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Above: British Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1993, co-signatories of a crucial text.

This week is the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which heralded a major breakthrough in Anglo Irish relations and paved the way for the eventual historic peace agreement in Northern Ireland. I worked as an official in the Irish Government’s Anglo Irish Division at this time and described the background to the Agreement and subsequent events in my 2001 book An Accidental Diplomat: Memoirs of the Irish Foreign Service.

In an extract from the book, below, I describe the development of the Agreement and the run up to an IRA ceasefire in 1994, as well as the philosophy behind the language. I also describe the culture of secrecy around the process, but also the strategic leaking by all sides, including Dublin’s constant fear of betrayal by a pre-emptive leak by the British Government. Although British Prime Minister John Major was committed to the peace process, for which he deserves great credit, elements of his governing Conservative party were still highly unreconstructed in their approach to Northern Ireland, security and any dilution of the ‘British dimension.’

Looking back now, it is hard to envisage such an intense diplomatic process, at such a level, especially from the Irish side. In many ways, there seems to have been a psychological withdrawal from the Northern Ireland situation by the Irish Government, political culture and indeed by the Irish media, which have all been preoccupied by the Republic’s recent economic crisis and the belief that the Northern settlement has ‘bedded down’ in Stormont. The Irish public appears to share this mental withdrawal, but this may well be a premature and mistaken belief, as has been in the past, not least in the early 1960s. Let us hope not.

Extract from An Accidental Diplomat (2001) :

The foundations for the Process were laid when Peter Brooke, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (pictured below), stated in a famous speech in 1990 that Britain no longer had a ‘selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. This phrase would grow into the Hume-Adams discussions and subsequently feature in all successive guiding documents.

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The phrase really came to the fore in the Joint Declaration (Downing Street Declaration) of December 1993 and more especially fourteen months later in the Joint Frameworks Documents of February 1995. In both documents, Brooke’s original language was interpreted in such a fashion that it essentially suggested that the British would henceforth adopt a neutral position on the matter of the Irish peoples working out their political future. However, original Irish hopes that the British might go further and ‘join the ranks of the persuaders for Irish unity’ did not come to pass, nor indeed did the explicit endorsement of something close to joint sovereignty, as was once ambitiously hoped — although we were, by now, further down that road. However, the Irish side were happy with the fudge, feeling that in the smorgasbord of language from which everyone can take their pick, there was enough to unstitch the existing settlement.

The language of Downing Street and the Joint Frameworks Documents was essentially a distillation of what we’d been churning out in speeches for our Minister and other government officials over the previous twelve months; the three sets of relationships, parity of esteem, and the principle of consent, to reassure the Unionists. Both sides had given voice to their ultimate ambitions, but had agreed to postpone their realisation. It was ingenious. However, at times I thought our willingness to accept a share of the blame for the situation went too far, in a ‘there are faults on all our side’ kind of line. But what fault was it of ours? We didn’t create or administer Northern Ireland. Granted the development of an avowedly sectarian state in the South didn’t help things (still evident as late as the X case) but this seemed minor, compared to the security blunders in the North, and the decades-long discrimination. But such language was the price to pay. It was almost as if we were pretending to take on this blame, as a way of taking on more responsibility and getting more involved.

In dealing with the North and other issues, Spring was aided by his omnipresent advisor Fergus Finlay. By now, the role of Special Adviser had become much more developed than it was when I first arrived in the Department. In the 1980s, the Adviser was a somewhat remote figure usually attached to the Minister’s constituency office and generally keeping watch over party theology. Brian Lenihan and Gerry Collins used to have Maurice Bric, an affable history lecturer on leave, who used to dwell up in the attic of Iveagh House in a skylight office. He didn’t travel much, unlike one of his successors, a flamboyant character (whom we shall call Magnus) who the Minister used to bring around the world. Mockingly, the girls would mimic his phone calls from the super phone on the Government jet, sitting on the runway in Bangkok or somewhere. ‘That’s right, I’m calling up from the airport in Thailand.’ But perhaps his real offence was that he wasn’t DFA and had come in at a time when the role of such advisers was still undefined.

However, with the arrival of Labour in 1992, this all changed. Labour were reform-driven, in office with a restive Fianna Fáil, and they had an agenda to fulfil. The Political Adviser system became much more developed, even institutionalised, and overlapped with a new position of Programme Manager. Cleverly, the Labour Advisers would meet half-an-hour before the weekly meeting with their FF counterparts, so that when the meeting commenced they would just push through their policies, which is probably appropriate since they had effectively written the Programme for that Government. Understandably, the Civil Servants were initially distrustful of the system but it definitely improved things, building up trust between a new Minister and wary mandarins and sending regular shockwaves through the system to bring up work from below. FF and others criticised the system but they soon emulated it and, indeed, expanded it, so that today we have such a proliferation of managers, advisers, and personal press attachés that one wonders if daily spin control rather than evolved policy is the guiding principle

During Spring’s time, Fergus Finlay worked very effectively with the senior officials, especially on the North. It also put the Department at the centre of things since Finlay was not just the adviser for Foreign Affairs but for all of Government, in tandem with Spring’s role as an enhanced Tánaiste. He would become a controversial figure, however, as was probably inevitable, given the tensions between FF and Labour and the continuing fall out of the Beef Tribunal. Later, in Reynolds’ libel trial against the Sunday Times in London, his lawyer would refer to Finlay as a ‘snake in the grass’. With his balding head and Parnell-style beard, Finlay was an unmistakable figure around the House, but it was as well to keep your distance. One Third Sec used to meet him coming in on the morning train where he’d gently mock the Department’s pomposity and try to draw him into comment. But the Third Sec would say nothing; ‘I just kept smiling and nodding my head.’ Even though Finlay sat on the key Liaison Group dealing with the British, there was feeling of ‘Don’t tell him too much; he’s an adviser’.

Likewise, you weren’t supposed to say anything to the Press. Throughout the Department, there was a strict policy of routing all press queries to the Press section. But, in practice, there were a lot of unattributed remarks and ‘off the record’ comment, especially on Northern Ireland where the press was virtually part of the process, the medium through which positions were adopted and dialogue broadcast. As with speeches, we could tell who the sources were from give-away phrases — ‘bedrock views’ or ‘crossing the Rubicon’. Someone even told a reporter about Ó’hUiginn’s famous shark of Irish nationalism, ‘which must keep moving or it dies’, and thereafter the shark began breaking the surface of newspaper articles, its dorsal fin visible below the cloudy peace-talk waters. The shark became so well known that, later, when the Department tried to exploit the discontent of Northern (and mainly Unionist) fishermen, a press officer commented ‘Before, it was a shark, now its fucking herrings!’

DFA made useful trade-offs with the media; in return for tip-offs and leaks, journalists would give information to officers, which often ended up in the Box. The information journalists wouldn’t, or couldn’t, publish, was often more interesting than what they did. But again there was usually a reason why they didn’t publish such stuff. Some of it was outlandish speculation which only fed the extraordinary rumour mill of Northern Ireland, but it was useful nevertheless.

For example, from one source in New York, close to hardline Sinn Féin elements, I got a tip-off on the impending Ceasefire. The same prospect was unwittingly confirmed by someone in Dublin who was then going out with an assistant to the US Ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith. The Division was particularly appreciative of these insights, since the US Embassy was, by then, a key conduit for SF intentions. Possibly my best source was an old friend from student days, once active as a hardline Unionist, who over the course of time, would correctly predict the election of Trimble and the corresponding rise, and stance, of Unionist dissenter Jeffrey Donaldson.

Advance copies (not technically leaks) of key documents were often sent to sensitive background figures, such as Cardinal Cahal Daly in Armagh. This reflected the close relationship Dublin had with the Catholic church in NI, a relationship the Unionists might criticise but it was for a reason they would appreciate; to stem the flow of support to the IRA. Daly was very anti-Provo, but he was a tricky figure for officialdom, as were many of the Northern Irish clergy. Slightly more amenable were the SDLP to whom advance copies were also selectively sent. Why not, since they’d probably worked on them with Dublin officials. But even if they hadn’t, they were given a sneak preview on the clear expectation that the British showed practically everything to the UUP.

On the day of the Joint Frameworks Document (JFD), a crowd of us watched UTV get the first reactions of politicians. ‘Well, I’m not exactly sure,’ replied the SDLP’s Mark Durkan in the Derry studio, ‘because I’ve only just got the thing.’ For a moment, Durkan looked sternly at the camera and we all started laughing. ‘There you go, Simon,’ someone shouted, ‘rebuked over the airwaves!’ Basically, Durkan was saying, ‘What the hell was the delay?’ Officers would have been expected to firm up their personal contacts.

In November 1993, however, a serious leak occurred when the journalist, Emily O’Reilly, published an early version of the JFD in the Irish Press, under the headline ‘Blueprint for a New Ireland’. Much speculation ensued about who leaked it. There were only about ten copies and DFA people believed (partly confirmed by Finlay) that it was probably a Cabinet Minister or spin doctor who gave it to O’Reilly as background, not expecting that she would publish it. Or, a more conspiratorial scenario; that she would publish it and this would be good, because it would draw out Unionist anger early and so blunt their protest for when the real thing came along. A balloon going up.

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Above : Emily O’Reilly, now the European Union Ombudsman

Either way, the leak had major implications for DFA, with much discussion in the media about the security system in Anglo-Irish, discussion which was rehashed later with the leak of memos concerning Mary McAleese. The Gardaí came in to do long interviews with officers in their rooms, requesting that they be shown safes, shredders and files. Many of them, apparently, went away more confused about the procedure than when they arrived. In a way, it was all quite humiliating. For the investigation was across the board, from the photocopying people to Seán Ó’hUiginn, who was with them for an amazing two hours. ‘Perhaps he’s asking them if they think there’ll be a ceasefire?’ said someone afterwards.

But this being Anglo-Irish, some people were upset at not being interviewed, feeling it implied they weren’t important enough. ‘Not in the loop,’ as the phrase went. Others, however, were very happy. Given the time lag between the document’s composition and the inquiry, many people were well embarked on Postings and had to be flown home from New York and Brussels to recoup their memories. This was even more so with the McAleese leaks where, again, the Gardaí had an inquiry. Interestingly, while the first investigation seemed almost Inspector Clouseau-ish — bureaucratic intrigue not being a strong point of the Gardaí — the second was much more thorough.

But the conclusions on both occasions were the same. Lock up all files every night, shred constantly and keep changing combinations. But after a few weeks, people drifted back to their old ways. Counsellors used old ‘Boxes’ to prop up PC’s and, with the Control Room churning out briefs, no one had time to put everything away, especially when it’s Friday and someone shouts ‘Let’s all go to the pub!’ It’s human nature and it happens everywhere; from the Pentagon to the smallest bank. ‘Let’s face it,’ admitted a Counsellor, ‘one Provo cleaning lady comes through here, and we’re all doomed.’

But if we were bad, the British were much worse. The concept of confidentiality seemed alien to them and they leaked right through the most sensitive negotiations. In the run up to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, they had babbled like over-excited debutantes. Leaking was always particularly bad under the Tories, given their proximity to the gossipy world of London clubs, and old boy networks of public schools, country estates and regimental ties. The closed world of upper-class Tories and military elites which Irish nationalists identified as the true centre of British power was very real. And not to be underestimated. After Liaison Group Meetings and IGCs, our people would open the London Times and read the details of so called ‘confidential’ meetings.

So fearful were we that the British would break the embargo on the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) in 1985 and get to work early, spinning it to their own advantage, that elaborate precautions were made to have Embassies primed. The joint nature of these agreements was, in this sense, largely illusory; each side wanted to sell a particular take on the idea to their respective constituencies, home and foreign. All Missions abroad were given advance copies of the AIA, with background material, Q & A and Speaking Points. A colleague, posted in the Hague, described how his Ambassador, a nervous fellow, sat on the carpet like a child on Christmas morning, carefully following the instructions, as he opened the relevant parcels. ‘Now dispose of pink paper and proceed to parcel B, putting envelope Y in the safe.’

The Irish also had memories of 1977 when the British broke the embargo on the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights that they hadn’t used ‘torture’ on suspects in NI, but rather ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’. A small difference, I suppose, when you’ve got a hood over your head and are threatened with being dropped from a helicopter at 800 feet. But the distinction was one the British could profitably leak to their tabloids. ‘UK didn’t use torture’ was the servile headline; a preemptive strike which the Irish then found hard to reverse. Even the name of the Downing Street Declaration is itself the result of a pre-emptive strike. Rightly, it should be the ‘Joint Declaration’, but the British cleverly got the more resonant ‘Downing Street’ into the early spin.

In February 1995, a major leak occurred on the British side, when the London Times published excerpts from the upcoming Joint Frameworks Documents. In this case, the leak was clearly politically motivated, with the Times quoting selectively from the document to make it look more Nationalist than it was. The Times wanted to rouse the Unionists, and this they did. The story was even written by Matthew D’Ancona, not a staff member (he is now with the Telegraph) but a political freelancer with strong Unionist links.

It didn’t take long for the Embassy in London to find out the alleged source. In the gossipy, politically divided world of the London media, journalists were only too happy to finger others. Details were collected on D’Ancona’s friends and a link was made to the carnation-wearing Lord Cranborne, who had had access to the document and was said to be a huge influence on the Prime Minister, John Major. ‘You’d better ask Robert,’ was an expression MPs heard Major using on Ulster, and on Europe. Is it any wonder that the Peace Process stalled under the Tories? Cranborne, as Leader of the House of Lords, was trying to halt what he saw as appeasement on the North. Heir to the Marquis of Salisbury, Cranborne apparently feared that Sir Patrick Mayhew might be replaced as Northern Secretary by Michael Ancram who, as heir to the Marquis of Lothian, came from an older and even more noble peerage than he. My God, and these were the people we expected to show imagination on Northern Ireland! How the UK cried out for the fresh winds of meritocracy and open Government. (Although ironically, within a few years, Cranborne was later fired by William Hague for trying to do a ‘deal’ with New Labour over reform of the Lords.)

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Above :Viscount Cranborne, now Lord Salisbury, pictured in 2012.

An e-mail pointing to Cranborne as the leak came in from the Embassy, but frustratingly (to me, anyway) the information was not passed on to the media. Perhaps they hoped to use it in private, but I thought the State should have been more forceful in identifying publicly the source of these destructive leaks. So I took the note, chopped off its top and tail, and quietly passed it to Maeve Sheehan, then of the Sunday Tribune, suggesting that she quote from it. Two days later, I nearly dropped when I saw the Tribune. The leak was the main story, including the alarmingly specific detail that, through its Press Office in London, the Irish Government — and, apparently, Patrick Mayhew — believed Lord Cranborne was the source of the document. Reached at his country estate, Cranborne denied leaking the document but expressed his strong displeasure at the direction of Major’s Northern Irish policy. His denial was not very convincing.

I now had to worry about my own denial. I had loudly discussed the e-mail in the Press section the previous Friday and, given the way the story appeared, I now felt I’d be the obvious suspect for the ‘leak about the leaks’. But in fact, leakers always feel they’re more exposed than they actually are and by the following Monday, the controversy had moved on so fast, with accusations flying, that the Tribune story had been well overtaken. But discussion of it still came up. ‘Yeah, I wonder how the Tribune got that,’ a Press Officer said to her colleague and then she looked at me, pointedly. The moment passed.

I felt better about my patriotic gesture when I stood beside a senior colleague and listened while she dictated an entire scoop to the UK Independent on Sunday. The hack was an old friend from UN days but, despite repeating the details three times, the hack still got it wrong in the eventual story — ‘Sir Christopher Mayhew’, for example. Perhaps he was mixing up the Northern Secretary with the architect of St Paul’s! And this on the front page. ‘Jaysus,’ my colleague grumbled, ‘he’d never make a note taker in the Chinese Lounge.’

But the rest of the story was accurate. It was 22 August 1994 and an American team were in Ireland to try and pave the way for an IRA ceasefire. After the half acceptance by Sinn Fein of the Downing Street Declaration, further intense work was done in public, and behind the scenes, to try and bring the elements together. The British had offered clarification of the Declaration and the basis for a new and wide-ranging agreement was in place. The US delegation was acting as a go-between, but also a sort of guarantor, for the Republican movement to lay down arms and included Congressman Bruce Morrisson (he of the visas) and Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice.

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Above: bomb blast in Belfast

During a visit by same American group the previous March, the IRA had held a three-day ceasefire although the gesture caused more resentment than favour: ‘Oh, so now you don’t get killed till Wednesday,’ was how someone put it. The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon was especially impatient with such gestures and his criticism of the partial ceasefire caused him to have a major row with Hume. Spring supported him, consistently stressing, throughout the period from March to August 1994, the importance of achieving a ‘permanent cessation’. Indeed at this stage, Spring might have been taking his cue from Seamus Mallon on the dithering of Sinn Féin, by contrast with Reynolds who seemed to be led by the ‘just follow me’ approach of Hume. With his wonderfully caustic tongue, Mallon said that he ‘hadn’t spent 30 years in politics to play wet nurse to the IRA’. He also memorably described SF’s new found flexibility as ‘Sunningdale for slow-learners’.

SF’s procrastination about a ceasefire (which seemed so close since the IRA’s partial acceptance of the Downing Street Declaration in March) caused great tension in the SDLP, but so too did Hume’s lack of information about what was happening. ‘Trust me,’ was his refrain, ‘I’ve got peace in my grasp, a settlement is only around the corner.’ The perspective of SDLP rank-and-file, however, was that they had a party to protect and SF were, at the very least, the electoral enemy. It seemed that Hume was content to sacrifice his party to gain peace. A noble idea but what if he sacrificed both? As it was, his leadership was not bringing young people forward, and many heirs were waiting in the wings. There was a suspicion, for example, that Hume had not helped develop the party in South Derry for fear that a power base might emerge to rival his own. Strabane had a nationalist majority, so why was its Council in Unionist hands? One story had the Irish Government going to Hume, at one stage, and suggesting that he try and secure the area for the broader Nationalist cause. ‘Fuck off, it’s our party,’’ he allegedly replied. In this he was at least consistent: he also refused to allow the SDLP to set up a lucrative Dublin branch.

As the Process continued, many Fianna Fáil people were also in the dark about what was happening. One day, I bumped into a FF backbencher in the street. ‘What’s happening?’ the TD implored ‘My constituents are all asking.’ ‘I’m sorry, it’s confidential,’ I felt like replying in a cocky, unelected way. But instead I just gave him a verbal version of the Overall Steering Note and said that he probably knew as much as I did.

The path to the ceasefire was long and painful, but in fairness to Hume he doggedly persevered. Apparently, he gave SF/IRA about five final deadlines to commit, all of which they bypassed, and he certainly also gave DFA the dates of a few D-days, which also passed. On 22 August, we were told it was ‘coming’. On the 24th, it was coming ‘in days’. On the 26th, a Friday, some people didn’t go for lunch for fear they’d miss it. It was like waiting for the Postings announcement. But nothing came. On the 29th, a Monday, it was ‘coming again — definitely the next day’. Instead, it came on Wednesday, August 31st 1994, at around 11.00 am.

By now people were wound up so much, that they were running around like headless chickens; faxing statements, collecting comment, watching the TV. The competitive atmosphere of the Division became absurdly high-pitched and shameless. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and people were hiding radios and fighting over photocopiers. The Locker Room boys had loosened their ties, and were pacing the corridors with their sleeves rolled up, sucking on pencils. (It was thus with some pleasure that I went in a week later and said ‘I’ve just spoken to Conor Lenihan’ — then a journalist — ‘and the Loyalist ceasefire is coming tomorrow’. The security people were disgusted. They had said it wasn’t coming for another week).

Phones rang off the hook as Missions abroad begged for more material. In middle of it all, Garret FitzGerald, our former Premier, called up looking for some election statistics on Sinn Féin. It was a surreal intrusion. Old Garret, architect of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and of the modern Department, and suddenly he was like a voice from the past. ‘Here, Eamon, you talk to him,’ someone said and I had to go off and dig up the statistics.

Meanwhile, people were watching the TVs, with clipboards propped on their knees. This was a regular activity, monitoring parliamentary debate, so that the Minister’s replies could be drafted immediately. With the ceasefire, naturally, the coverage was constant and voluminous and one chap got so tired listening to the ‘guarded welcomes’ and ‘new dawns’, that he switched over to an old episode of The Rockford Files on another channel. The same fellow got into trouble later for watching the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, when he was supposed to be noting a debate in the Senate. Devoy, our manic Counsellor, burst in to find him struggling for the remote.

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Above: Sinn Finn leaders hail the IRA ceasefire of 1994

But, on the day, not everyone was so inured. Going home that evening, there was an eerie calm on the streets of Dublin. So, it’s all over. People stared quietly at the Evening Herald headlines in shops. In time, the Ceasefire would break — perhaps we even knew it would break — but effectively the war was finished. Ó’hUiginn was right, the ‘conflict was over’. But now came the hard part, ‘working out the terms on which it was settled’. But this sentence could be turned on its head. After all, ‘working out the terms on which it was settled’ — wasn’t this what ‘the conflict’ was all about? Since 1920, and before.

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