Haughey's role in peace process often overlooked says historian

Charles J Haughey had a role in both facilitating the rise of the Provisional IRA and in bringing its violence to an end, writes historian Stephen Kelly, who argues in his new book that the former Fianna Fail leader's role in the peace process is under-acknowledged

The north's peace process is more often associated with former taoisigh Albert Reynolds, centre, and Bertie Ahern, right, than with Charles J Haughey, left Picture courtesy

IT IS certainly one of the greatest ironies of Charles J Haughey’s political career that given his involvement – albeit indirectly – in helping to facilitate the emergence of the nascent PIRA in 1969/1970 that he played an integral role in genesis of the Northern Ireland peace process.

His role is all the more ironic, not to mention peculiar, considering that ultimately he strongly opposed the Irish government’s support for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998; an agreement that he allegedly described as “inherently unstable”.

The origins of Haughey’s contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process date to a meeting he had with thh late Belfast-based Redemptorist priest Alec Reid in 1986 – while Haughey was leader of the Opposition. Following a series of back-channel communications, Fr Reid was invited to meet Haughey at his Kinsealy home in north Dublin.

During their meeting Fr Reid told Haughey that he was convinced that lasting peace was achievable if Sinn Féin could be brought in from the political cold. Fr Reid suggested to Haughey that if the PIRA agreed to end its violence then Sinn Féin should be allowed to attend an all-Ireland conference.

Fr Reid told Haughey that Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin president, was a man the Fianna Fáil leader could do business with. Although Haughey said he was interested in developing contacts with Sinn Féin, he refused Fr Reid’s request to hold face-to-face discussions with Adams. Haughey feared that if details of such a meeting became public that it would be viewed as an ‘unholy alliance’ between the PIRA and the Fianna Fáil leader.

Haughey’s unwillingness to meet Adams did not spell the end of this new clandestine initiative. On the contrary, in May 1987 Haughey, who had become taoiseach, was presented with a 15-page letter from Fr Reid. The contents of the letter were truly groundbreaking. Contained within were the terms of a proposed PIRA ceasefire, seven years before the republican movement announced a cessation of hostilities in August 1994.


While continuing to refuse face-to-face contact with Adams, the taoiseach agreed to continue dialogue with Fr Reid. During these meetings Fr Reid brought with him "a detailed, worked-out strategy", which he labelled “a concrete proposal for a political strategy for justice and peace”.

One of the policy papers set out ‘six fundamental principles’ that would underpin this new initiative on Northern Ireland. Two of the six were particularly remarkable. Firstly, an acknowledgement of the need to redefine the principle of national self-determination to "embrace the need for unionist consent".

Secondly, Fr Reid drew up a new definition regarding British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. "By agreeing to this", to quote Ed Moloney, "republicans would formally abandon the IRA goal of ejecting Britain from Northern Ireland by force".

"These principles would go on to form the bedrock of the Northern Ireland peace process over the next decade. In the meantime, however, one major stumbling block remained. How would dialogue between Haughey and Adams be maintained without both men actually meeting one another? The answer was found in John Hume, leader of the SDLP.

Haughey envisaged that Hume would become a buffer between the PIRA, Sinn Féin and the Irish government. The first of a series of meetings between Adams and Hume took place in January 1988, at Clonard Monastery. By September the Adams-Hume talks concluded, for the meantime at least, with both sides producing policy papers.

It was at this critical juncture that Haughey turned to his trusted political advisor Martin Mansergh to continue secret dialogue between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin which has begun with Mansergh, Dermot Ahern and Richie Healy, twice meeting a Sinn Féin delegation in May and June of 1988

Ahern’s recollection of the Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin talks read like something from a John le Carré detective novel: there were secret meetings, unidentified figures and Special Branch surveillance.

Unfortunately, by the late 1988, within the context of the continuing activities of the PIRA, Haughey decided to call a halt to the Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin talks. Despite Haughey’s decision to end the talks his brave gamble – and it was a gamble – to open discussions with the republican movement set in motion the path towards finding lasting peace on the island of Ireland.

Apart from his secret dealings with republicans, one should not forget that it was Haughey who first won concessions from John Major, Margaret Thatcher’s successor as British prime minister on Northern Ireland. In December 1991, following three years of discussions between Adams and Hume, Haughey presented Major with a draft of a model joint British-Irish government declaration, known as ‘Draft 2’.

This draft document would later become colloquially known as the Downing Street Declaration.

Unfortunately for Haughey he never had the opportunity to discuss the contents of this document face-to-face with Major. Haughey was ousted as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach in January 1992 and it fell to his successor Albert Reynolds to continue negotiations with the British government. The Downing Street Declaration was signed on behalf of the British and Irish governments on December 15 1993.

With Haughey having vacated the political stage before this agreement was reached, his important contribution was thus forgotten. In fact, over the past 25years, mainstream media and academics, alike, have generally airbrushed out altogether Haughey’s role in the birth of the Northern Ireland peace process.

:: Stephen Kelly, historian at University of Liverpool, is the author of A Failed Political Entity: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992 (Merrion Press), which is published this week.


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