Dick Spring: ‘I don’t want to sound like I’m lecturing or hectoring young people’

Thirty years on from the Downing Street Declaration, the former Labour Party leader looks back, and forwards, saying Northern Ireland is hurting at the moment because of a lack of governance

Thirty years on, there are many conversations that former leader of the Labour Party Dick Spring could recall about the months of often tortuous negotiations surrounding the Downing Street Declaration.

Instead, he chooses to relate words exchanged with his then six-year-old son Adam on the doorstep of the family home outside Tralee as Spring, then minister for foreign affairs, prepared to leave home on a Sunday for yet another meeting in Northern Ireland.

“Usually on Sundays, I would be shifted up to Northern Ireland to meet with the leader of the Official Unionist Party, Jim Molyneaux, or with people like that. It was the only day we could meet,” he told The Irish Times.

Unhappy that his father was “disappearing again”, as Spring puts it now, his son had asked why he had to go away so often on Sundays: “I tried to explain to him what the problem was. I gave him the short version of the Norman invasion up to the present day.


“He said, ‘Why can’t they be half-Irish and half-English?’ I thought it was so profound,” says the 73-year-old Spring, who 30 years ago on Friday stood outside a festively decorated No 10 Downing Street on the occasion of the Declaration.

Back then, he was flanked by taoiseach Albert Reynolds and minister for justice Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, along with British prime minister John Major and Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew.

Today, Spring rarely appears on the public radar, preferring to enjoy his retirement with his wife Kristi with visits to the homes of his three children and growing clutch of grandchildren, including a New Zealand branch.

He is wary of being seen to preach to younger generations with no memory of the Troubles, or even to be seen as someone with an insight into how young voting-age adults should view arguments for or against a united Ireland.

“I probably have to say to you that I really don’t know what they are thinking. I tend to spend more time with people under seven than I do with those who are between 20 and 30,” he says, with a laugh.

None of this means, however, that Spring – usually direct during his career, to the point of bluntness – does not have opinions about the choices that could face electorates on both parts of the island in the years or decades ahead.

In fact, he has very strong opinions. However, 21 years since he departed politics, he now has to be encouraged to express them publicly. In 2002, he had lost his seat in Kerry North as Sinn Féin’s Martin Ferris topped the poll.

You’d catch a glimpse of a 17-year-old British soldier in the bushes, his rifle cocked. And you’d just say to yourself, I hope that that young fella knows how to control that gun

—  Dick Spring

Never a fan of Sinn Féin, he retains his antipathy today. “Reluctantly, it’s better to have them inside the tent than shooting from the outside. They’ve pledged to be involved in constitutional politics. That’s the reality of the situation.

“But, certainly, I would like to see them expressing some, umm, empathy, about the problems they’ve caused through the campaign of violence... If they admitted at some stage, you know, that the campaign should never have happened.

“And it should never have happened, and they could have saved the whole island, I think, an awful lot of the difficult circumstances that they were responsible for,” he tells The Irish Times, warming to his theme.

Younger generations cannot begin, nor should they be expected, to absorb the dark horrors of the Troubles, Spring believes: “Most people under 40 have no understanding of what it was like in 1993, for example, with the Shankill bombings, with the Greysteel murders. Or with horrific day-to-day events that had been going on for 24 years – kidnappings, bombings, post office robberies down the South, the killing of policemen North and South. It’s actually, when you think of 2023, it’s a different world,” he says.

Remembering the endless journeys to Belfast on dark roads and late-night British army checkpoints far removed from the M1 motorway of today, he says: “Then, you’d catch a glimpse of a 17-year-old British soldier in the bushes, his rifle cocked. And you’d just say to yourself, I hope that that young fella knows how to control that gun. You had no idea how long you’d be there, and the tension was palpable – even in the early 1990s when we were going up regularly,” he adds.

Once past the checkpoints, the RUC drivers who ferried them the rest of the way would drive “at 120mph an hour”, because they felt they had no choice in the interests of security: “That was at the time when they were looking under their cars every morning, obviously.”

Preferring a thought about a far more recent visit to Northern Ireland, he adds: “In a way, maybe the young people are fortunate that they’ve no memory of that. Life up there now is actually different, completely different. I was in Belfast as late as Tuesday night and the city was booming. You know, restaurants are full and people are out and there’s good cheer in the city. The tension is gone to a large extent.”

Many people there are “very disconnected from politics”, he says: “They just feel, ‘We live our lives and let the politicians try and sort out their own problems, that they’re nothing to do with us’.” Such detachment rarely ends well, he accepts. “Yes, absolutely.”

Ever clinically pragmatic in his judgments about politics, Spring says the Downing Street Declaration “was a step in the right direction”, one that had depended greatly on the personal chemistry between Albert Reynolds and John Major.

“I still feel that the Anglo-Irish Agreement [of 1985] has never been given the respect that it deserves. It has stood the test of time. It didn’t achieve all the things that we were hoping it would achieve. But it was a very solid foundation to start.”

In the 1980s, then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had “no feel” for Northern Ireland, regarding it primarily as a security issue: “I would have said that Margaret Thatcher had 15 things on her desk. Northern Ireland would be about No 14, if not No 15.

“If [former taoiseach] Garret FitzGerald hadn’t been so persuasive, and if some officials around Margaret Thatcher such as David Goodall hadn’t realised that something had to be done, there wouldn’t have been an Anglo-Irish Agreement.”

However, the 1993 declaration eight years later broke hugely significant new ground. For the first time, London declared that it had “no selfish strategic or economic interests in Northern Ireland” and it was for its people to decide their own constitutional future.

In turn, the Irish government acknowledged that, in the event of an agreement being reached, it would recommend to voters in the Republic that the long-standing constitutional claim to the North be dropped.

“[S]tability and wellbeing will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected on grounds of identity by a significant minority of those governed by it,” the three-page document read.

It went on: “The democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

In addition, paramilitaries were offered a route into the political process if they agreed to a permanent end to violence, and declared a commitment to exclusively peaceful means and to accept the outcome of the democratic process.

“Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness [both of Sinn Féin] realised that if [the Troubles] continued they weren’t going to win. In fairness, the British military advisers told their side that there was no way of them [the British] winning. That this guerrilla warfare could go on forever.”

Thirty years ago, the Downing Street Declaration was seismic, clearing the way for a succession of later moves – the so-called “proximity talks”, the framework document. Over the following five years, the way was paved for the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

“We were fortunate that there was good chemistry between Albert and Major, you know... They had a relationship and I don’t think either were heavily burdened by any political baggage,” Spring says.

Less than a year after the Downing Street triumph, Reynolds was no longer taoiseach, however, following the eruption of the controversy surrounding the bungled extradition of serial paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth to Northern Ireland, where he faced abuse charges.

Three decades on, Spring has no enthusiasm to open old wounds about his relationship with Reynolds, which ended when he brought Labour out of the coalition with Fianna Fáil and into one with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left, making John Bruton taoiseach.

Would the Northern Irish peace process have turned out differently if Reynolds had been able to continue as taoiseach? Clearly reluctant to stay on the subject, Spring replies: “I don’t particularly want to go too much into the collapse of the government, et cetera.

“The process was under way and the process was continued,” he says, “the top table changed in the UK as well. Major was gone, replaced by Tony Blair, who had not particularly shown any great interest in Northern Ireland earlier. But cometh the hour, cometh the man; and he and Bertie [Ahern] managed to bring it across the line in extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” says Spring.

The two main divisions in Northern Ireland have to work in the space that they are sharing. They have to find a formula of governance. Northern Ireland is hurting at the moment because of the lack of governance

—  Dick Spring

Pressed once again to offer some light on his relationship with Reynolds. “Níl a fhios agam, níl a fhios agam,” he says, “it was strictly business”. Halting for a moment, he goes on: “Albert’s idea of consultation was to tell you what he was doing. Unfortunately, that was his style, and it became very difficult. Anyway, I don’t want to depress myself.”

Today, Spring believes the Belfast Agreement “may have to be looked at again” to see how Northern Ireland can have a functioning Stormont Assembly and Executive without being subject to a potential veto, which has permitted the DUP to block the formation of an Executive or Assembly. By virtue of its size, Sinn Féin also has the veto power.

“Is there a role for a traditional party system where groups of parties go into government and others go into opposition and bring it back into a more realistic proposition rather than powersharing? That’s worth exploring.”

How realistic would that be? “It’s worth exploring. My take on this is that they have to work together for the future of Northern Ireland. Forget about a united Ireland. Forget about opinion polls, everything.

“The two main divisions in Northern Ireland have to work in the space that they are sharing. They have to find a formula of governance. Northern Ireland is hurting at the moment because of the lack of governance.”

The situation has been worsened by Brexit, and complicated by the agreement of the Windsor Framework between the United Kingdom and the European Union, one fiercely opposed by the DUP he adds. “Obviously, Jeffrey Donaldson has a political issue about becoming second fiddle to the Shinners. That’s, you know, a huge difficulty for him, but people have voted and they need to get a working relationship,” he says.

Acknowledging unionist concerns about the sea border, he says simply: “They should have thought of this before Brexit back in 2016. Brexit was foisted on the British people without anyone doing the detail.”

Equally, there are difficult questions for Sinn Féin and others interested in pushing the Irish unification agenda in coming years, he believes. Northern Ireland, in his view, must first be seen to work, and to do so for a significant number of years.

“If you had a functioning Stormont that actually managed to run for 10 or 15 years, a lot of these problems might actually become very surmountable,” he says, especially if all-Ireland co-operation was shown to fix problems, shy of constitutional change.

Notwithstanding the “Protestant nation for a Protestant people” attitudes of the past, he believes the attitudes of current and future generations of unionists would change if fears about their future were to fade.

In the eyes of many Northern nationalists, but not only them, the longer Stormont remains a dysfunctional political creature, the greater support will grow for a united Ireland. Spring disagrees with this, though he accepts that many hold that view.

Despite Irish Times/ARINS polling in the Republic showing that two-thirds in the South would back unification¸ Spring believes that privately held doubts in the Republic would come more into focus the closer a referendum loomed.

“There’s a deep concern because of the stasis in politics in Northern Ireland that you’re venturing into a very big problem. That’s why I’m emphasising the point that Northern Ireland needs to function as a normal society.

“There probably would be quite a reluctance down here until that happens, you know. Obviously, Sinn Féin are driving a united Ireland agenda, that’s their raison d’être, but I don’t think they’re actually looking at the full picture.”

So what message has he for a generation that sees no issue in joining in with a chorus of “Ooh, aah, up the ‘Ra” from The Wolfe Tones’ Celtic Symphony, one that gets irritated when told by older voices that they know nothing about the Troubles or unionists’ concerns?

“Unfortunately, and I don’t want to sound like I’m lecturing or hectoring young people, but I think with all due respects to them that they have no understanding of the difficulties that went on from 1969. I don’t think that they give it any thought, either.”

The IRA’s campaign “added to the problems, rather than the opposite”, he says. “That’s going to take an awful long time, as we see in other war zones, for people to recover from all those tragedies and the loss of loved ones down through the years.

“It has left a long, long memory bank for people, and people have to dig very deep if they are to overcome that and work with people who are, you know, responsible, or supporting that campaign of violence.”

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