turned away” from conflict because they “were now fathers themselves and did not want to sentence their children to the same fate.”
A second Provisional IRA ceasefire statement was released in 1997, but bore no similarity to that claimed to have been written by Hume. However, it did pave the way for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.
But within months, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern complained to a US Republican senator that unionists were giving ‘nothing in return’ amid a renewed dispute over disarmament.
“[Ulster Unionist leader David] Trimble (pictured, right) is falling into the old ways,” he said.
“There are 30,000 in the security force in Northern Ireland in a situation where there should be 6,000. There’s a call for republican guns to be handed in but there are many thousands of guns in unionist hands, many of these legally held.
“David Trimble has done nothing. He cannot be given much credit.”
Mr Adams said at the time he hoped that “a change in the whole context” might influence the IRA to change its position on arms, or perhaps with the passage of time, the question would no longer be relevant, according to the papers.
One official recounted Adams as having had several meetings with Trimble.
“He believed unionists felt that to a certain degree the Agreement had been imposed on them, and they were trying to get out from underneath it,” he said.
“Trimble had been quoted to him as saying privately that there would be a political settlement, but it might not be this one, and he might not be the Unionist leader.
Records of a meeting between Adams and Dublin officials in September 1999, after the Good Friday Agreement, show he was pressing for a “Plan B” in the event that unionists would again block progress towards power-sharing and the creation of North-South bodies.
It would be “helpful if British ministers could gently and privately convey” to unionists that if the agreement failed “change would continue” to be delivered under both the Dublin and London governments, he suggested.
But Irish diplomats misinterpreted the significance of the appointment of Peter Mandelson as British Direct Ruler, believing it signalled that British prime minister Tony Blair was planning to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement.
Ireland’s ambassador to Britain at the time wrote that Mo Mowlam’s replacement was “a substantial figure”.
“He has a fine political brain, a strategic sense of where Labour should go in British political life and an instinct for policy,” wrote Ted Barrington.
However within months Mandelson, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies, pulled down the Stormont Assembly at the request of unionists, triggering a cycle of crisis and collapse which continues today.
In July 2002, Mandelson’s successor admitted to other Ministers in London that elements in the British state were part of a resurgent “coalition” trying to “damage” the peace process.
John Reid briefed British Cabinet Ministers as unionists once again brought intense pressure to reverse perceived concessions to nationalists.
“Coalitions of forces had come together to damage attempts to find solutions” to the North’s problems in the past, he warned at one meeting.
It was possible “to see the reactionary elements of unionism, the Ulster Defence Association, elements in the security services, some members of the House of Lords and the opposition building such a coalition now.”
By 2006, unionists succeeded in forcing a renegotiation of the peace deal in the form of the St Andrews Agreement.