With both sides committed to an end to violence, the test for the British and Irish governments was to create an environment that would turn a fragile peace into a productive political process.
The path was fraught with difficulties - not least that unionists initially refused to negotiate directly with Sinn Fein. But the real sticking point was the decommissioning of arms. The IRA's refusal to begin handing over weapons created a major obstacle to Sinn Fein's participation in all-party talks.
Seasoned observers remarked at the time that the IRA would regard decommissioning demands prior to talks as tantamount to asking it to surrender in a conflict it believed it had not lost.
The gap seemed impossible to breach. At an Easter rally in 1995, Martin McGuinness said that "if the British had mentioned decommissioning [before the ceasefire], it is my opinion that there would have been no cessation on 31 August, 1994.
Progress was made difficult due to new violence in the province during the traditional Protestant marching season. The issue came to a head in Portadown when the RUC blocked an Orange parade returning from a church service at Drumcree. The stand-off led to riots. To the fury of nationalists, the Orangemen were allowed to proceed down the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road.
A separate body, headed by former US Senator George Mitchell, was formed to deal with the decommissioning issue. In January 1996, the group published its report which proposed that arms decommissioning should take place during negotiations. It also called on parties to accept six principles before entering talks. The main one was that all parties should subscribe to democratic methods and reject the use of violence to further their political aims. Five days after the publication of the report, the IRA ended its ceasefire with a bomb at Canary Wharf in London which killed two people.
At the end of February, the two governments set a date for multi-party talks. Sinn Fein, it was agreed, would be excluded until the IRA restored its ceasefire. Elections took place to decide which parties could take part in negotiations and Sinn Fein won a place. Its delegation was refused entry because of the IRA's continuing violence. Five days later an IRA bomb destroyed a Manchester shopping Centre.
A new ceasefire was not established until 20 July, 1997. Prime Minister Tony Blair's landslide victory had changed the British political landscape and once again the IRA believed progress could be made. Within days, the new Northern Ireland Secretary gave assurances that given an IRA ceasefire, Sinn Fien would be admitted to the talks. She also persuaded Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to join. The talks began on 15 September, 1997 and eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.