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1993 - 1996: The First Ceasefires and the Peace Process
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In late 1993, the British and Irish governments looked at the situation and realised that the conditions were now right to begin a new peace process. For the first time ever, all the terrorist groups had political representatives who were prepared to negotiate. The people of Northern Ireland had endured 24 years of violence and there was growing feeling that something had to be done to end it once and for all. So the two governments met and, on 15 December 1993, announced their mutual positions on Northern Ireland which they hoped would be the basis for future negotiations. Called the Downing Street Declaration, it committed both governments to developing new political frameworks and permitting any party that gave up violence to join talks. The UK declared that they had "no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland", accepted that a united Ireland was possible if a majority so desired and promised to work towards an agreement. The Irish agreed that a united Ireland could only happen with majority consent and would set up a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. This declaration angered the extreme Unionists, who accused the UK of selling off Ulster and Sinn Fein (whose only MP, Gerry Adams, lost his seat in the 1993 election) said it was 'disappointed'. The groups representing terrorists called for clarification of the document. The more moderate parties gave it a guarded welcome.

After several months, the UK government released a commentary on the Declaration clarifying the issues for the terrorist-linked parties. They said that both Sinn Fein and the fringe loyalists could join the talks if they "laid down their arms". In February 1994, the USA permitted Gerry Adams to go there for the first time, and he recieved huge publicity. Afterwards, President Clinton urged the IRA to call a ceasefire. Eventually, on 31 August 1994 and after 25 years of violence, the IRA announced a "complete cessation of military operations". Spontanious celebrations broke out all over Nationalist areas which Unionists viewed with suspicion. However, six weeks later, on 13 October 1994, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (an umbrella group which represented the UVF and UDA) announced their own cessation. Although the way now appeared clear for talks to begin, it was not to be that simple.

The Unionists objected strongly to suggestions that the parties should become involved in talks, pointing out that neither organisation had said their cessations were permanent, which they understood the Downing Street Declaration to require. While the SDLP said they believed the cessations were permanent, Sinn Fein said the term was meaningless. However, the UK government went ahead with meeting Sinn Fein on 9 December 1994, the first such meeting since 1972, and again in the first half of 1995. No talks were planned, however. As a confidence building measure, British Army daytime patrols in Belfast were abolished in January and some security installations were dismantled and troops pulled out. Over this time, American support for Sinn Fein grew with Gerry Adams being invited to the White House for St Patrick's Day. The fringe loyalist UDP also took up an invitation.

The summer months of 1995 were marred by violence. Sinn Fein had introduced a policy of opposing Orange Order and Apprentice Boy parades, which they regarded as sectarian. Some of these marches went through Nationalist areas. These marches had followed the same routes for many years, but demographic changes had turned some formerly Unioinist areas into Nationalist areas. Now some local residents decided they were not going to tolerate marches in these areas any more. Rioting broke out all over Northern Ireland, especially at Orange parades and extensive property damage was caused. The ceasefires were strained, but held.

Although the peace talks had started by mid 1995, neither Sinn Fein nor the fringe loyalists had been premitted to enter. The main reason was that the UK Prime Minister John Major had said that the terrorists must decommission their weapons before their political wings could be admitted to the talks, to prove that their cessations were permanent. Sinn Fein was furious about this, saying that decommissioning had not been on the table when the IRA had called its ceasefire. The problem caused stalemate, and in November 1995, the two governments released another document which would set up a body to look at the issue of decommisisoning. The International Body on Arms Decommissioning was chaired by US Senator Gorge Mitchell. At Christmas 1995, US President Bill Clintion made an historic visit to Northern Ireland to support the peace process, but even this visit was not enough to surmount the stalemate. In January 1996 Senator Mitchell presented the Mitchell Report which recommended that parties be permitted to join talks if their paramilitary wings decommissioned weapons during the talks.

The IRA was furious, saying that decommissioning could not begin until the process was completed, and refused to hand over any weapons. Strains within the IRA reached new levels as Sinn Fein tried to hold them together. However on 9 February 1996, at 7pm, the IRA released a statement announced that their ceasefire was over. 60 seconds later, a massive bomb exploded at Canary Wharf in London killing two civilians and causing millions of pounds worth of damage. Sinn Fein appeared to be genuinely surprised by the announcement and bomb.

In response, the British army recommenced patrols in Belfast and some security arrangements were put back in place. The IRA had changed tactics since their last campaign, however. They were aware of the level of disappointment in the Nationalist community and so decided not to lower their support further by attacking targets in Northern Ireland. Instead, they concentrated their campaign on mainland Britain with bombs in London and a massive one in Manchester, in central England. The fringe loyalist parties managed to persuade the loyalist terrorists to maintain their ceasefires throughout this period.

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