Donnybrook: Good Friday Agreement
By John Myers
April 10th will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), perhaps the most significant historic event in the last 100 years of Irish history. Not since the unilateral gerrymandering and carving up of the Irish map by the British in 1921 has the bell of history rung so loudly on the Emerald Isle.
The Six Counties which comprise the Northern Ireland statelet were carved out of the nine counties which make up the historic Province of Ulster. The Government of the United Kingdom at that time was under the reign of King George V, of the Germanic house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, later changed to The House of Windsor to distance himself from his continental royal cousins and the world war his extended family was waging. Waging with the high stakes of millions of lives of their own people. After those actions, unilaterally carving up Ireland was small potatoes compared to World War.
It took seventy-five long, painful years to begin to rectify the harm inflicted by the Government of King Charles III grandpappy. The GFA has restored a semblance of peace to the Six Counties, and the promise of a seemingly simple request of Irish people determining the fate and future of Irish People. This was only achieved with the help of outside forces, making the horrific failures of the Northern Ireland statelet an international issue, shining the international light of justice on a cesspit fed by the quiet arrogance of the empire.
Steps towards the GFA started at many points, but a good place to start is the opening of dialogue between Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and the moderate nationalist party, SDLP’s leader, John Hume, in 1988. This was a dialogue fostered by a Redemptorist Priest, Fr. Alex Reid. While this dialogue was sporadic, communication looking for common ground was key to future achievements.
However, back across the sea in the USA, the 1992 Presidential primary campaign was in full swing. Leaders in the McBride Principles Campaign and other national Irish American groups pushed for a campaign forum sponsored by supporters of Ireland.
The New York Democratic Primary was hitting at a key moment when Bill Clinton’s campaign had been knocked by strong head winds and nobody was moving to the front of the crowded field. At the forum, candidates were asked to support the MacBride Principles Campaign and agree to send a Presidential Envoy to the North of Ireland should they be elected.
Clinton, needing a win, signed on to much of the goals of the Irish Presidential Forum. As Irish luck would have it, Clinton beat the Anglophilic George Bush and was sworn in January of 1993.
The end of the Cold War coupled with P.M. John Major’s overt efforts to help George Bush get reelected helped Clinton go against and around the will of the U.S. State Department’s historic bowing and scraping to British Foreign Policy whim and fancy. Additionally, the selection of Tony Blair as the head of the British Labor Party provided two young leaders (Clinton & Blair) willing to abandon old line prejudices.
With the time being ripe as never before, Clinton started “confidence building” measures, such as granting Sinn Fein’s President Gerry Adams a 48-hour visa to the United States to address the prestigious National Committee on American Foreign Policy, then under leadership of Mr. Bill Flynn, CEO of Mutual of America. The cry from The U.S. State Department and British Leadership make the howl of the Banshee’s sound like a kitten’s purring.
Clinton took a huge political risk that went against accepted conventions of the time. At the time, Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders were denied the right to be interviewed or appear on UK or Irish Radio and Television. The Establishment had worked hard and long to demonize Sinn Fein and other nationalist supporters, but Clinton’s, which Adams later called “pivotal,” leadership helped lay the fruit of an IRA ceasefire six months later. Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders were rewarded with a longer visa later in 1994, including visits to Cleveland, Boston and Washington.
The Senate Majority Leader, Sen. George Mitchell, was set up to be reelected from his home state of Maine and had no opposition for a return to his Senate Leadership position in 1994. He unexpectedly announced that he was retiring from the Senate, a rare politician to walk away at the height of his power.
Mitchell was rumored to be up for any appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court and had many lucrative opportunities to explore in the private sector. However, President Clinton had other ideas, and invited Mitchell to the Whitehouse, where he asked him to take on the position which would fulfill Clinton’s campaign pledge to appoint a special Presidential envoy to Ireland.
Even with many promising options, Mitchell was open to the challenge. Mitchell later said he did not fully know what he was walking into. This was a huge development that someone as prominent as Mitchell would accept this posting, someone the folks in Ireland and England knew would have the ear of the Leader of the Free World.
At the same time, Clinton had appointed Ms. Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy, as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, another appointment which knew the phone number to the Oval Office. Both of these high-level appointments, with close ties to the Whitehouse, greatly elevated their gravitas; the parties knew this was not just another political gesture, but that the President had a focused and high level of interest in moving matters forward in the Six Counties.
Loyalists were concerned but had some hope that Clinton’s personal interest in the land where his mother, Virginia Kelley’s, loyalist family was from would temper his push. This fact offered some credibility with the loyalist crowd. After almost two years of shuttle diplomacy and an extraordinary personal contribution of Mitchell’s personal time, including the birth of his new son, Mitchell was still faced with incredible intransience from the parties. While he had no formal authority to do so, Mitchell unilaterally declared that if no progress by May of 1998, he was headed home to the U.S.A.
The Plot Thickens
There were too many plot turns, too many walk outs, too many threats, too many moments of despair to mention here throughout the process. However, even during Holy Week, many of the parties thought they could not get this across the finish line. Seemingly because they did not think Sinn Fein could accept the terms of the GFA, David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Dave Ervine, a prominent member of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force took a chance to support the Agreement in hopes of laying blame on SF.
But Sinn Fein did agree, as well as the SDLP and the Alliance Party. While Trimble later paid the price by having the DUP supplant the UUP as the largest loyalist party, he did receive the Nobel Peace Prize along with the SDLP’s John Hume.
The Parties hurriedly assembled and signed the Agreement on April 10th, 1998, Good Friday. A month later the referendum passed in the Republic with 94.39% and in the Six Counties with 71.39% of the vote.
Significant challenges still exist and many portions of the GFA are still not fully implemented. The Legislative Assembly has not met for well over a year, but Peace is still the song being sung. Each year that passes helps democracy take that much firmer of a root in Ireland, and we continue to look to Seamus Heaney’s words for inspiration: “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.”