Security chiefs advised that IRA surrender of weapons was ‘unnecessary’

Adams said IRA held threat of violence for ‘25 years if necessary’ in 1996

Two of the most senior figures in policing and the military in Northern privately expressed the view in 1995 that decommissioning of IRA arms as a prelude to peace talks was unnecessary.

Ronnie Flanagan, then deputy chief constable, told a senior Irish official in late 1995 that the British government had “foolishly impaled itself on a hook” by demanding decommissioning in advance of talks.

His views were shared by the highest ranking British soldier in Northern Ireland, Sir Roger Wheeler, who said the security forces neither expected nor were demanding the handover of any weapons in advance of political talks.

In conversations with David Donoghue, who was head of the Irish government’s secretariat in Belfast, Flanagan also criticised the British government’s response to the cessation as inadequate. It was “too little and usually too late”, he said.


Flanagan, a future chief constable of the RUC, accurately predicted how the IRA would break its ceasefire some months later in 1996.

Donoghue noted that Flanagan saw potential for a “a partial resumption of IRA violence – but on the British mainland rather than in Northern Ireland”, which is what transpired in February 1996. The IRA ceasefire came to an end on February 9th with a massive bomb in London’s docklands which killed two people.

Armed struggle

On March 1st, 1996, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams reported on a meeting he and SDLP leader John Hume had had with the IRA. “[The IRA] had been severely critical of the British handling of matters, which they believed was designed to split them. They had also been critical of the taoiseach [John Bruton]. They had said that they could ‘reluctantly’ resume the armed struggle and carry it forward for another 25 years if necessary…”

Adams claimed that the breakdown of the ceasefire was due to the British refusal to begin political talks including Sinn Féin. If that had been done, he said, the IRA “would be at home”.

The Irish government shared at least some of this assessment. The following week tánaiste Dick Spring met Northern secretary Patrick Mayhew in Belfast. Spring said Sinn Féin were blaming everyone but themselves, saying their attitude was “profoundly depressing”.

However, Spring pointed out forcefully to Mayhew that without Sinn Féin in negotiations, “there would be neither a ceasefire nor decommissioning”.

Mayhew responded that given unionist distrust of republicans, “there was a real danger that the negotiations would not even begin if the unionists believed decommissioning would be postponed”.

The row over decommissioning was the major stumbling block to progress during the period of the 1994-1996 ceasefire, and it would remain so over the following decade. In 1995 a high-level group of Irish and British officials recommended as much flexibility as possible.

One member of that group, Tim Dalton, secretary general of the department of justice, wrote to Bruton suggesting both sides should stick to the line that while decommissioning was clearly an important issue on which progress must be made “neither government sees it as a precondition for political progress”.


But the following month, speaking in Washington, Mayhew very publicly made decommissioning a very definite precondition.

He said three tests must be met before Sinn Féin could enter all-party talks: a willingness in principle to disarm progressively; agreement on how decommissioning would be carried out; and the actual decommissioning of some arms as a gesture of good faith and a test of the arrangements. This last condition, known as “Washington Three”, was to bedevil the process for years to come.

In November 1995, Flanagan privately told an Irish official that the British government had “foolishly impaled itself on a hook” with its three Washington conditions. He believed that “there was never any hope of the paramilitaries agreeing to hand over even a small quantity of arms in advance of political negotiations”.

In any event, he said, security forces were more worried about the IRA’s “improvisability” than decommissioning.

“The ability to develop and manufacture new types of explosives and weaponry is of much greater concern than the material currently hidden in IRA caches.”

He said the demand for decommissioning was “geared more to symbolism and unionist sensitivities than to the practical needs of the situation”.

In the same month Wheeler made very similar comment, telling Donoghue that the demand for decommissioning “makes sense only at the level of symbolism”. (File: 2021/49/145)

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times