Sinn Féin’s objective was to get agreement between the Irish government, ourselves and John Hume on the text of a joint declaration and the mechanisms to give effect to this, and to put in place a broad consensus on the Irish nationalist side, including Irish America, to pursue a policy towards peace and justice and to engage with the unionists on this in order to build a peace process.
At that same time alongside the Hume/Adams Talks, Sinn Féin was involved in secret negotiations with John Major’s government, secret negotiations with the IRA, secret negotiations through Fr. Reid with the Irish government, and we were involved in outreach to Irish America and subsequently with the White House. It was a very busy time but progress was lamentably slow.
John gave our draft to Charlie Haughey. The Irish government then produced an unacceptable version which was essentially a rehash of the British and Irish governments position.
At the same time the Irish political and media establishment was engaged in a ferocious campaign of vilification of Sinn Féin – what has changed you ask – which saw Sinn Féin denied the use of the Mansion House and other public buildings for our Ard Fheis.
In January 1993 Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach and introduced a new dynamic into the negotiations. Notwithstanding the shortcomings of this process Mr. Reynolds was by far the best of the Taoisigh to deal with the north.
Charlie Haughey who preceded him had refused to open up talks between his government and Sinn Féin. The delegation which eventually met Sinn Féin was representing Fianna Fáil and not the Irish government, and although that was an important and positive development, there was no real progress made on Mr. Haughey’s watch in terms of an inclusive all-party negotiating process.
Both British and Irish systems had – and still have - one thing in common. They were cautious and wedded to old policies. The Dublin system was also, and remains partitionist, and limited therefore in its thinking and policy development. There were exceptions among the senior civil servants but most of them had spent years dealing with the SDLP and despite Sinn Féin significant mandate they weren’t minded to upset that relationship.
Albert Reynolds had a different style. He brought a directness in how he addressed the potential for progress. Of course he had, as did all Taoisigh, to deal with his own system. The same is true also of British Prime Ministers. Tony Blair has publicly recalled that he was only able to do what he did in 1997 and 1998 because he was a new Prime Minister and it was the heady days of a new government. So too with Mr. Reynolds.
Albert had many contacts in the north from his business activities, including the dance hall business. He had an appreciation of the potential and of course he would have been briefed by his predecessor so he opened his door to Fr. Reid. His coalition partner Dick Spring was much more conservative in his approach. Some of his interventions were unhelpful.
In April 93 the story broke that John Hume and I had been talking and we issued our first joint statement. In it we asserted that the most pressing issue facing us and the people of Ireland was lasting peace and we agreed that a process of national reconciliation was needed.
The result of this was a further barrage of media condemnation, particularly of John. It was vicious. I was regularly subjected to media vilification by that point but for the first time John was the target of a torrent of abuse led by the Independent group of newspapers. Many of the same journalists and columnists have maintained this approach in the following two decades.
The British government, led by John Major, said no to Hume- Adams. The two governments then engaged in a series of rewrites of it.
In November the secret talks between Sinn Féin and the British government became public. At first the British tried to deny it but eventually they were forced to come clean.
The Dublin based papers intensified their attacks on Hume-Adams. John was particularly targeted again. It was almost as if the southern political and media establishment saw him as a traitor to their conservatism. The Sunday Independent in one edition ran 7 separate articles attacking him – some in the most vitriolic and offensive language. After the Shankill bombing and the Greysteel massacre the media onslaught continued. John collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Despite, or, maybe because of, the ferocity of the media attacks nationalist support for Hume-Adams grew.
The British continued to favour inter-party talks without Sinn Féin but Albert Reynolds now indicated his backing for a joint declaration.
The Downing Street Declaration was published on Wednesday 15th December with a great deal of spin.
But within hours of it being launched public statements by Reynolds and Major indicated that real differences existed between both governments, not only on the actual meaning of significant and substantial parts of the Declaration, but on its stated objectives.
There was an obvious need for clarification from the governments of what this declaration meant in reality. But John Major rejected my request for clarification declaring that the Declaration was non-negotiable.
In a letter to him I asked that he authorise direct talks with Sinn Fein only in the context of clarification – not negotiation. I spelt out the three main areas of concern for republicans around the Downing Street Declaration. These were: textual matters in the Declaration itself, conflicting interpretations of the Declaration and the processes envisaged by it.
Major didn’t reply. I wrote again in April 1994. A letter from Roderic Lyne, John Major’s private secretary told me to read the Declaration.
Mr. Reynolds then suggested to us that he would seek clarification on our behalf. Martin McGuinness held a series of meetings with Martin Mansergh who was representing the Taoiseach. And the Sagart – Fr. Alec - was constantly on the road between Belfast and Dublin. When clarification eventually came, with the British under pressure responding to 20 questions we had submitted, it supported Sinn Féin’s view that the Downing Street Declaration was in many ways an ad hoc and not so well drafted response to Hume Adams.
The flaws in the drafting were not the fault of the drafters. They were evidence of the different types of pressure on the two governments. So while the declaration was a significant development that was all it was.
Like the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, the Downing Street Declaration was intended by the British government and some in the Irish government to be the end of the matter. The line in the sand. And like those agreements before it, it was neither.
Had Sinn Féin accepted the Downing Street Declaration it is arguable that there would never have been a Good Friday Agreement. Bertie Ahern and all involved deserve credit for this accord. But Albert Reynolds was the Taoiseach who welcomed John Hume and me into Government Buildings on September 6th 1994.
His wife Kathleen and their family also welcomed me into their home and we enjoyed copious cups of tea during the ups and downs of that time. His was a relatively short term as Taoiseach but Mr. Reynolds ended exclusion, formal censorship and brought the Irish government in from the cold.