Its 20 years ago this week since the Downing Street Declaration was signed. It is an event that deserves to be marked. We might remember the declaration itself, but some of the other events around that time are forgotten. In the weeks before the negotiations British customs intercepted a shipment of 300 AKM Assault rifles and 2 tonnes of explosives bound for the UVF. That is the kind of shipment meant for serious warfare. That is the kind of event we were used to. On November 30th, a catholic man was shot dead by the UFF in Belfast while in Armagh security forces defused a 2,000lb bomb. Events all too familiar to us back then. Two days later as Reynolds and Major met in Dublin another 1,000lb IRA bomb was defused in Belfast. Over the following four days the UFF would murder 3 more Catholic men, two outside a taxi depot and one in his home.
An Irish Times survey found that while Catholics backed the talks between Major and Reynolds only 37% of Protestants trusted them to continue. By the 12th of December the IRA had shot dead two RUC officers. On December 13th the UFF shot a man it claimed was an informer. On the eve of the joint statement on December 15th, a 1,500lb IRA bomb was defused in Belfast where a 78 year old woman died of a heart attack as the area was evacuated.
I could carry on the list. That is the backdrop to the Downing Street Declaration. That is the everyday series of events we all took for granted. A shooting in the USA or in France might have caused children to look up from their homework and pay attention to the news, but in Northern Ireland it was just taken with a certain numbness that was chilling. Leaders have a difficult job. Against such a backdrop there was every good political reason for Major and Reynolds to avoid getting to embroiled in this situation. Everyone said you can’t trust the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries. So many in Britain wanted to punish the IRA, crush them. So many in Ireland didn’t want to give an inch to loyalism. It was a stalemate but at least there was no political risk in a stalemate. People died, but it was simple enough to keep blaming the terrorists and avoid dealing with the problem.
The Downing Street Declaration was an attempt by two governments to show a new face and to bring about a fresh and realistic effort to engage all sides. On its own it seemed like it was just another political statement. A worthy one and a helpful one but in isolation it was not seen as a complete game changer. The violence would not stop. The killings would go on. The politicians could praise their own efforts but would it be seen as anything more than just talk?
I remember talking to many people at that time who said that while the declaration was a good thing it changed nothing and that those who fought on both sides in Northern Ireland had no interest in peace. I was not too sure either way, but in the days after the declaration was signed I put it to Albert Reynolds that perhaps it would not lead to anything more, but even so it was a crowning achievement for him personally. He waved his hands and dismissed the idea of it being an achievement. ‘It’s a start’ he said ‘the door is open now; everything depends on where we go from here.’ Albert was never a man to hang about. John Major did not have an easy time changing British policy from the intransigence of Thatcher. He had to tread carefully and had a lot to lose. People on his side were far less supportive of the idea of a peace process that might give the IRA something.
In the end what mattered to both men was a firm belief that no matter what, the everyday narrative of death and murder was abhorrent and had to stop. Lives were being wasted and an attempt to save them was worth the risking of any political career. For too long politicians talked tough and took insufficient risks in what was really an effort to stay well clear of what was necessary to bring a solution.
It was once said of the great General Hannibal that he was a man who knew how to gain a victory but was not quite sure what to do with it. The opposite was very much the case with the Downing Street Declaration. It was a victory for democratic politics and negotiation but more importantly, in the years that followed, the governments (and a generation of people in Northern Ireland) did not rest on their laurels; they pushed ahead and used that opportunity to make it so much more than a political statement. It became the foundation for ceasefires, agreements and peace and to this day it enshrines much of what must be accepted in Northern Ireland if it is continue to chart a peaceful path into the future.