By David McCullagh, Conor McMorrow and Justin McCarthy

It seemed an impossible dream. But when the new taoiseach and the relatively new British prime minister John Major met in Downing Street in February 1992, they talked about bringing peace to Ireland.

Two and a half years later, the IRA declared a ceasefire. It was, as it turned out, an imperfect peace that would break down, temporarily, shortly afterwards. But it was nonetheless a massive advance on the road towards a more peaceful future.

And now, we have an insight into how those advances were made – and into just how much effort went into each painfully won step.

The secret government records of those years have now been released, available for inspection by the public at the National Archives of Ireland.

These State Papers are the secret letters, memos and minutes written by politicians and civil servants as they wrestled with the problems of the day. They were not meant for the eyes of the public – until today.

Usually, the records of a single year 30 years ago are released, but this year is different. The UK is moving to releasing papers after just 20 years; and Ireland, having decided to do the same, is catching up, a bit belatedly.

John Major and Albert Reynolds at Downing Street

As a result, we don't have one year of records to share this year; we have eight. In an attempt to make it manageable, we're going to look at all this material in three groups:

  • First, the Albert Reynolds era, from 1992 to 1994 (with a bit of his predecessor Charlie Haughey thrown in);
  • John Bruton's time in charge, from late 1994 to mid-1997; and
  • The start of Bertie Ahern's time in office, covering the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, from mid-1997 to the end of 1998.

So, let's start with what faced new taoiseach Albert Reynolds as he tried to bring an end to the violence in Ireland.

Clinton's key decision

The scale of the terrorist threat was highlighted in mid-1992 when Libya finally confessed to just how much material and money it had funnelled to the IRA – British and Irish security services knew about the staggering amounts of arms Colonel Gaddafi provided to the Provos, but they were taken aback by just how much money he had sent their way.

Many lives were lost in those final years of the Troubles, but many people were particularly struck by the murder of two children, Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in March 1993. The State Papers reveal surprising insights into why their deaths caused such a reaction.

On the rocky road to peace, one of the key moments was US president Bill Clinton's decision to allow Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to travel to America. It went against the strong advice of the British government, and caused "blood on the floor" within Clinton's administration – but it ultimately helped pave the way to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

The furious British response might be explained in part by their belief that Adams was at the time a member of the seven-member IRA Army Council.

Paul Lever of the Cabinet Office, who worked in the areas of security and intelligence, gave Irish Ambassador Joseph Small details of what they believed went on in the IRA's decision-making body in advance of the ceasefire.

"Giving the impression that he was speaking with a good deal of inside information, Lever said that Murphy was the member of the… army council who showed most reluctance in relation to the statement of 31 August although he did not dissent in the end. Another one or two may have had reservations although they, too, went along with the decision. According to Lever, Adams sits on this council."

Mr Adams has always denied that he was a member of the IRA, or of its Army Council.

In any event, the ceasefire led to euphoria in Ireland, and around the world. But it did not lead to a rapid dialling down of the British security presence in Northern Ireland – to the intense frustration of Irish officials.

The State Papers from these years offer lots of new insights – but there are a few lighter moments too. Starting with Charlie Haughey complaining about the quality of the paté at a State dinner

Charlie Haughey at the EU summit in Dublin in 1990

The impossible dream

Albert Reynolds was to lose power in December 1994 – and future releases of State Papers may shed more light on how and why that happened. But the archives released now reveal a surprising unanimity between the British government and Sinn Féin about the collapse of the Reynolds government.

Michael Legge, a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office, told his Irish counterparts that while they had had their differences over the peace process, the British greatly valued the input of the then Irish government, "and especially the taoiseach's role". And he fretted about how long it would take to form a new administration, "and whether a successor government would develop the same level of trust" with Sinn Féin.

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Two days later, that party's leader, Gerry Adams, expressed almost identical sentiments while visiting the Irish Embassy in London. He praised Reynolds' role in the peace process, and hoped that a new government would be formed quickly.

Albert Reynolds had achieved the impossible dream: the Brits and the Shinners were in agreement. What the change of government would mean for the peace process was a question for another day.

Based on documents now available to view in the National Archives of Ireland.