20th Anniversary of the IRA Ceasefire

August 31st marks the 20th anniversary of the IRA cease-fire in Northern Ireland.  August 25th marks the fifth anniversary of Senator Ted Kennedy’s death and I’ve been thinking about our work when I served as his foreign policy adviser.  Precise language and choreography were critical in the processes.

I had been serving as the go-between for Sinn Fein and the Clinton White House.  Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams talked with Niall O’Dowd, the New York publisher of the Irish Voice, O’Dowd talked with me and I talked with the White House – mainly with my former Kennedy office colleague Nancy Soderberg, along with National Security Advisor Tony Lake and Jane Holl who handled Europe on the National Security staff.

The back and forth had been going on for more than a year. There had been a major row in January 1994 in the lead up to President Clinton deciding to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the US for less than 48 hours.

By July 1994, we were getting antsy about how long it was taking the IRA to declare a cease-fire.  We were anxious for Sinn Fein/IRA to accept the historic opportunity offered by the Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major with their Joint Declaration the previous December.

In mid-July, O’Dowd and the small group he’d been working with — former Congressman Bruce Morrison, businessman Bill Flynn and quiet philanthropist Chuck Feeney — headed to Belfast in advance of a special Sinn Fein conference at which Sinn Fein would respond to the Joint Declaration.  O’Dowd told me of various options Sinn Fein was considering and he wanted to know how the US would react to them.  After discussing the options with Soderberg, she wanted me to tell O’Dowd that Sinn Fein’s response needed to reflect a philosophical rejection of violence and that any mention of a limited time-frame for a cease-fire would not be acceptable.

A week later, O’Dowd rang from Belfast where he had met with Adams.  He was optimistic that the upcoming Sinn Fein announcement would not refer to a time limited cease-fire. There had apparently been discussion of a three-month ceasefire but it was made clear that that would not cut it in the US.  He didn’t know if Sinn Fein would make it clear that they were now philosophically opposed to the use of violence. He expected they would endorse some aspects of the Joint Declaration and say that there were some aspects they have problems with.  He thought the  IRA would announce a ceasefire about two weeks later.  By this stage, having made our views clear, we would just have to wait and watch and we hoped that the Sinn Fein statement would not be wishy-washy.   Throughout the period I was also in constant conversations with Irish Government officials as well as Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and her team in Dublin.  There was nervousness about reports that Adams said he doubted the IRA was about to call a truce.  O’Dowd wasn’t concerned, he saw that as an effort to lower expectations.

Sinn Fein met in Letterkenny, County Donegal on Sunday, 24 July.  We were not happy with the outcome.  Sinn Fein was seen to have rejected the Declaration, which Adams said did “not deal adequately with some of the core issues.”  Kennedy called Sinn Fein’s response “extremely disappointing” noting that the Joint Declaration was “fair to all sides in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein should have joined it long ago.”  Kennedy took a harder line than Reynolds.  We thought carefully and consulted widely before Kennedy chose those words.  The White House and Reynolds’ coalition partner Dick Spring also expressed disappointment.  Sinn Fein provided none of what Soderberg had been seeking.

On 3 August, Soderberg, O’Dowd and I had a conference call and while Soderberg and I  argued that Adams had said nothing new, O’Dowd found significance in the unanimous endorsement of the Sinn Fein leadership, i.e. Adams.  O’Dowd told us he believed that Adams would go to the IRA Army Council in two weeks with a proposition for a ceasefire of an indeterminate time period and that Sinn Fein was already briefing its supporters in the US on an open-ended cessation.

It was a typical occurrence that Sinn Fein and their supporters would consider statements monumental that were lost on everyone else.  Soderberg told O’Dowd that she and I followed this issue very closely and if the significance of the minutiae of Sinn Fein pronouncements was lost on us, how could they expect anyone else to get it?  A philosophical shift of thinking in Gerry Adams’ own mind was not enough.

O’Dowd was convinced, and we had come to agree over the past year, that Sinn Fein/IRA had concluded that they had nothing to gain by continued violence and could only hope to achieve their goals through politics.  Once again we could do little but wait a little longer.  By now, O’Dowd thought the actual announcement might not come until Labor Day. Soderberg was heading off on vacation and I would be in Ireland from the 14th through the 28th, but we stayed in contact throughout.

O’Dowd, Flynn, Feeney and Morrision decided to return to Belfast on 24 August to meet with Sinn Fein and to commit their support if the IRA would agree to halt the violence. O’Dowd and company planned to hold a press conference as O’Dowd said Sinn Fein wanted to be seen as responding to America.  There was some concern in various quarters that some in the delegation loved press attention and that that could put at efforts at risk.  My view was that O’Dowd was unlikely to do or say anything publicly that Adams hadn’t greenlit and if the optics of a press conference helped bring a ceasefire, I didn’t care.

I had plans to be in Ireland during the Congressional recess for a mix of work and pleasure in August.  I flew to Ireland on 12 August, and spent several days in Dublin before heading west.  My trip was not uneventful.  A house I was staying at in Dublin was robbed one night and police thought I surprised the robbers because they had left through an upstairs window. I was in contact with the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy because the robbers had sliced open my suitcases and we wondered briefly if it was just a simple robbery or was in some way related to my work.  The police and the owner of the house (who was away on vacation) told me that several other houses on the street had been robbed and it was a matter of time until they hit that one.   We concluded it was an “ordinary” robbery.  Then, on 18 August, Irish gangster Martin ‘The General’ Cahill was assassinated in a street nearby in what would be the last IRA murder before the ceasefire.

While I was in Ireland, a visa was granted to veteran IRA leader Joe Cahill to visit the US.  Cahill had cred with the rank and file supporters of the IRA in the US and he came to prepare the ground for the impending ceasefire.  Ambassador Smith supported the visa and Senator Kennedy told the President he supported granting the visa and hoped it marked the final hurdle before the IRA announced a ceasefire.

I was in Heathrow on my way home when O’Dowd rang me to say the announcement was imminent and suggested I turn around and fly back to Ireland for the celebration.  It had been a long month, a long year, and thrilled as I was, I opted to return home and celebrate there.

On 31 August, the IRA declared a complete cessation.  Senator Kennedy who had been tireless in his commitment to aiding the process called it “a joyous and hopeful day for all of Ireland and for all the Irish people.”

On 24 September, I was with Senator Kennedy and his wife Vicki in Boston when Kennedy met Adams for the first time. Within weeks, the Loyalists would call their own ceasefire and the rest is history.

About Trina Vargo

Trina Vargo created the US-Ireland Alliance in 1998 after having served for eleven years as a Foreign Policy Advisor to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Working directly with political leaders in Northern Ireland, the Clinton Administration, and the Irish Government, she served as a key behind-the-scenes player in the Northern Ireland peace process. She created the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program and the Oscar Wilde Awards which honor the Irish in entertainment. Views are her own.
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