LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND – APRIL 10: A peace mural is seen prior a Dissident Republican Parade on April 10, 2023 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Derry is host to annual parades by dissident republican groups that mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland that catalysed the creation of an independent state of Ireland. Today’s parades also fall on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the deal that dissident republicans do not accept, signed on April 10, 1998, which ended most of the violence during the decades-long conflict known as The Troubles. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
By Tom Foley
Almost 50 years ago, I first set foot in Belfast, Northern Ireland, filled with the confidence of the young athlete fresh from a muddy Dublin rugby field.
When I arrived at the old Royal Victoria train station in Belfast, the heavy hand of a British soldier landed on my shoulder, and he demanded to know my business. His other hand rested gently on the trigger guard of an automatic carbine. It turned out that getting frisked was par for the course then.
I landed on that island in the midst of the last and bloodiest cycle of its “Troubles,” a cycle of sectarian violence that lasted from the 1970’s almost to the eve of the 20th century.
In 30 years the conflict claimed the lives of 3,000 people and left almost 30,000 seriously injured. This was equivalent to 500,000 deaths and over 5 million serious injuries in the U.S. —just about 100 times our casualties in Iraq. Dark tragedy in such a small country.
In two years, I commissioned and ran an integrated youth soccer league where more than 20 teams from all over Belfast played 400 games without a single sectarian incident
I also escorted prisoners’ families on weekly minibus journeys to Long Kesh Prison and on weekend retreats away from it
I led dozens of multiparty seminars for people trying their best to understand the jumbled nexus of history and politics that sometimes brutally separated otherwise good and kind people
I also wrote and presented to all sides position papers on long simmering justice issues and on the more immediate prison protests that were taking lives inside and outside prison walls.
For two years, I was immersed with a motley assortment of “peace” workers (a heretofore undefined class on that island)–daily volunteers who ranged from elementary school educated Nobel Peace Prize winners to secretaries and shipyard workers, from retired civil servants to chip shop workers from biscuit factory rank and file to home baker entrepreneurs.
All brave and undaunted, most with little in the way of formal education, all firm believers that the violence was just not the answer.
Though I had my fill of the intransigence and violence that former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, called “the twin demons of Northern Ireland,” I fell hard for the characters from all sides of the sectarian divide who befriended me in pubs, during the hunger strikes, and in the neighborhood of tiny row homes where I lived.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Mitchell, at the behest of then President Bill Clinton, helped to engineer what was surely that island’s most important vote since an earlier peace process partitioned Ireland a century before.
The vote on the Good Friday Accords (GFA) did not create a united Ireland, nor did it of itself put an end to the centuries-long grievance between England and Ireland.
But it did create two new institutions: a Northern Ireland Assembly, to restore the fundamental democratic right to govern themselves; and a North-South Council, to encourage cooperation and joint action for mutual benefit.
The first of these has been imperfect in practice, as leaders continue to test the notion that an “irresistible force” of political opportunity can displace even the “immovable object” that is England’s unmistakable imprint on Ireland’s history.
But that dysfunction has not resulted in sustained hostilities, because the second institution —the North-South partnership and the economic integration that it fostered — has worked.
The reasons for this partial success are worth noting on this 25th anniversary of the GFA.
First, American political leaders’ commitment to a tripartite solution (England, Ireland, Northern Ireland) has been fiercely bipartisan.
Much of that has to do with American, not Irish, politics and the way both parties have regarded this issue over the last 5 decades—as ultimately a humanitarian, not a military, venture.
The bipartisan approach began in 1977 with the formation of the Congressional Friends of Ireland, the youngest of whose 27 founding members was then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.
That initial group persuaded then-President Jimmy Carter to formally proclaim Dublin’s role at the table. That bipartisanship continued when former President Ronald Reagan and then-U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., together “leaned on” England in the 1980s, and again when Clinton raised the stakes on all sides in the 1990s.
That commitment and bipartisanship continues this month as now-President Joe Biden carefully navigates the waters around Brexit toward a tripartite solution—with Dublin, London, and Belfast voices all at the table.
President Biden’s efforts generate support from ideological opposites — U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly, R-16th District, and Richard Neal, D-Mass., who co-chair the Friends of Ireland caucus, and who have stood with the president at each turn of the Dublin-London-Belfast axis.
Second, the American approach for at least the last 30 years has been decidedly humanitarian, not military.
That approach has leveraged financial assistance from other nations, aid that has tilled green fields of regional and personal reconciliation. With this support, the people of Northern Ireland have shown that difference does not have to equal division and that past is not always prologue.
Many of the walls that divided contiguous neighborhoods have come down while community centers open to all sides have gone up.
Much of that aid comes from a effort that O’Neill spearheaded, now called the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), behind which Reagan put his weight in 1986m and on which Biden played an understated, crucial role in the floor vote.
The thousands of partnerships spawned by this US-led initiative proved Belfast poet Louie McNeice right when he said that “a single purpose can be founded on a jumble of opposites.”
Former paramilitary adversaries now work and move forward together through mechanisms and projects birthed by this unique American investment in reconciliation efforts, not military ones.
In the 25 years since American involvement in Northern Ireland helped clear the common ground for compromise and peace, our own politics has gone another direction.
After two decades of overseas war in Iraq and Afghanistan and an increasingly hostile political culture at home, the words “bipartisan” and “humanitarian” can seem almost foreign and unfamiliar.
But when I stepped off the train in Belfast in 1979, “the Troubles” seemed permanent and peace a pipe dream.
It is both these qualities—the bipartisanship and the humanitarian approach–that give life to the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s oft-quoted line –“History says don’t hope /on this side of the grave./But then, once in a lifetime/The longed for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.”
This month, 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, they still do. Maybe we can start down that road too.
Tom Foley spent two years in Belfast working with the Nobel Prize-winning Peace People and co-founding the Committee on the Administration of Justice–while on leave from Yale Law School. His grandparents emigrated from County Mayo, Ireland. He currently serves as president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Harrisburg.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.