August 31, 1994. The twenty years have certainly flown by. “We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now.”
It was noon in Belfast when the deed was done, but only 7 a.m. at my home in Hamden, Connecticut. I woke to the news that what had been promised a few days before in a private meeting had indeed come to pass. It was an unconditional cessation of the IRA armed campaign. It was the beginning of the end of the Troubles after more than 30 years.
Decades of back and forth and up and down events lay ahead. That story is not yet fully played out. But this was the day when everything changed. The naysayers said it would never come and that it had not come. But most of them now would tell you they predicted it all along. What was impossible became conventional wisdom. Such is the measure of success—when the naysayers claim the result as their own.
Why then was this the watershed event, rather than the Good Friday Agreement, or the Downing Street Declaration, or the Hume-Adams talks, or the decommissioning of IRA weapons, or that of the Loyalists thereafter? And why not some event yet to come—the end of peace walls, contentious marches, sectarian schools? The reason is that it was the single indispensable event that had to happen for all the prior events to make sense and for the future events to become possible.
British Prime Minister John Major underscored the signal importance of the event with his fervent war of words against it. “Say permanent,” “decommission your weapons,” “disband the IRA.” A ceasefire, the fervent hope of all sensible observers, threatened the end to the “terrorist” label and all the prohibitions on Republican political activity. Major knew the world had changed. He just never figured out how to change with it.
The idea of a negotiating process for the future of Northern Ireland was not new. There had been plans and initiatives over the whole life of the Troubles. But they always pursued the “little tent” strategy. People thought you could do a deal “in the center” between moderate nationalists and unionists and that Republicans and Loyalists would be marginalized as a result. It never worked, nor could it.
A Peace Process needs to engage those who are not at peace and create reasons for them to abandon the war. For that to happen, the political process has to offer up enough real change to satisfy the bulk of those in the community who see an armed campaign as justified in the face of unacceptable political conditions.
So when in the ’80s the Republicans added the ballot box to the armalite, they opened the door to the day that the armalite would disappear and the ballot box would win out. But someone had to notice and seize the opportunity. Luckily, some did. John Hume, who had everything to lose and nothing to gain politically by the nationalist political tent being broadened by Republican electoral competition, still found a way to open private discussions with Gerry Adams in 1988. And the late Albert Reynolds came to office as Taoiseach pledging to take on the Northern issue to the guffaws of those who had heard that all before. But he meant it, and he did.
And then there was my Yale Law School classmate Bill Clinton. He was Governor of Arkansas, where the Republicans he knew were the GOP kind. But he could count. When we talked about 40 million Irish-Americans, he very much wanted to learn what he could do, as candidate and as President, to tackle the Troubles. He promised a peace envoy and a visa for Gerry Adams, and when he got to the White House, he remembered. Of course, he had help. Americans for a New Irish Agenda, an umbrella group for all those who wanted to see a Peace Process worthy of the name, began making the case for action by the new President from the transition team onward.
A small group of us – Niall O’Dowd, Chuck Feeney, Bill Flynn, Joe Jamison, Bill Lenihan and I – began traveling to Ireland with the message that Bill Clinton meant business. (At least we hoped so.) And boy, were we right. On our first trip, the IRA sent a message to the White House by implementing a short ceasefire, signaling that change was possible in the right circumstances.
In early 1994, Clinton granted the promised Adams visa, at once shattering two myths – that the ceasefire had to come first and that the negotiations would be dictated from the center. Taking risks for peace and erecting a big tent for all to enter were the critical innovations that Clinton brought to the party.
The months from January to August seemed to take forever while they were unfolding. The years of endless negotiations since then have taught us more patience than was in evidence for those eight months. At the time they seemed like eons of waiting for the Republicans to respond. But then it was August 31 and the wait was over. The critical deed was done. There was a ton of work that lay ahead – and even now lies ahead. But we knew the answer to the key question. If we built a viable political process in Northern Ireland, the warring parties would join it and the process can lead to peace.