WEST Tyrone MP, Pat Doherty, has recalled his central role in the events leading up to the historic IRA ceasefire which was declared 20 years ago this week.
What was described as a ‘complete cessation of military activities’ was announced from midnight on August 31, 1994. It was a move which sparked a peace process which has been ongoing with many trials, tribulations and successes during the intervening two decades.
Not surprisingly, the ceasefire is one of those moments which are readily recalled by those old enough to have been around and transformed the political situation in the north by laying the foundation stones for the current power-sharing Executive.
Nothing, of course, is perfect and major obstacles remain, but that announcement remains a major milestone that has stood the test of time.
Now a whole generation of young people have grown up with no experience of the so-called Troubles.
Two decades ago, the current West Tyrone MP, Pat Doherty, was vice-president of Sinn Féin. As a result, he was also one of a small group of people at the centre of the efforts to create the conditions where the ceasefire could be secured and sustained.
Looking back on events 20 years ago Mr Doherty explained, “My abiding memory of that whole time is the role played by Fr Alex Reid. If there’s a saint in this whole process then it has to be him. It was his energy and focus which did so much to secure progress long before the ceasefire announcement. He never lost faith in what was being attempted.
“There had been a series of meetings between Sinn Féin and the SDLP in the six years prior to 1994 then Fr Alex Reid appraised Albert Reynolds of the content and potential of these talks in 1992.
“Albert Reynolds then undertook to contact the British Government on the thrust of what was emerging with the aim of formulating a political way forward.
“In 1994 it was assessed that we had arrived at the point where the dialogue between John Hume and Gerry Adams and the Irish government was quite solid.
“Throughout that time, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had been keeping the IRA updated and informed of what was happening and the potential for a way forward through dialogue.”
What followed, of course, was the announcement that the ceasefire would come into operation from midnight on August 31, 1994.
As one of the key players in the process which had been ongoing, Pat Doherty recalls how hectic the negotiations were and the reaction in the north, Dublin, England and America to the groundbreaking developments.
“Those of us who had been involved in trying to create the conditions for the ceasefire were in a variety of locations around that time. I remember having to go to Dublin to complete a series of media interviews,” he added.
“There had been an agreement that there would be a political response to the ceasefire announcement and this was provided in Dublin by the famous photograph of Albert Reynolds, Gerry Adams and John Hume on the steps of Leinster House.
“However, immediately, the British government began asking for clarification, or what the news meant. They were playing on words and this response put the whole process under threat right from the start. The ceasefire eventually broke down in 1996 and it wasn’t until the election of Tony Blair in 1997 that it was reinstated.”
By then, the momentum was leading to the establishment of the Peace and Reconciliation Forum.
The Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998, although it wasn’t until after the St Andrew’s talks of 2006 and subsequent 2007 elections that the DUP finally entered the power-sharing Executive.
‘SLOW AND PAINSTAKING’
According to Mr Doherty progress since the ground-breaking move has been ‘slow and at times painstaking’.
Nevertheless, he stresses the importance of dialogue, “Even in 1994 there wasn’t 100 per-cent support for the ceasefire and the people of Omagh and West Tyrone do not need to be reminded of this and the actions of the Real IRA,” he adds.
“But those who have been against the political process stretching back to 1994 and even longer remain very much in the minority,” Mr Doherty added, “There have always been log-jams and we’ve one at the moment. But the lesson has to be that the only way out of these issues is through dialogue and not walking out of talks.”