When Diana made news by trying to reclaim her privacy

Briggate after the switch-on of the Leeds Christmas Lights.
Briggate after the switch-on of the Leeds Christmas Lights.
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In the penultimate part of our Christmas series we head back 20 years to 1993. Chris Bond reports.

THE Princess of Wales was all over the news in the first of week of December after her shock announcement that she was withdrawing from public life.

She claimed she was struggling to cope with the overwhelming media interest in her life and announced the news, which made headlines around the world, in an emotional speech in front of a stunned audience of charity workers in London.

Struggling to hold back tears, the princess, who had separated from Prince Charles the previous year, said she was going to dramatically scale down her public duties.

She criticised the media for affecting her life “in a manner that was hard to bear”, adding that the two princes, William and Harry, would continue to be her “priority”.

Diana said her decision had been reached with the full understanding of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh who she thanked for their “kindness and support”.

Far from backing away the story sent the Press into overdrive with some commentators questioning whether she was being pushed out by courtiers and “the royal mafia”.

Also in the news was Virgin’s charismatic boss, Richard Branson, who was among those interested in running Britain’s first national lottery game.

In the run up to Christmas there was the usual slew of festive adverts trying to tempt shoppers, including one from PC World which had recently opened a store in Leeds.

It’s easy to forget how long computers have been around and while the machines of 20 years ago can’t match today’s slinky devices, we were already heading down the information superhighway to a brave new online world.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web just two years earlier and yet now you could buy all manner of PCs, notebooks and computer software.

Meanwhile, as the festive period approached the hand of history was moving, if not yet touching shoulders. On December 15, Prime Minister John Major and Ireland’s Taoiseach Albert Reynolds made their famous Downing Street Declaration, in which they announced an Anglo-Irish pact paving the way for peace.

Although their nine-point document didn’t please all sides – Democratic Unionist leader 
the Rev Ian Paisley called it “a 
dark hour of treachery” at 
the time, and Sinn Fein, 
the IRA’s political wing, spoke 
of its “disappointment”, it 
gave the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries the opportunity to take part in peace negotiations if they agreed to put an end to their violence.

Speaking in a rare prime-time TV broadcast in front of a huge decorated Christmas tree, John Major called on Ulster to “put the poison of history” behind it.

“We cannot go on spilling blood in the name of the past. We must all have the courage to look to the future.

“The time to choose peace is long overdue. But only the men of violence can decide whether they will talk instead of bomb, discuss instead of murder.”

The peace accord was given an enthusiastic reception for the most part and the Yorkshire Post praised the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, who had been negotiating the plan for two years.

“Their determination to reach some kind of accord is much to be admired, for it is obvious that talks between London and Dublin came close to foundering,” the newspaper wrote.

Major and Reynolds were, on the face of it, unlikely political partners, although by forging the peace accord they both stepped out from under the shadows of their predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey.

The pact was seen as important not only for the fact it was the furthest the British government had ever moved towards the possibility of a united Ireland, but because it laid the foundations for bringing unionists and republicans around the negotiating table.

This put pressure on both sides to turn their backs on bullets in favour of the ballot box. On the day before Christmas Eve the IRA announced a 72-hour ceasefire, so at what is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill, there was at least peace.

In the long run, though, the path to peace in Northern Ireland proved to be a fraught one and there are still challenges faced today. Nevertheless, after all the years of bloodshed and anger the Downing Street Declaration was a momentous step in the right direction.

Tomorrow we finish with a look at 2003 and the capture of Saddam Hussein.