I’ll never forget where I was the night I heard the IRA had decided to end its campaign.
I was watching BBCNI’s Spotlight programme at home, in the early spring of 1994, when the Derry Journal reporter Domhnall MacDermott told the interviewer he believed there would be a long-term ceasefire within months.
I knew right then and there for certain - what many of us had suspected since Sinn Fein’s special conference in Letterkenny in July 1993 – it was over.
Domhnall, you have to understand, was not a man who speculated lightly – or, indeed, at all. He had been the authority on republican thinking for as long as he had been in journalism.
Other commentators flamed briefly until they either burned themselves out, or the IRA torched them by feeding them lines they wanted to test out and then deny later.
But Domhnall was the touchstone. You could take his stories to the bank – and the IRA did not ever feed him ‘fliers’. Period. He’d have seen right through them.
So, if Domhnall said he believed there was going to be a ceasefire, you could take out a chisel and write it onto stone.
Spotlight had initially approached me, as the then Irish News Derry Correspondent, to provide analysis for their programme. But I’d have only ended up going to Domhnall anyway, so I suggested they should cut out the middleman and go directly to the source.
I then wired off MacD as to what I’d done. And after some brief, colourful discourse about my parentage, he stepped forward and did the piece.
In hindsight, his comments might not seem significant but, at that tumultuous time, they were hugely important and had a powerful effect. They were also extremely brave.
Some republican activists, including several who could now be regarded as champions of Sinn Fein’s moderate wing, were openly angry as to what they regarded as a ‘peacenik’ betrayal of their campaign.
What really got to them wasn’t that they believed he was wrong. Rather, they knew he was right, because he was speaking as someone who was always right about republican thinking. And they also knew that when someone of Domhnall’s journalistic pedigree, and personal integrity, could predict the ceasefire so confidently, their side of the debate had lost.
Domhnall had, of course, done his homework before the interview. He had spoken to, and listened carefully to, all of the leading players in the game, including the IRA leadership, before conducting his own analysis and offering his own studied determination.
It was a big risk. But it paved the way for others to take the same risk in the months that followed. And, to my mind, that is exactly why he did it.
It took real personal courage. But then, courage is something that he always had in spades. Domhnall was also at the time, unbeknownst to many, suffering a terminal illness. And 20 years ago today, on September 5, 1994, he died aged just 35.
Domhnall lived just long enough to hear about the August 31 ceasefire, which pleased him greatly. Not least, because, like always, he’d got it right.