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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Sinn Féin Holds First Formal Talks with the British Government in Over 70 Years

On December 9, 1994, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), holds its first formal talks with the British Government in over 70 years. The negotiations take place in Belfast, almost one year after Britain and Ireland began an uncertain program to try to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. The first session is held at Stormont, a gigantic, columned edifice on top of a hill on the outskirts of Belfast that houses the old Northern Ireland parliament.

Although the announcement of the negotiations is not a surprise, it still sets off an exciting ripple that history is in the making. British officials have conducted secret talks with Sinn Féin leaders in the past, but never before have they sat down openly at the same table with them.

In both a letter to the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, and in a three-paragraph statement, Downing Street pointedly refers to the meeting as “exploratory dialogue.” This is in keeping with London‘s position that it is simply joining in “talks about talks,” not a full negotiating session, which must involve all parties to the conflict.

For 25 years the IRA has been fighting in the name of the Roman Catholic minority of 650,000 in Northern Ireland. It wants to link Ulster, the six counties of Northern Ireland that remain British after partition, to the Irish Republic, a move opposed by most of the province’s 950,000 Protestants.

The announcement of talks evoke a predictable pattern of responses across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum. Adams, who works to persuade the IRA to go along with a unilateral cease-fire that was declared on September 1, welcomes it. “The opportunity to realize a lasting peace, which will benefit all of the people of Ireland, has never been greater,” he says in a statement. Adams had been accusing London of foot-dragging on the peace effort. Now, he says, it is time to move on to “the next phase of dialogue — multilateral talks led by both Governments.”

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the main Protestant political group in Northern Ireland, is skeptically accepting, as it has been all along. John Taylor, a Unionist Member of Parliament, says the talks will at least establish whether “Sinn Féin really is to become a normal political party.”

The Rev. Ian Paisley, a Member of Parliament whose Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has become a rejectionist front, continues to oppose talks or any move smacking of compromise. He tells the House of Commons that “a vast majority of people” resent the decision to talk to “the men of blood.”

Sinn Féin is represented at the talks by Martin McGuinness, a veteran IRA political leader who took part in secret contacts that broke up the previous year. In 1972, together with Adams, he was flown to London for a meeting with William Whitelaw, who was then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Those talks eventually failed.

Adams is in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, December 7. He attends a meeting at the White House, his first one there, with Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton‘s National Security Advisor. Seven weeks earlier, Britain protests vigorously at the thought of Adams visiting the White House. But events moved so swiftly that he gains a kind of legitimacy that is hard for Whitehall to deny. His visa to the United States, good for three months, allows several visits.

The Government team of civil servants, in contrast to higher-level ministers, are led by Quentin Thomas, deputy secretary of the British administration called the Northern Ireland Office.

Going into the negotiations, the key question is what will be discussed. On the British side, the top of the agenda is how to get the IRA to turn over its considerable stash of 100 tons of arms and explosives. There is nothing, of course, that Sinn Féin is less likely to agree to at the outset. So should the British make this a condition for multilateral talks to begin, the two sides will meet an obstacle right away.

McGuinness says that the issue of IRA weapons has to be considered “in the context of us removing the causes of conflict, the reason why people use armed force in our society.”

From its side, Adams says Sinn Féin wants to discuss being treated with “a parity of esteem” with the other parties, and “the release of all political prisoners.”

The British Government says that it will soon hold talks with the so-called loyalist paramilitaries on the Protestant side. And it indicates it will have no objection if elected Sinn Féin councillors attend a major international investment conference in Belfast on December 13 and 14.

(From: “Britain and I.R.A. Group to Begin Talks in Northern Ireland” by John Darnton, The New York Times, December 2, 1994 | Pictured: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness lead a Republican parade in Belfast, commemorating 25 years of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1994)


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Blair & Ahern Meet in Aftermath of the Omagh Bombing

British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Ashford Castle, County Mayo on August 26, 1998. They join forces to fight terrorism and discuss laws which will be introduced in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, which took place eleven day earlier on August 15 in Omagh, County Tyrone, 110 kilometres west of Belfast, and resulted in 28 deaths.

Leading the way in a return to the past is Ahern’s Dublin government, which has introduced the toughest anti-terrorist legislation in the history of the Irish Republic. He concedes that the measures are draconian, but says that his government is determined to do everything in its power, “working closely with the British government to defeat and suppress this murderous conspiracy against the people of Ireland.”

Prime Minister Blair promises that he too plans to introduce extreme measures. “We will bring in similar measures to those proposed by the Irish government, so we will then have the toughest anti-terrorist measures for the whole of Ireland, the Republic and Northern Ireland, that we have ever seen.”

With no plans to recall the British parliament, it is thought that existing legislation will be applied, since it already includes measures similar to those announced by the Irish government.

Oppressive British legislation has sustained British rule in Ireland for decades. This includes internment without trial, non-jury courts, entry and search of homes without a warrant, seven-day detention with unrecorded and unsupervised interrogation, denial of access to lawyers, exclusion orders and more. Most of these are still in use in 1998.

The Ahern package includes withdrawal of a suspect’s right to silence — refusal to answer questions can be used as evidence that a suspect is a member of an illegal organisation, the seizure of property that has been used for storing weapons or making bombs, and the creation of a new offence of directing an unlawful organisation. This is expected to carry the penalty of life imprisonment.

Omagh is 75% nationalist, with good cross-community relations, and has largely escaped the worst of the conflict. Although Republican dissidents have carried out a spate of similar bombings in the previous year, the towns targeted are mainly Unionist and further east.

In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, Republican splinter groups remain on a military footing. These groups — the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA — have announced their determination to fight on.

The group that claims responsibility for the Omagh bombing is the Real IRA, which was formed in protest at the IRA’s 1997 cease-fire. Irish police have insisted that the Real IRA is the military wing of the recently formed 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM), although this is denied by that organisation.

Although both the INLA and the Real IRA have declared a unilateral cease-fire since the Omagh bombing, media focus has settled on Bernadette Sands McKevitt, sister of the 1980s IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who is a leading figure in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. Sands-McKevitt has condemned the Omagh bombing, but her home in Blackrock, County Louth, has since been targeted by local townspeople who have staged protests against her and her family. She has also been denied a visa to enter the United States on a speaking tour.

The Omagh bombing could not have come at a better time for Britain. With the war formally over and Sinn Féin penned, the bombing delivers an opportunity to smash the Republican left once and for all and wrench it from any semblance of ongoing support in Ireland.

All nationalist opponents of the Good Friday Agreement must now cope with being stained by the blood of Omagh. With the massive referendum vote in favour of peace to back them up, the British and Irish governments can be satisfied that the Good Friday Agreement now looks more in place than at any other time. As one nationalist describes the situation, “If the Good Friday Agreement was a defeat for the cause of Irish nationalism, the Omagh bombing has turned it into a rout.”

(From: “Blair, Ahern make the most of Omagh bomb” by Dave Riley, Green Left (www.greenleft.org), August 26, 1998)