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The search for peace
Downing Street Declaration
December, 1993
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Downing Street Declaration
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Downing Street Declaration

Prime Ministers John Major and Albert Reynolds

On 15 December, the UK Prime Minister John Major and the Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds delivered the outlines of a plan that both hoped would lead to peace and multi-party talks including Sinn Fein and representatives of loyalist paramilitaries.

Known as the Downing Street Declaration, it argued for self-determination on the basis of consensus for all the people of Ireland. It argued that any agreement had to be based on the right of people on both parts of the island to "exercise the right of self determination on the basis of consent freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland if that is their wish."

Hardliners were outraged. Ian Paisley called the Declaration a sell-out to Dublin. The more moderate Ulster Unionists were prepared to consider the document. Party leader James Molyneaux, who had been consulted in the talks, insisted the declaration was merely a statement of principles and it posed no threat to the union because any change required the support of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein also said that it would be hard to sell the plan to the IRA. It said it would seek clarification of elements of the Declaration before approaching the IRA Army Council - though many analysts interpreted this as an attempt to begin actual negotiations.

The wider political importance of the document was that it recognised that the peace process could only work if three sets of relationships were addressed:

  • The relationship between the two communities in Northern Ireland
  • The political and constitutional relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic
  • The political relationship between Dublin and London

    The document also stated that the British government's role was to "encourage, facilitate and enable" the peace process - rather than specifically encourage any single outcome.

    Secondly, the Irish government said that it recognised that a significant minority - in other words the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland - could not be forced into arrangements that they opposed. This effectively set the ball rolling for the eventual removal, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, of the Republic's constitutional claim over Northern Ireland.

    The Downing Street Declaration effectively signalled a public sea-change by the two governments in how they were prepared to approach Northern Ireland's political future. It was now over to the paramilitaries to decided whether or not they would be part of that. The stage was set for political talks.

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