Republicans remained upbeat as the Irish government under Albert Reynolds moved quickly to live up to its promises. Reynolds steadfastly refused to be drawn into the debate on permanency. He met with Gerry Adams and John Hume within days at Leinster House (the Irish seat of government) and the public handshakes signalled the coming in from the cold of Sinn Féin. He began a prisoner release programme, set up the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and ended censorship of the party in the media.
Compared to the IRA’s complete cessation of military operations, the British response was derisive and begrudging, and they still seemed more intent on defeating the IRA than building a peace settlement. Throughout the cessation there was no serious engagement by the Major government. They announced a ‘decontamination’ period before their officials – rather than ministers – would meet with Sinn Féin. Military patrolling of nationalist areas remained high, they restored remission for prisoners to pre-1989 levels rather than beginning a prisoner release scheme and only lifted the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin when it became too embarrassing to continue.
However, if there was one event which killed off the potential of the 1994 cessation to culminate in a peace settlement it was the resignation of Albert Reynolds in November 1995 over an unrelated political scandal. The writing was on the wall from that point. Reynolds was a key figure and had taken political gambles in the run-up to the cessation to bring republicans on board. That is not to say that the breakdown was unavoidable with a bit of imagination or willingness from the Major government to participate actively in the process.
The new Taioseach, John Bruton, could be described at that time as republicans’ worst nightmare. The Fine Gael leader had been a consistent critic of Reynold’s support for the Hume–Adams initiative until the cessation was actually announced. He was considered overly sympathetic to unionists. With Labour leader Dick Spring, Bruton did at least make some ground in the British and Irish governments’ Framework Documents of 1995. The documents fell short of republican aspirations but they did formalise the centrality of all-island institutions in any solution to the conflict. Republicans felt that this could provide building blocks towards Irish unity.
While Bruton did make an honest effort to advance the peace process, he failed to comprehend fully that he needed to be proactive in persuading the British and the unionists of the need for change. As a result he allowed the British government, in particular, to choke the life out of the potential of the 1994 cessation.
Meanwhile, British insistence on no movement without decommissioning (which now replaced a demand for an assurance that the ceasefire was permanent as the sticking point) began to exasperate not just the republican leadership and the IRA, but the nationalist people as a whole.