Hriting about the Irish in March, especially late March, risks dealing up too much of a good thing. What with every weekend featuring some St. Patrick’s Day parade or Irish cultural shindig, even the Irish have had it up to their smiling eyes by now. But something happened a decade ago on that weather-beaten island that warrants a moment of remembrance and maybe some study given the fix the world is in today.
Next Thursday will mark the 10th anniversary of a uniquely effective peace agreement that ended the Northern Ireland conflict, a tribal bloodletting many assumed would rage on ad infinitum. The peace deal—known as the Good Friday Agreement—won a Nobel Peace Prize for two of its chief architects, the Ulster Unionist David Trimble, a Protestant, and the Catholic moderate John Hume. It also ranks as the most lasting foreign policy achievement of two men who would fall far short on larger international gambits in the Middle East—Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
As the world looks back on that event 10 Good Fridays ago, the focus invariably will be on the signing ceremony sealing the deal on April 10, 1998. That moment launched an often problematic “power sharing” accord between Catholics and Protestants that persists in Northern Ireland to this day.
Yet what made the Northern Ireland peace process successful was not a negotiating tactic, high- powered mediation, or any particular “land-for-peace” formula. It came down to a series of cold, hard calculations about the future made by the primary actors, who almost unanimously decided that their children would be doomed to misery if they did not compromise.
It is this sense of long-term realism that is missing from so many other diplomatic efforts currently masquerading as peace talks around the planet.
Perhaps most unique to this peace process was its durability in the face of mayhem. Four months after the agreement, in August 1998, a dissident faction of the IRA calling itself “Real IRA” committed the worst single atrocity of the 30-year Northern Ireland conflict, exploding a bomb in the market town of Omagh, killing 29 and wounding 200. It was a blatant attempt to wreck the peace. It failed spectacularly.
That atrocity, quickly denounced by Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, did shake the process to its core. But unlike the bombings, massacres and other atrocities which have unglued so many peace processes in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, this one failed to bring the edifice crashing down.
By that time, the peace process’ chief players, Protestant and Catholic, Irish and British, and yes, their American cheerleader Bill Clinton, all had gone too far out on the political limb to allow it to end there. These were not merely “risks for peace,” as the diplomatic analysts of the day called them. These were reckless risks for peace, and thank God for them.
The extent of the concessions, given 30 years of bloodshed and 600 years of historical grievance, were profound. The IRA that day agreed, in essence, to disband, submitting to a disarmament regime and pursuit of Irish reunification only if a majority of all Northern Ireland’s voters approved it.
The British government pledged to end “direct rule” from London, reduce its troop presence, and to recognize Sinn Fein as a legitimate political party. The prospect of Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, as a member of the British parliament had always horrified London in the past. Prime Minister John Major, and then Blair, bit the bullet, and it was a reality.
Northern Ireland’s Protestant “Unionists,” led by Trimble, were most skeptical of all the parties to the deal. Trimble’s political rival among unionists, the Rev. Ian Paisley, actively opposed the peace accord.
Still, a majority of Northern Ireland’s voters in a subsequent referendum indicated Trimble was correct in signing it. In doing so, Northern Ireland’s Protestants pledged to share power with their Catholic neighbors, permit cross- border institutions to blossom with the Irish Republic, and perhaps most important, conceded that their provincial institutions, from the police to hospitals to schools, were biased against Catholics and were in need of enormous reform.
All of this capped years of diplomatic activity, including Clinton’s December 1995 visit—a sign that the United States, warned away from the issue for years by London, was not going to sit on its hands this time.
After 10 years of relative calm, the success of Good Friday 1998 looks almost preordained. By the time the accord was signed in Belfast, a series of important, even brave decisions had been taken in Northern Ireland and in London.
The British government, headed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative successor, Major, risked the Iron Lady’s wrath when it concluded the IRA could not be defeated with military force. London sought from its allies among Northern Ireland’s Protestant community support for the idea of back-channel negotiations with the IRA, breaking one of the great self- imposed straitjackets of modern diplomacy: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
On the other side of the divide, the IRA’s political leaders, Adams and Martin McGuinness, risked being labeled traitors by cohorts whose preference for solving things with a bullet was well established. An earlier IRA leader, Michael Collins, famously paid the ultimate price for signing the 1921 treaty conceding Northern Ireland to Britain in the first place.
With history in mind, Adams and McGuinness fought the IRA internal battles before the process became public, convincing the rank and file that the group’s goal of forcing British troops to pull out would never happen if putting bombs in crowded London fish- and-chip restaurants was the most creative strategy they could muster. Dissidents were warned, no doubt portentously, that discipline was expected to be kept. Most kept it.
The lack of such risk-taking in other conflicts—among the Basques demanding independence from Spain, for instance, or the Palestinians and Israelis—is obvious. Promises made almost always are promises broken, if not by the negotiating body itself then by “dissidents” who reject compromise. Neither Spanish nor Israeli politicians have proven capable of resisting the inevitable backlash which follows “breaches in discipline.” Eventually, it all comes unraveled, making the next round of peacemaking all the more difficult, and the public on both sides all the more cynical about the idea.
Today, for instance, George W. Bush’s efforts to broker peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the so-called “Annapolis” process are falling victim to precisely this reality—one that most analysts saw from the beginning. Israel and the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, can promise whatever they like to each other, but unless they agree either to ignore or deal with Hamas, the process goes nowhere. As long as rockets rain down daily on Israelis from Hamas-held Gaza, goading Israel into responses that inevitably kill innocents, the process is dead.
Northern Ireland for decades existed in this same theater of the absurd. By the mid-1990s, the Troubles had cost about 3,500 people their lives, maimed or scarred 40,000 others, pinned down 18,000 British troops, and ruined the economy and lives of two generations of the region’s people, Catholic and Protestant alike. Retaliation was a byword; news stories resorted to discussing the “cycles of violence,” suggesting, like weather, they simply could not be mastered.
Yet the Irish and the British persevered, helped a bit by serious, engaged arm-twisting by outsiders, but mostly by taking the hard decisions themselves. They banished old ghosts, even if a few of them, including arch-Unionist Paisley and arch-Nationalist Adams, wound up running the “all-party” government. And they made a mug of Irish-American Eugene O’Neill, who famously remarked that Ireland had “no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”
Ten years ago, the future was liberated, and it’s worth celebrating.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.