1988-1997: The Road to the Ceasefire


The Anglo-Irish Agreement ultimately did little to end violence in the short term, but it did underline the fact that dialogue and a political solution was the only likely way to end the conflict. In 1988 formal meetings between the SDLP and Sinn Féin broke up without resolution after a number of months. Following the talks, SDLP leader John Hume continued secret dialogue with Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. In these talks Hume became convinced that the republican movement could be persuaded to pursue Irish reunification using purely peaceful means if the British Government developed mechanisms to allow Irish-self determination to be achieved democractically. John Hume shared this view with the British and Irish Governments and encouraged them to provide the assurances that Sinn Féin needed. This saw the British Government publicly announce that they no longer had any ‘selfish, strategic or economic interest’ in the North and that any future political agreement could allow for future Irish unity to be achieved as a consequence. From late 1990 to late 1993 the IRA were also involved in direct contacts with British Government representatives, where similar assurances were relayed. In May 1993 the IRA held an unannounced two week ceasefire to show their good intentions towards the emerging process of discussions with the British Government. In September 1993 Hume and Adams forwarded a set of proposals to the British and Irish Governments. Their central theme was the need for the two governments to develop mechanisms to alllow Irish self-determination to be achieved and that both Governments should persuade unionists that Irish self-determination was also in their best interests.

The Downing Street Declaration

The Declaration announced by both Governments in December 1993 was in part a response to the Hume-Adams proposals. Whilst the British Government refused to support the idea of persuading unionists of the merits of Irish unity, they did accept the possibility of a united Ireland if a majority of the North’s voters expressed this wish in the future. Whilst most unionists reacted negatively, republicans adopted a more cautious approach. Over the coming months they sought clarification that unionists would not be able to veto any future political settlement that may emerge from the process. They also sought clarity that any future referendum on the question of Irish unity would only require a majority of the North’s voters, as opposed to a majority of both unionists and nationalists, to support reunification to allow it to be implemented. The Declaration also stated that loyalist and republican paramilitary groups would need to declare ceasefires to allow their representatives to enter substantive political negotiations. Whilst the Declaration did not bring an immediate end to violence, it provided a political context through which a peaceful political settlement could be pursued.

Key elements of the Declaration

• Peace must involve a permanent end to the use of paramilitary violence. • The British Government had no 'selfish, strategic or economic' interest in the North of Ireland. • A united Ireland could only be brought about by peaceful means. • The Irish Government would consider constitutional amendments to reassure unionists that they were fully embracing the Principle of Consent. • In tandem the British Government would explore the development of democratic mechanisms to allow for the people of the north to decide their own future constitutional position. • The people of Ireland, north and south, had the exclusive right to address issues of mutual concern without external interference.


The Downing Street Declaration set the context for renewed discussions, both official and unofficial, and ultimately led, on August 31st 1994, to the historic declaration by the IRA of a ‘total cessation of military operations’. The ceasefire was a prerequisite for Sinn Féin’s entry into formal talks about the future of the North. The ceasefire was greeted with widespread celebration and a sense of optimism. In turn the Combined Loyalist Military Command (representing the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando) called their own ceasefire on 13th October. Despite this initial optimism, issues quickly arose due the British Government’s reliance on the support of Unionist MP’s (who were resistant to any talks process involving Sinn Féin which could lead to future constitutional change) to retain its majority in the Westminster parliament. This saw British Prime Minister John Major insist that the IRA would have to decommission its weapons before Sinn Féin could join any substantive talks. This was rejected by the IRA as impossible.

The Framework Document

The Framework Document was published by the British and Irish Governments in February 1995 to propose potential parameters for the anticipated multi-party talks. The document proposed tripartite arrangements including a Power-Sharing Assembly for the North, structures to allow co-operation between a future northern Executive and the Irish Government and a new body to allow collaboration between future administrations from across Britain and Ireland. Whilst the proposals were endorsed by the SDLP and cautiously welcomed by republicans, unionists remained more circumspect. The British demand for IRA decommissioning nevertheless continued to dog the process, and on the 9th February 1996 the IRA ended the ceasefire with a huge explosrion at Canary Wharf in London. When multi-party talks were convened in June 1996 Sinn Féin were barred from participation as a result. Although the talks dragged on into the spring of 1997 with little obvious signs of progress, the landslide election of a new Labour government in Britain and a new Fianna Fáil led government in Dublin provided fresh impetus. New British Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly announced that he would allow Sinn Féin into talks within six weeks if the IRA declared a fresh ceasefire, with decommissioning to take place in parallel with the talks process. A new IRA ceasefire was announced in July 1997 giving the peace process a fresh start.



“Recognising the potential of the current situation and in order to enhance the democratic process and underlying our definitive commitment to its success, the leadership of the PIRA have decided that as of midnight, August 31, there will be a complete cessation of military operations. All our units have been instructed accordingly.”
Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) Ceasefire Statement, 31st August 1994.


“After a widespread consultative process initiated by representations from the Ulster Democratic and Progressive Unionist Parties, and after having received confirmation and guarantees in relation to Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom, as well as other assurances, and, in the belief that the democratically expressed wishes of the greater number of people in Northern Ireland will be respected and upheld, the CLMC will universally cease all operational hostilities as from 12 midnight on Thursday 13th October 1994.”
Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) Ceasefire Statement, 13th October 1994.


“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 8 April 1998, arriving in Belfast for the talks which produced the Good Friday Agreement.