Disarming Violence

Disarming Violence: Decommissioning and the Northern Irish Peace Process

Decommissioning and the Peace Process

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and SLDP leader John Hume shake hands in 1994 following the IRA ceasefire. Photo Credit Matt Kavanagh, The Irish Times.

For several years prior to the start of peace talks the leaders of Northern Ireland’s two largest republican nationalist parties, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, had entered discussions on the future of the republican movement. Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein had been closely connected to the IRA throughout the Troubles, while John Hume’s SDLP had sworn off violent tactics and pursued political tactics instead. Partially for these reasons, the SDLP was the more popular of the two nationalist parties in Northern Ireland.[1] Adams and Hume released several joint statements in which they reiterated their commitment to promoting Irish sovereignty: “We accept that the Irish people as a whole have a right to national self-determination.”[2] Notably, however, they also called for a settlement that “respects the diversity of our different traditions and earns their allegiance and agreement.”[3]


The start of the peace process in Northern Ireland required major changes in policy for both governments and political parties. Less than two months after the IRA’s Shankill bombing killed nine civilians, British PM John Major and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds would release the “Downing Street Declaration,” which formally announced the plans for peace talks involving the two governments and all political parties in Northern Ireland.[4] With the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993, the British and Irish governments announced major policy changes to help kickstart a negotiated settlement to end the Troubles. The British government had allowed the Republic of Ireland a greater role in matters regarding Northern Ireland with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which it had previously rejected, and now promised to “uphold the democratic wish” of Northern Irelanders “whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland.”[5] On the other side, the Irish government agreed to renounce their constitutional claims on the six northern counties. The declaration and subsequent documents also worked to establish cross-border institutions, and the two governments worked together to guarantee ceasefires through all-party negotiations.[6]


 On August 31, 1994, not long after the Adams-Hume talks the Provisional IRA took a major step in declaring a ceasefire. In a statement, the IRA praised the work of its volunteer forces, but instructed them to stand down to take advantage of a new political opportunity: “We believe that an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement has been created.”[7] The suspension of the armed campaign marked a significant change in thinking for the IRA. While the Downing Street Declaration and the Hume-Adams talks had encouraged a political settlement, changes within the IRA also precipitated the ceasefire. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, it became clear that the IRA and British military were in a stalemate. The Provisional’s war of attrition had not removed the British presence, but the IRA had clearly not been defeated either. Some members of the IRA began to feel that they should seize the opportunity to negotiate before their bargaining power weakened.[8]


As preparations for the peace talks took place, several key issues emerged, including police reform, prisoner release, and the creation of a new legislative body in Northern Ireland. No issue posed more of a threat to the continuation of the process than that of weapons decommissioning. The idea of weapons decommissioning was quite popular with the public in Northern Ireland, with one poll finding that 93% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics supported decommissioning.[9] The British government, as well as Unionist political parties like the DUP and UPP, demanded at least partial decommissioning of guns and explosives as a prerequisite for talks.[10] The IRA rejected this demand, and Gerry Adams, who accepted decommissioning in general, stressed that it should be a voluntary process and not hinder the rest of discussions.[11]


In January 1996, U.S. Senator George Mitchell conducted a report on the issue on the behalf of the British and Irish governments. His report stressed the need for an independent, international commission to handle disarmament. The report further recommended against decommissioning as a prerequisite for talks, as well as confidence-building systems of verification: “The decommissioning process should suggest neither victory nor defeat.”[12] Unfortunately, the British government largely ignored the report, and not long after the IRA announced an end to their ceasefire and resumption of the armed campaign in Britain, blaming “[Prime Minister] Major and the Unionist leaders” for the impasse. Only after Tony Blair became PM in 1998 was the decommissioning prerequisite set aside and Sinn Fein allowed back into talks. Blair’s Labour party was less dependent on conservative Unionist votes, and therefore could afford to allow Sinn Fein back into the talks, although the DUP and UKUP backed out in protest.[13]


Ultimately, the negotiations led to the Good Friday Agreement being signed on April 10, 1998, and passing a referendum in Northern Ireland with 71% of the vote on May 22.[14] The Agreement resulted in a new human rights council in Northern Ireland, policies to reduce inequality between religious groups, and reductions in security forces. Significantly, there was no decommissioning of weapons by any paramilitaries prior to the passing of the Agreement.[15]


Why did the Good Friday Agreement survive the decommissioning issue, even when many voters supported disarmament? Several reasons can be seen. For one, the negotiation process was very public, and the inclusivity of even fringe political parties like Sinn Fein meant that parties could take advantage of their mobilization powers to encourage voters to support the deal. Peace talks that are held in secret or exclude major players are less likely to succeed.[16] Even though paramilitaries may be fringe groups, they still possess political power in the form of violence, and keeping them in the peace process helps discourage violent tactics.[17] Secondly, changing political circumstances in Britain and within paramilitary groups like the IRA opened the door for more flexibility on policy. The decommissioning debates show how broader negotiations be jeopardized by single issues, but thanks to a genuine commitment to peace by major stakeholders the peace process survived.


[1] Roger MacGinty. Guns and Government: The Management of the Northern Ireland Peace Process (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 22-25.

[2] “First Joint Statement issued by John Hume and Gerry Adams, 24 April 1993”, CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 3 April 2022, https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ha24493.htm.

[3] “Second Joint Statement issued by John Hume and Gerry Adams, 25 September 1993,” CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 3 April 2022, https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ha25993.htm.

[4] “Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration, Wednesday 15 December 1993,” CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 2 April 2022. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/dsd151293.htm.

[5] “Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration, Wednesday 15 December 1993,” CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 2 April 2022. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/dsd151293.htm.

[6] Etain Tannam. “Explaining the Good Friday Agreement: A Learning Process.” Government and Opposition, Vol. 36 No. 4 (2001). 493-518. 502-503.

[7] “Irish Republican Army (IRA) Ceasefire Statement, 31 August 1994” CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 3 April 2022, https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ha25993.htm.

[8] English, Armed Struggle, 309-315.

[9] Roger MacGinty, “’Biting the Bullet’: Decommissioning in the Transition from War to Peace in Northern Ireland.” Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 10 (1999), 237-247. 246.

[10] MacGinty, Guns and Government, 31.

[11] Gerry Adams, “Statement by Mr. Gerry Adams on Decommissioning, 22 November 1999,” CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 3 April 2022. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ga221199.htm.

[12] “Report of the International Body on Arms Decommissioning, 22 January 1996,” CAIN Archive, CAIN Web Service, Accessed 3 April 2022. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/dsd151293.htm.

[13] MacGinty, Guns and Government, 31

[14] Brew, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles, 358-365.

[15] MacGinty, Guns and Government, 42.

[16] Joanna, Aramal. “Do peace negotiations shape settlement referendums? The Annan Plan and Good Friday Agreement experiences compared.” Cooperation and Conquest, Vol. 53, No. 3, (2018), 356-374. 356-357.

[17] Richard, Deutsche. “The Good Friday Agreement: Assessing Its Implementation 1998-2001.” Nordic Irish Studies, Vol. 1 (2002), 95-109. 96.