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Commentary from Professor Ian Mcbride
Looking at the Downing Street Declaration

Writing Peace

Joint Declaration Downing Street Declaration

15 December 1993

1.The Taoiseach, Mr. Albert Reynolds, TD, and the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. John Major, MP, acknowledge that the most urgent and important issue facing the people of Ireland, North and South, and the British and Irish Governments together, is to remove the causes of conflict, to overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions which have resulted, recognising that the absence of a lasting and satisfactory settlement of relationships between the peoples of both islands has contributed to continuing tragedy and suffering. They believe that the development of an agreed framework for peace, which has been discussed between them since early last year, and which is based on a number of key principles articulated by the two Governments over the past 20 years, together with the adaptation of other widely accepted principles, provides the starting point of a peace process designed to culminate in a political settlement.

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2.The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister are convinced of the inestimable value to both their peoples, and particularly for the next generation, of healing divisions in Ireland and of ending a conflict which has been so manifestly to the detriment of all. Both recognise that the ending of divisions can come about only through the agreement and co-operation of the people, North and South, representing both traditions in Ireland. They therefore make a solemn commitment to promote co-operation at all levels on the basis of the fundamental principles, undertakings, obligations under international agreements, to which they have jointly committed themselves, and the guarantees which each Government has given and now reaffirms, including Northern Ireland's statutory constitutional guarantee. It is their aim to foster agreement and reconciliation, leading to a new political framework founded on consent and encompassing arrangements within Northern Ireland, for the whole island, and between these islands.

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3.They also consider that the development of Europe will, of itself, require new approaches to serve interests common to both parts of the island of Ireland, and to Ireland and the United Kingdom as partners in the European Union.

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4.The Prime Minister, on behalf of the British Government, reaffirms that they will uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. On this basis, he reiterates, on behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Their primary interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island, and they will work together with the Irish Government to achieve such an agreement, which will embrace the totality of relationships. The role of the British Government will be to encourage, facilitate and enable the achievement of such agreement over a period through a process of dialogue and co-operation based on full respect for the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland. They accept that such agreement may, as of right, take the form of agreed structures for the island as a whole, including a united Ireland achieved by peaceful means on the following basis. The British Government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish. They reaffirm as a binding obligation that they will, for their part, introduce the necessary legislation to give effect to this, or equally to any measure of agreement on future relationships in Ireland which the people living in Ireland may themselves freely so determine without external impediment. They believe that the people of Britain would wish, in friendship to all sides, to enable the people of Ireland to reach agreement on how they may live together in harmony and in partnership, with respect for their diverse traditions, and with full recognition of the special links and the unique relationship which exist between the peoples of Britain and Ireland.

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5.The Taoiseach, on behalf of the Irish Government, considers that the lessons of Irish history, and especially of Northern Ireland, show that stability and well-being will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected on grounds of identity by a significant minority of those governed by it. For this reason, it would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland, in the absence of the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. He accepts, on behalf of the Irish Government, that the democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and must, consistent with justice and equity, respect the democratic dignity and the civil rights and religious liberties of both communities, including:

  • the right of free political thought;
  • the right of freedom and expression of religion;
  • the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations;
  • the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means; the right to live wherever one chooses without hindrance;
  • the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, sex or colour.

These would be reflected in any future political and constitutional arrangements emerging from a new and more broadly based agreement.

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6.The Taoiseach however recognises the genuine difficulties and barriers to building relationships of trust either within or beyond Northern Ireland, from which both traditions suffer. He will work to create a new era of trust, in which suspicion of the motives or actions of others is removed on the part of either community. He considers that the future of the island depends on the nature of the relationship between the two main traditions that inhabit it. Every effort must be made to build a new sense of trust between those communities. In recognition of the fears of the Unionist community and as a token of his willingness to make a personal contribution to the building up of that necessary trust, the Taoiseach will examine with his colleagues any elements in the democratic life and organisation of the Irish State that can be represented to the Irish Government in the course of political dialogue as a real and substantial threat to their way of life and ethos, or that can be represented as not being fully consistent with a modern democratic and pluralist society, and undertakes to examine any possible ways of removing such obstacles. Such an examination would of course have due regard to the desire to preserve those inherited values that are largely shared throughout the island or that belong to the cultural and historical roots of the people of this island in all their diversity. The Taoiseach hopes that over time a meeting of hearts and minds will develop, which will bring all the people of Ireland together, and will work towards that objective, but he pledges in the meantime that as a result of the efforts that will be made to build mutual confidence no Northern Unionist should ever have to fear in future that this ideal will be pursued either by threat or coercion.

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7.Both Governments accept that Irish unity would he achieved only by those who favour this outcome persuading those who do not, peacefully and without coercion or violence, and that, if in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland are so persuaded, both Governments will support and give legislative effect to their wish. But, notwithstanding the solemn affirmation by both Governments in the Anglo-Irish Agreement that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach also recognises the continuing uncertainties and misgivings which dominate so much of Northern Unionist attitudes towards the rest of Ireland. He believes that we stand at a stage of our history when the genuine feelings of all traditions in the North must be recognised and acknowledged. He appeals to both traditions at this time to grasp the opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning, which could hold such promise for all our lives and the generations to come. He asks the people of Northern Ireland to look on the people of the Republic as friends, who share their grief and shame over all the suffering of the last quarter of a century, and who want to develop the best possible relationship with them, a relationship in which trust and new understanding can flourish and grow. The Taoiseach also acknowledges the presence in the Constitution of the Republic of elements which are deeply resented by Northern Unionists, but which at the same time reflect hopes and ideals which lie deep in the hearts of many Irish men and women North and South. But as we move towards a new era of understanding in which new relationships of trust may grow and bring peace to the island of Ireland, the Taoiseach believes that the time has come to consider together how best the hopes and identities of all can be expressed in more balanced ways, which no longer engender division and the lack of trust to which he has referred. He confirms that, in the event of an overall settlement, the Irish Government will, as part of a balanced constitutional accommodation, put forward and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution which would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland.

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8.The Taoiseach recognises the need to engage in dialogue which would address with honesty and integrity the fears of all traditions. But that dialogue, both within the North and between the people and their representatives of both parts of Ireland, must be entered into with an acknowledgement that the future security and welfare of the people of the island will depend on an open, frank and balanced approach to all the problems which for too long have caused division.

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9.The British and Irish Governments will seek, along with the Northern Ireland constitutional parties through a process of political dialogue, to create institutions and structures which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest. This will help over a period to build the trust necessary to end past divisions, leading to an agreed and peaceful future. Such structures would, of course, include institutional recognition of the special links that exist between the peoples of Britain and Ireland as part of the totality of relationships, while taking account of newly forged links with the rest of Europe.

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10.The British and Irish Governments reiterate that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence. They confirm that, in these circumstances, democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the Governments and the political parties on the way ahead.

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11.The Irish Government would make their own arrangements within their jurisdiction to enable democratic parties to consult together and share in dialogue about the political future. The Taoiseach's intention is that these arrangements could include the establishment, in consultation with other parties, of a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to make recommendations on ways in which agreement and trust between both traditions in Ireland can be promoted and established.

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12.The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister are determined to build on the fervent wish of both their peoples to see old fears and animosities replaced by a climate of peace. They believe the framework they have set out offers the people of Ireland, North and South, whatever their tradition, the basis to agree that from now on their differences can be negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means. They appeal to all concerned to grasp the opportunity for a new departure. That step would compromise no position or principle, nor prejudice the future for either community. On the contrary, it would be an incomparable gain for all. It would break decisively the cycle of violence and the intolerable suffering it entails for the people of these islands, particularly for both communities in Northern Ireland. It would allow the process of economic and social co-operation on the island to realise its full potential for prosperity and mutual understanding. It would transform the prospects for building on the progress already made in the Talks process, involving the two Governments and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister believe that these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundations for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation. They commit themselves and their Governments to continue to work together, unremittingly, towards that objective.

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In their opening statement the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister lament past failures ‘to settle relationships between the peoples of both islands’ and determine to work together to heal divisions in Ireland. The paragraph originates in the first Dublin draft of the Joint Declaration, shared with British officials in December 1991; but it also incorporates the aspiration ‘to remove the causes of conflict’ – a fragment of republican phraseology derived from the alternative Sinn Féin draft of February 1992. The reference to discussions about an ’agreed framework for peace’ taking place since early in 1992 was added in early November 1993 in an attempt to distance the initiative from the Hume-Adams talks, which had become public in April 1993. In the aftermath of the Shankill bomb of 23 October John Major emphasised that any association with Hume-Adams would be ‘the kiss of death’.

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The commitment by the two governments to promote cooperation formed Paragraph 3 of the previous drafts. Although present in all versions, including the original one drawn up by John Hume, its purpose had changed. A draft discussed by the Butler-Nally group of officials in London on 6 October expressed the governments’ intention to cooperate ‘on the basis of the fundamental principles, undertakings and obligations under international agreements, to which they have jointly committed themselves’. The obvious reference was to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, though Unionist sensitivities meant that the ‘diktat’ of 1985 was not mentioned by name. But the addition of an allusion to ‘the guarantees which each Government has given’, approved at that meeting, gestured towards the statutory guarantee. This was the provision made in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 and subsequent legislation that the region would not cease to be part of the United Kingdom ‘without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll’ on that issue. The nod to the constitutional guarantee was made explicit on 7 December. A further proposal to insert the words ‘which the British Government hereby reaffirms’ was rejected. These changes, designed to make the text more palatable to Unionists, presumably explain the reordering of Paragraphs 2 and 3.

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It was a characteristic conviction of John Hume, expressed in Paragraph 2 of his 1991 text, that the Single Market and the removal of economic borders within the European Union would transform the Irish problem. Specific mention of the Single Market was removed from the Anglo-Irish drafts of 1993, partly because it might have antagonised Eurosceptic elements in the Conservative Party.

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This paragraph was recognised as pivotal throughout the negotiations and absorbed more time and energy than any other part of the Joint Declaration. What was omitted was almost as important as what was said. In the June draft of the Declaration , drawn up by Irish officials with input from John Hume and with the tentative backing of the Republican Movement, the British government (i) endorsed the right of ‘collective’ self-determination by the Irish people; (ii) promised to give legislative effect to this right over a time period to be agreed by the two governments; and (iii) agreed to ‘join the ranks of the persuaders’. None of these three obligations made it into the final text.

Sentence (i) contains one of the many affirmations of the consent principle in the Joint Declaration. It was absent in earlier Irish versions which envisaged parallel commitments made by London (recognising the right of the Irish people to self-determination) and Dublin (acknowledging that self-determination could be exercised only with the agreement of people in Northern Ireland). The language here – ‘ the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland’ – was the preferred formulation of James Molyneaux. The point he sought to make was that it was not only the Protestant majority but also many members of the ‘minority community’ who preferred to remain within the United Kingdom. Attempts by the British during the last three weeks to frame the whole of Paragraph 4 within the ‘constitutional guarantee’ were abandoned.

Sentence (ii) restates precisely the famous words spoken by Secretary of State Peter Brooke in his ‘Whitbread speech’ on 9 November 1990. The June draft (JD6), said to have been endorsed by the Republican Movement, had embellished Brooke’s sentiments by stating that the British had ‘no selfish, strategic, political or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland.

The definition of Britain’s objectives in sentence (iii), as ‘peace, stability and reconciliation’, was a repudiation of the republican demand that Britain should join the ranks of the persuaders – that is, declare itself in favour of Irish unity. Britain was nevertheless committing itself to an ‘agreed Ireland’, one where an inclusive settlement in the North was underpinned by an agreement with the South. The phrase ‘totality of relationships’ was first used in the joint communiqué issued in December 1980 following a summit meeting of Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher.

Sentence (iv) blends together more language from the Whitbread speech (which characterised the British role in Northern Ireland as ‘to help, to enable and encourage’) with the emphasis on ‘two traditions’, identity and the politics of esteem favoured by John Hume.

Sentence (v) originally indicated that the British would accept ‘agreed independent structures’ but British officials argued that ‘independent’ was unnecessarily provocative.

The most importance sentence was (vi), dealing with self-determination. The greener Irish drafts had specified that the Irish would exercise their right to self-determination ‘collectively’ in line with the early papers of Father Alec Reid, which spoke of decisions being made by the Irish people ‘as a whole’ , as does Paragraph 5 (below).

For example, the June draft (JD6) argued that ‘the Irish people have the right collectively to self-determination'. Sir Robin Butler quickly identified this sentence as ‘the main difficulty’ for the British government in JD6. The next Irish draft (JD8) addressed this by moving the word ‘collectively’ to a different sentence: the British government would now ‘acknowledge the legitimacy of any form of self-determination for Ireland as a whole which is freely agreed on the basis of consent, North and South, of the people living in Ireland’ and ‘introduce the necessary legislation to give effect to this, or to any measure of agreement on future relationships in Ireland which the people living in Ireland may themselves freely and collectively determine […] on a basis of joint North-South consent’. After Quentin Thomas objected to ‘joint’, ‘concurrent’ was introduced for the first time by the Irish in JD9 to qualify ‘consent’ in the second sentence. This corresponded nicely with John Hume’s suggestion that a settlement for an agreed Ireland should be ratified by separate but simultaneous referenda held in both parts of the island. The British government liked the word enough to introduce it into the first sentence during a Butler/Nally meeting on 6 October 1993, where they also tried to remove ‘freely and collectively’ from the second sentence. This became a sticking point for both sides: British versions from that point onwards took those two words out (for example, the drafts of JD12 and JD14 shown to Molyneaux) whilst the Irish government insisted on them. During the Anglo-Irish Summit on 3 December 1993, the British government changed their approach, seeking to remove ‘collectively’ from the second sentence and insert ‘separately’ into the first. On 7 December 1993, in JD15 , ‘collectively’ was removed; ‘separately’ was not inserted, but ‘by agreement between the two parts respectively’ was, marking a further dilution of the 32-county model of self-determination.

This final formula was rejected by most of the republicans who contributed to the Sinn Féin Peace Commission of January/February 1994. Critics complained that Britain could not acknowledge the Irish right of self-determination and then prescribe the conditions upon which the Irish must exercise it.

Sentence (viii) confirmed, on the part of the British government, a commitment made in Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The additional phrase ‘without external impediment’ echoed international law on self-determination, such as Resolution 2625 (XXV) of the United Nations General Assembly issued in 1970. It was added by the Irish to reinforce the requirement that Britain remain strictly neutral in any future referendum on the status of Northern Ireland.

The final sentence (ix) constitutes the clearest indication in the declaration that the British political elite do not regard the inhabitants of Northern Ireland as part of the British people but rather as part of a single ‘people of Ireland’ embracing the whole island. Its significance was muddied by the fact that ‘Ireland’ might designate a geographical unit, a political unit, a cultural or national unit, or some combination of these; and by the reluctance of the English to accept Ulster Unionists as part of the same imagined community. The sentence, taken together with similar expressions elsewhere, can be interpreted as an act of psychological decolonisation, and it was so interpreted by Protestants.

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This key statement on behalf of the Irish government confirmed and expanded its acceptance of the consent principle. Hume originally wrote that ‘the Irish Government recognises that the traditional objective of Irish nationalism—the exercise of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole—cannot be achieved without the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland’. This was a more emphatic endorsement than Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which stated that constitutional change ‘would only come about’ with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That fudge had been adopted to avoid a direct clash with the territorial claim over the whole island embodied in the Irish constitution of 1937. The NIO officials Quentin Thomas and David Cooke were responsible for the more emphatic rhythm of the final version: ‘must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland’. The six civil rights appended to this paragraph were supplied by the Presbyterian minister Roy Magee, who acted as an intermediary between the Dublin government and the loyalist paramilitaries. Although Magee met Martin Mansergh on 29 September , the list was added only on 13 December.

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The bulk of Paragraphs 6-8 was apparently taken verbatim from papers supplied by Archbishop Robin Eames at the request of Albert Reynolds. It was Eames who suggested that Unionist fears needed to be addressed. The potential threats posed to the Unionist ‘way of life and ethos’ presumably gestured towards the influence of the Catholic Church in the South.

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It had been understood during the negotiations of 1993, as it had been during the intergovernmental talks that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that a successful reset of relations in Northern Ireland would raise the question of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. In the British alternative draft conveyed to Dublin on 26 November the Taoiseach was to state that in the event of a ‘broadly based agreement’ he would propose a change to the Constitution ‘whereby the claim of right to Northern Ireland is no longer exerted’. This was too much for Reynolds, who replied that ‘we will not be seen to be going down on our knees’.

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Since Paragraph 8 was also derived from Eames, the recommendation of an ‘open, frank and balanced approach’ to the Northern Ireland problem must be addressed, at least in part, to the Irish state.

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The ‘agreed and peaceful future’ described in this paragraph hovers uncertainly between a united Ireland and the sort of compromise settlement actually achieved in 1998 . The Taoiseach’s pledge to create ‘institutional recognition of the special links that exist between the peoples of Britain and Ireland’ had appeared in the June draft (Paragraph 6). The hypothetical context – implied rather than stated – was a future united Ireland in which the British identity of Ulster Unionists would require formal expression. The confidence placed in that terminus seemed out of place in the more neutral iterations discussed in November and yet the pledge remained. The main difference with previous drafts was the deletion of sentence proclaiming that the Irish government would seek to create new structures ‘on the basis of the Report of the New Ireland Forum’. In 1984 the Forum had recommended three possible solutions, all rejected by Unionists: a unitary Irish state, a federal or confederal Irish state, and joint authority. The mention of the ‘Northern Irish constitutional parties’ was added at the request of James Molyneaux.

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From the outset the object of the Joint Declaration had been to persuade the IRA to call a ceasefire, following which Sinn Féin would be admitted to ‘the democratic process’. Since the early 1970s the Provisionals had called for the election of an Irish convention, representing all 32 counties, with the purpose of designing new constitutional structures. All Father Alec Reid’s position papers echoed this demand, although he privately admitted that it was unlikely that Unionists would attend, and that the real purpose of the convention was to ease Sinn Féin leaders into mainstream politics. Reynolds, too, frankly described the convention as ‘a purely consultative body’. Unionists were nevertheless likely to be alarmed, particularly in the light of a press leak on 19 November which suggested that the Irish blueprint for a settlement involved a new North-South interparliamentary forum, and the association of the convention concept with Hume-Adams. It prompted Molyneaux’s most decisive objection to the whole initiative. Consequently, at the summit on 3 December , John Major proposed replacing the convention with an offer of ‘exploratory dialogue’ with Sinn Féin three months after ‘an unequivocal cessation of violence’. The new Paragraph 10 hints at that outcome, already communicated to the IRA in a nine-paragraph message written by the NIO official David Cooke and sent through the Derry backchannel. An additional paragraph (numbered 11 in ‘JD18’), explicitly making the three-month offer, was removed on 14 December.

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Reynolds continued to defend the convention proposal when the two leaders met at a Brussels summit on 10 December. As a compromise the body was renamed the ‘Forum for Peace and Reconciliation’.

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The final paragraph restates the central aim of the Downing Street Declaration: to demonstrate to republicans (and loyalists) that political differences can be ‘negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means’. Contrary to the suggestion that an inclusive settlement ‘would compromise no position or principle’, the history of the declaration had already shown that compromise on all sides was the indispensable foundation of the Northern Ireland peace process.

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