Friday, December 15, 2023

This Day in Irish History (Downing Street Declaration Offers ‘Framework’ for Ulster Peace Process)

Dec. 15, 1993—The leaders of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland advanced the fraught peace process in Northern Ireland by signing the Downing Street Declaration, a joint statement of intentions that capped a year when a change in policy on both sides of the Atlantic attempted to dissolve decades of mistrust and violence in the troubled province.

In this “charter for peace and reconciliation," the UK government forswore any "selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland."

At the same time, Ireland’s agreed that any settlement needed to "respect the democratic dignity and the civil rights and religious liberties of both communities"—not just Catholics who had been pressing for issues like justice, economic gains, and better housing since “The Troubles” broke out in 1969, but also Protestants who feared any agreement that would leave them at a disadvantage.

Above all, both governments pledged to abide by the wish of the majority in any future agreement.

At the time, that was regarded as a concession to the Protestants who had held sway in the province since the 1920s, when a commission to determine the boundary between Ulster and the more republican-dominated region to the south dissolved. Their unsettled work resulted in a de facto gerrymandered Northern Ireland that favored Unionists.

At the time of this partition, Protestants had enjoyed a nearly 2-1 advantage in population over Catholics, based on the 1911 census, and they had retained that edge for decades. But by 1992, higher birth rates for Catholics had left them not far behind Protestants: 42.8 percent versus 38.4 percent.

Now, according to the 2021 census, there are more Catholics than Protestants living in Northern Ireland: 42.3 percent versus 30.5 percent. (A growing 8.2 percent identify as non-Christian religious.) This was the boon welcomed by advocates of Ulster’s unification with Ireland, who regarded this as a boon to their cause—and a nightmare scenario for those preferring continued association with the United Kingdom.

Although these demographic trends were gathering steam in the 1990s, leaders in Britain, Ireland—and now, the United States—were primarily concerned with ending nearly a quarter century of violence between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) and loyalist paramilitaries that was increasingly exhausting all sides.

On the surface, little seemed to be happening to end the stalemate. But much was happening outside public view, starting with the development of a friendly dialogue over the prior two years between British Prime Minister John Major (left in the photo) and Ireland’s Taoiseach (“Chief” or “Leader”), Albert Reynolds (right).

Neither leader possessed an especially strong hold over either their party or the wider electorate. But both believed, as Major told the House of Commons in his Dec.15 address announcing the agreement, that “we had to make it a personal priority both to seek a permanent end to violence and to establish the basis for a comprehensive and lasting political settlement.”

What they produced was “a framework for peace,” a carefully chosen phrase meant to convey mutual understanding—and a set of principles to guide future diplomacy.

All the same, getting the two governments to agree even on this much would have been well-nigh impossible for the last 25 years. Even events in the last year before the agreement could have upended everything:

*Whatever warm feelings existing between Major and Reynolds were not replicated between the British leader and Bill Clinton. The Prime Minister had been deeply embarrassed when news leaked in the 1992 campaign that Home Office had investigated whether as an Oxford student, Clinton had applied for UK citizenship as a means of avoiding military service during the Vietnam War.

*Major could barely command a majority in the House of Commons—and it could all come apart if Ulster’s Unionist MPs thought he was making too many concessions to the nationalists.

*Despite continued denials that it would not deal with the IRA unless it gave up its campaign to drive the British out of Ulster, Major’s government had been forced to admit, in late November 1993, that it had been maintaining back-channel talks with the organization for many years.

*October 1993 was marked by the largest loss of life (27 dead) in Northern Ireland in a single month since 1976, including, most notoriously, nine civilians, all Protestant, and one IRA bomber killed in a bombing on Shankill Road, aimed on faulty intelligence at the leadership of the loyalist paramilitary force, the Ulster Defence Association.

Other factors contributed to the Good Friday Agreement concluded in 1998, including talks between Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and John Hume, the leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party; Irish-American politicians and lawyers who pushed for justice and peace in Ulster; and more active American facilitation of talks among the parties through President Clinton.

But the Downing Street Declaration created an avenue for paramilitary forces to participate in the political process and created momentum for the IRA to declare its first ceasefire nine months later.

(In light of one massive change in the UK in the last decade, I urge you to read Darren Litter's March 2021 blog post on the role of the European Council in paving the way for the Downing Street Declaration. Given the UK and Irish governments' "sensitivity to leaks and failure to reconcile positions," he argues, two summits held by the council in the fall of 1993 enabled Major and Reynolds to discuss obstacles to compromise "away from the lights" of media gathered in Belfast.)

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