23 February 2023 Edition
The extraordinary men and women who built the peace
In 2005, former republican prisoner Séanna Walsh’s reading of the IRA leadership statement announcing the end of their military campaign was broadcast around the world. Séanna recounts the key steps to that historic day.
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How do you even start to try and condense the journey from early 1998 to April 2023 into these few short pages? Looking back now as a Sinn Féin Councillor in Belfast since 2015, I suppose it started in November 1990 with the British putting out feelers to the Republican leadership.
I was back in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh for the third time serving a 22-year sentence. A major topic in conversation among the prisoners was the Peter Brooke comment, "Britain has no selfish strategic or economic interest" in remaining in the six counties.
Until then, our community, our generation, were locked into a mind frame of prisons, of struggle and resistance. Today, we are the preeminent political force in the country, North and South, and it has been one hell of a ride!
During the darker days of the conflict as we struggled to see any light at the end of that very long tunnel, it seemed almost impossible to imagine a pathway that would move us into a new dispensation. We were deep in our trenches both inside and out, and focussed on winning, and emerging on the other side of Britain’s war in Ireland.
As the conflict ground to a stalemate and Thatcher was jettisoned by her Tory Cabinet colleagues, discussions in the prisons began to ask how do you end a war where neither of the protagonists can deliver the decisive blow to bring the enemy to their knees? The same discussions were ongoing on the outside resulting in the IRA initiative taken in August 1994 to declare a ceasefire and hopefully allow a process of dialogue and communication to open up with the British Government.
As prisoners of the conflict, we expected to be released at some point as part of an overall peace accord, but we were determined not to allow ourselves to be used as a bargaining chip in any process of negotiations and publicly stated the same. The fate of Republican prisoners has historically been a touchstone issue for our community, but we emphasised that we would not allow the British to play that particular emotional card.
• STRATEGY GETS MASSIVE ENDORSEMENT (clockwise from above) Martin McGuinness, Rita O’Hare and Gerry Adams; the Balcombe Street men Hugh Doherty, Harry Duggan, Eddie Butler and Joe O'Connell entering the 1998 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis; Joe Cahill
Following the IRA ceasefire, the British Government, led by John Major, squandered the opportunity for progress by supporting unionists and their delaying tactics, which sought to undermine Republican morale. The collapse of the ceasefire in February 1996 and the corresponding response of the IRA did not catch too many of us by surprise. Yet, we understood that the British would come back to the negotiating table sooner rather than later. By that stage, they really didn’t have anywhere else to go.
With the Blair election and subsequent cessation, the gaols were brimming over with hope and expectation. The truce with the British in 1975 had been greeted in the prisons with the giddy enthusiasm of youth and the anticipation of an outright Republican victory, with a march to Belfast City Hall and the erection of the national flag! We expected the British Army and administration to withdraw from the north of Ireland within months. This time round, we were much more sanguine.
We initiated an intense period of discussions across the Blocks, the hopes and concerns for the future, the inevitable distrust of British Government bona fides when in any negotiations, our worries that what was deemed a ‘Peace Process’ would turn out to be none other than a ‘Pacification Process’ and much more were all discussed.
However, there was a general confidence and support that with the talks process we could take a massive stride forward towards our goal of an independent Ireland. We understood that the internationalisation of the process, with the involvement and influence of the US, the Irish American diaspora and Clinton administration, along with the new government of South Africa and support from Europe would create a dynamic that had been absent in previous peace process negotiations.
As prisoners, we were conscious of the level of trust and influence we had within the republican community. We understood that we had a role to play in reassuring our families and friends that the decision to move beyond armed struggle could see an end to British Government interference in Irish affairs, though it was not inevitable.
We also began to discuss something that had until now been almost a dirty word, ‘compromise.’ What did it mean? What would it mean for our struggle? The ‘absolutes’ that had ensured we remained steadfast in the face of all the British could throw at us were teased out, stripped down and elements of what we could countenance, and more importantly what we couldn’t were all discussed.
• Séanna Walsh, Pádraic Wilson and Brendan McFarlane photographed by Oistin MacBride at the 1998 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis having been released to attend the historic meeting that ratified the Good Friday Agreement
A series of meetings were organised which would have been unimaginable just a few months previously. The Sinn Féin leadership team, including some of the senior negotiators, were given access to the gaols.
We were bussed down to the prison gymnasium, and we had the opportunity to listen to and debate with Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, Dodie McGuinness, and Siobhán O’Hanlon as they recounted the various engagements with British and Irish Governments, unionists, and some of the international actors involved in the early days of the negotiations process.
I suppose the most mind-blowing event came in April 1998 when Nelson Mandela dispatched a team of his personal negotiating team, the activists who had helped tear down the apartheid regime in South Africa, to come into Long Kesh to relate how they had moved from armed struggle to government.
The team included Cyril Ramaphosa and Mathews Phosa. (I learned later that Mac Maharaj and others undertook a similar engagement with comrades on the outside.) To describe these as ‘Confidence Building Measures’ was understatement. We were in no doubt that we were on the right road and that we could help build a political wave that could sweep us into power, North and South, and hasten the end of Partition.
In May 1998, a team of Republican prisoners were released on parole from Long Kesh and Maghaberry Women’s Gaol, as well as the Balcombe Street men from Portlaoise, all with special dispensation to attend the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in the RDS in Dublin.
As it turned out, this was a massive endorsement by the Republican activist family for the strategy as laid out by the Ard Chomhairle. There were also a whole series of international voices to add to the chorus of Rita O’Hare, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and Joe Cahill.
Following the end of the negotiations at Castle Buildings, the resulting referendum was supported North and South, and the various institutions and all-Ireland bodies were put in place.
• Republican POWs were released as part of the Good Friday Agreement
Then started the changes which witnessed the end of the RUC, despite their political allies’ vociferous opposition, the establishment of the Parades’ Commission, the release of prisoners and the reshaping of the judicial system all added to the sense of grievance at the passing of the Orange State. Each and every one of these major reforms and changes were opposed by political unionism, but were overseen by international actors and people of note.
With my own release from Long Kesh in September 1998, I determined to play my own very small part in the consolidation of the peace and to bring whatever reassurance I could to the wider Republican family. Along with a team of former prisoners and comrades, we were tasked with touring different parts of the country, engaging with activists and families, our wider membership and the families of our fallen comrades. There was a lot of challenging debate, of sometimes tearful encounters but all in all guarded support for the strategy.
One aspect of the strategy which proved particularly difficult for activists and families to grasp was in and around the various initiatives that the Republican leadership would take.
A lot of our people at times sought and expected a ‘quid pro quo’ scenario, that when an initiative was taken which stretched our base this would be reciprocated by the British and/or unionism. Of course, it wasn’t like that, and the decision to make a move was never predicated upon what the opposition would do in response, instead it was focussed on pushing the whole process forward. Otherwise, you would become a hostage to your opponents’ strategy.
It was on this basis that I was approached by a comrade and asked to consider putting myself in the public eye, to read a statement to the world from the IRA leadership. They had determined that the time was right to announce an end to the military campaign against British interference in this part of Ireland and call for involvement in the various projects to help build the ‘New Republic’ and defend the integrity of the resistance struggle.
I have to admit to being gobsmacked by this request. I felt very honoured and humbled to be asked. I have a wife, Sinéad, a formidable Republican activist in her own right and three daughters so I decided that I would need to talk it over with them before agreeing to anything. I understood that they would have to live with the consequences of my actions, every bit as much as myself. They encouraged me to go ahead, and I agreed.
• Séanna Walsh reading out the IRA statement in 2005
At the time, I was working with the party as the talks process and negotiations trundled along. But I excused myself that day and headed up to the Roddy McCorley gardens where I met with the cameraman and after several attempts (the occasion did get to me) managed to complete an acceptable recording of the IRA leadership statement. I then went back to work.
There were negotiations ongoing at Hillsborough Castle the next day. The IRA leadership statement was to be released at midday. While in Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road, I received a phone call to access a certain negotiations document and to bring it to the team in Hillsborough. “Are you sure you want me to deliver it at this time? You watching the news?” I queried. “Of course, catch yourself on, c’mon up, asap. We need that paper now, it’s crucial.”
So off I went, I drove into Hillsborough as the story was breaking about the video statement. I walked into our designated negotiations room, explained to the team about the news and left again hurriedly. I returned to the Falls Road where I kept a low profile for a few days.
I have to say that although from time to time at passport security I may experience a second glance and at times a short delay in processing, I have never encountered any extra hostility as I’ve visited countries across the world. More importantly to me, neither have any of my family.
One of the reasons that I felt that it was the right thing to do, to go on camera for the world to see, was the need to portray those of us who volunteered and were active in the IRA as ordinary men and women in a very extraordinary situation. It was also to emphasise that when a credible alternative to armed resistance presented itself, then we were up for that transition.
And so, it came to pass.
• Séanna Walsh is a Sinn Féin councillor and lifelong Republican activist