When I joined the Northern Ireland Office, violence was at a new peak; mass bombings, assassinations, sectarian violence, gun-running and outside interference. No one was talking to anyone and I was frequently advised that the problem was intractable.
We made a different analysis. Firstly, that the war could not be won. Secondly, that there could be no long-term solution to the problem we were confronting without the eventual involvement of those we were fighting. Thirdly, that even as the fighting continued we needed to find a means of engaging them. And fourthly, that this could only be done by opening dialogue.
The first challenge was how to open dialogue with the Provisional IRA, a proscribed terrorist organisation with whom we had no formal means of communication. The first step was using language designed to resonate with them. Eventually tentative contact was made – even as the bombings and assassinations continued, along with our commensurate military responses.
What followed was vicarious dialogue seeking to identify language that might build some confidence with the insurgents, without driving other necessary participants away. The outcome was the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 which encompassed in general terms the aspirations and grievances of the participants sufficiently to give them a degree of confidence without requiring them to sign up to each other's positions.
This was not preceded by or dependent on a prior cessation of violence, nor any undertakings of recognition. It was a signal – ratified by two interested sovereign governments – aimed at persuading participants that there was sufficient basis for moving to dialogue. It was an invitation to engage. It was designed to encourage the participation of those we needed to bring in. Thus the stage was set for the ceasefire by the insurgents.
Then the framework for dialogue began to be put in place. Any formal requirement for a permanent renunciation of violence and the decommissioning of illegally held weapons prior to formal negotiations was bypassed by informal discussions. More pertinently there was never a requirement made of Sinn Féin/IRA for de jure recognition of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Such a precondition would have been a game-breaker. It was enough that they were tentatively seeking to talk with us.
We established 'exploratory dialogue' – hard and often uncompromising talks without conditions or commitment. Precisely because it is not part of formal delicate negotiations the participants can be much more robust with one another. The early conversations I had with Sinn Féin/IRA members were most certainly not the language of negotiation, but provided an important part of the exploration. Instead of negotiating commitments, we were exploring boundaries, establishing lines in the sand beyond which they would not go. Narrow horizons suddenly began to broaden. The hitherto impossible suddenly became remotely possible.
And there was a vital spin-off. If Sinn Féin/IRA could be persuaded to explore their lines in the sand, why not the democratic parties in the middle and indeed the paramilitaries at the other extreme as well? Thus exploratory dialogue spread organically until it encompassed all participants, each individually without commitment exploring the lines in the sand. When many of these lines overlapped, we had a launch pad for progress. These overlaps led to the Framework Document – notorious for being disowned by all the participants – but which because of the robustness of all the gathered lines in the sand eventually became the basis of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.