With ideas crystallising around the concept of a joint declaration by Taoiseach and Prime Minister, John Hume presented Taoiseach Charles Haughey in October 1991 with the sketch of a draft declaration – an idea supported by Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin. Its broad themes covered the need to overcome the legacy of the past, the opportunities provided by the European Union with its constructive ethos and the right to self-determination (with a time frame for it to be exercised). This should happen in the context of the Irish government’s recognition of the necessity for the consent of the people of Northern Ireland and the establishment of a nationalist convention or forum that would give Sinn Féin a platform.
These ideas were developed by the Irish government and the exchange of papers continued under the new Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Direct dialogue between the Irish government and Sinn Féin was eventually resumed. From December 1991 the British Prime Minister was made aware of the possibility of an initiative. Sinn Féin wanted a declaration that reflected its ideology as faithfully as possible. The Irish government’s principal concern was that, despite the adoption of language more associated with the republican movement, the proposal should remain compatible with Ireland’s international obligations, and notably the principle of consent under the Anglo–Irish Agreement. The SDLP leader had the most pragmatic attitude to the content of the draft declaration.
Whereas Charles Haughey had had a cautious attitude to the initiative, the importance and controversial nature of which he recognised, Albert Reynolds came to office imbued with the idea that peace was a moral imperative. He often described his intentions to an unsuspecting public by saying that he was seeking ‘a formula for peace’. He aroused the non-committal interest of Prime Minister John Major who, with new Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew, now put greater emphasis on trying to establish a new phase of political talks. But the inter-party talks that were revived in April 1992 broke down seven months later at the time of the Irish general election. The unionists alleged constitutional inflexibility by the Irish government and declined to return to the talks.
John Hume had kept senior British officials informed of what was happening, but both governments also had their own direct lines to Sinn Féin. The British government was in parallel exploring the republican movement’s readiness for peace. However, the position was complicated on the British government’s side by its narrow parliamentary majority and consequent growing dependence on the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) for its maintenance in office until 1997. Far from being influenced towards more direct engagement with the republican movement by bombs that caused considerable damage in the City of London in the spring of 1993, the government concluded an informal political alliance with the Ulster Unionists in the summer of 1993. At that point it received from the Irish government the draft declaration to which the republican movement had given only tentative backing, nervous of the unlikely possibility that the British might accept it as it stood. The document has subsequently been referred to in popular parlance as ‘Hume–Adams’, though in private republicans referred to it at that time as the Dublin government’s initiative rather than theirs. The declaration of principles was initially entirely nationalist in character. From the British government’s point of view it had Gerry Adams’ fingerprints on it and consequently they were not prepared to accept it as a basis for negotiation, though they did discuss it with Irish officials. Albert Reynolds, however, was absolutely determined to pursue the initiative and refused to take no for an answer. He was prepared if necessary to reformulate the paper as a purely Irish initiative and confront the British government’s reluctance to move on it. ‘Who is afraid of peace?’ was his clarion call. At the same time, it was clear that if the proposal were to be adopted by the British government it would require modification and amplification.
In autumn 1993, after a period of waiting, John Hume and Gerry Adams made public the fact that they had put a proposal to the Irish government for transmission to the British. Unionist and loyalist fears were greatly heightened and violence increased as it often did when there were signs of political progress.
The Irish government entered into dialogue using Protestant clergy as intermediaries with both the Ulster unionist leadership and the loyalist paramilitaries in order to defuse fears and rumours. It was necessary to incorporate some loyalist thinking and use language that addressed unionist concerns in the draft declaration.