Tag Archives: Good Friday Agreement

George H.W. Bush, disengaged during Troubles, dies at 94

Irish political leaders are offering their condolences on the 30 November death of former U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

“He will be remembered for the directness with which he expressed his policy principles and his efforts to achieve bipartisanship,” Irish President Michael D. Higgins said in a statement. “On behalf of the Irish people I offer our deepest sympathies to his family and to the people of the United States.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted:


Unlike U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, Bush never had much of a relationship with the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Bush was Reagan’s vice president from 1980 to 1988, then won the office in 1988, spanning some of the bloodiest years of The Troubles.

Once Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 U.S. election, he sought to “establish distance” from his predecessor’s approach to Ulster, according to John Dumbrell in “The United States and the Northern Irish Conflict 1969–94: from Indifference to Intervention,” a 1995 piece.

George H. W. Bush

“The Bush administration had followed a cautious, State Department line, strongly opposing the MacBride principles and interpreting the situation in the province as ‘unripe’ for mediation.” … Since the Carter presidency of the late 1970s,  “Washington has asserted the legitimacy of its interest in the province and-with the exception of the Bush years-presented something approaching a coherent, interventionist strategy.”

The Good Friday Agreement was reached during Clinton’s second term of office, 20 years ago this year. In 2010, introducing Clinton for a Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Award, Bush recognized his successor’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Good Friday Agreement, now 20, also heralded digital age

In April 1998 I was working as a reporter at the Mobile Register newspaper in Alabama. My newsroom was not yet connected to the Internet, and I was still two years away from owning my own laptop computer.

Anxious to learn about the eleventh-hour efforts to reach a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, I drove to one of the city’s few Internet cafes. There, using a  dial-up connection, I navigated to the New York Times, which had gone online two years earlier. That is how I learned that Irish nationalists and unionists, and the British and Irish governments, had reached a deal to end 30 years of sectarian violence known as The Troubles.

My datebook for 10 April 1998, shows only the Delta airlines’ flight number and arrival time of a childhood friend making an Easter weekend birding trip to the Alabama Gulf coast. I did not note the historic peace deal. In the coming days and weeks, however, I did clip newspaper and magazine articles about the agreement, which I added to a folder of hard copy stories about Ireland that I had kept since the 1980s.

Today–after seven trips to the island of Ireland–I read Irish news from Irish media with a tap on my smart phone. I follow Irish politicians and political parties on Twitter. Sadly, I discarded most of my old clip file in the haste of a move, the result of mistaken thinking that the yellowing stories were no longer relevant. I did keep the front section of the 24 May 1998, issue of the New York Times, which reported the favorable vote on both sides of the Irish border to ratify the deal. It began:

The voters of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have given overwhelming support to the peace agreement aimed at settling the sectarian conflict that has convulsed their island for centuries. … The referendum on the historic compromise was the first time since 1918 that Irish throughout the island had voted at the same time on the same issue, and the ballot counting today came on the 200th anniversary of one of the island’s many violent events, the first day of the Rising of 1798, in which Irish rebels tried to free their island from the British.

At a graffiti-covered “peace wall” separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 2016. Note William of Orange, “King Billy,” charging on white horse in the mural at right, which indicates what side I was on at the moment.

In the spirit online news reading, here are just a few of stories about the 20th anniversary of the GFA:

  • The Journal.ie offers this background piece on the deal.
  • Kerrie Hope Patterson was born in Northern Ireland less then 30 minutes after the agreement was signed, the Belfast Telegraph reports. Today, the “peace baby” is a student at Trinity College Dublin.
  • The Agreement “ended the bloodshed in Northern Ireland but has failed to achieve broader reconciliation between the nationalist and unionist political parties,” Padraig O’Malley writes in the Boston Globe.

Catching up with modern Ireland: March

I’ve now spent most of the first quarter of the year producing my Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited blog serial, which explores aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Before continuing the series, here’s another end of the month wrap up of developments in modern Ireland and Northern Ireland:

  • Pubs in the Republic opened on Good Friday (30 March) for the first time in 91 years, the result of repealing a 1927 law that also banned alcohol sales on Christmas Day and St. Patrick’s Day. The March 17, booze ban was lifted in 1960. Good Friday liquor sales remain prohibited in Northern Ireland.

Irish pubs opened on Good Friday for the first time in 91 years. This Dublin establishment photographed during my February visit. Note E.U., Irish and U.S. flags.

  • Speaking of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s my annual roundup. Also from this month, my piece on “More hand wringing about Catholic Ireland.”
  • Former U.S. President Bill Clinton will receive the Freedom of Belfast honor 10 April, in ceremonies that mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. He also will visit Dublin.
  • Ireland expelled a Russian diplomat, joining the U.K., U.S. and other nations in a growing feud with Moscow. The Russians promptly ordered the Irish envoy to its capital to return to Dublin.
  • The Republic’s referendum on whether to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion is now set for May 25.
  • A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland cleared a hurdle in Parliament. Such unions are already legalized in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as the Republic.
  • The U.K. is set to leave the E.U. at the end of March 2019. Resolving the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains a major sticking point of the Brexit, according to this Q & A from the BBC.
  • Hawk Cliff Beach, about 30 minutes south of Dublin, is becoming Ireland’s first “clothing optional” beach.
  • Atlas Obscure published the photo feature, “A Last Look at Ireland’s Disappearing Storefronts.” Graphic designer Trevor Finnegan has been built his collection of images over eight years, including this 2014 feature in the TheJournal.ie.

Butcher shop in Waterford, County Waterford. Photo by Trevor Finnegan.

Gerry Adams to stand down as Sinn Féin leader

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams says he will retire next year after 34 years as chief of the Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“His ultimate goal of a united Ireland is still elusive,” Reuters reported. “But the party he leaves is not only the dominant Irish nationalist force in the British-ruled province, but also strong enough across the border in the Irish Republic to have a chance of entering government there, too.”

Adams was first elected Sinn Féin leader in 1983, midway through The Troubles, when the party operated as the IRA’s political wing. As such, he became “the face of the IRA” for many in Britain and Northern Ireland. But he remained in the position through the peace process and Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Adams spent most of his career as an abstentionist MP representing West Belfast. In 2011, he moved to the Republic and won a seat in the Dail representing Louth.

His retirement announcement comes at the end of a year that began with the January resignation of political partner Martin McGuinness as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the nationalist-unionist power-sharing government. That decision resulted in the Assembly being dissolved for new elections, but months later the body has not yet been restored.

McGuinness died in March and was replaced by Michelle O’Neil as Northern leader. Mary Lou McDonald is widely expected  to replace Adams.

Adams said he and McGuinness had agreed to an exit plan last year. “Leadership means knowing when it is time for change and that time is now,” he said during his announcement.

John Kerry receives Tipperary International Peace Award

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has received the 2015 Tipperary International Peace Award in recognition of his efforts to end conflicts in several global hot spots.

The south central Republic of Ireland town and county was internationally associated with war because of the song “It’s a long way to Tipperary,” according to a history of the organization. In 1983, the founding committee of the Tipperary Peace Convention felt it was time that Tipperary should be known for peace.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan address reporters at the Aherlow House Hotel in Tipperary.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan address reporters at the Aherlow House Hotel in Tipperary.

Kerry, who lost a 2004 bid for the U.S. presidency, joins past recipients such as former Irish President Mary McAleese; U.S. diplomat to Northern Ireland Richard Haas; Good Friday Agreement broker and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell; the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy; and Irish musician Bob Geldof.

In remarks, Kerry said Brexit must not impact the push for peace in Northern Ireland, and also announced the expansion of a one-year internship program for Irish J1 students in America, RTÉ reported.

High Court rejects Brexit challenges

The High Court in Belfast on 28 October dismissed two challenges to the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The cases are likely to be appealed to the U.K. Supreme Court.

A human rights activist and group of nationalist politicians challenged the referendum on Britain leaving the European Union on grounds that the June outcome jeopardizes the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Nearly 56 percent of voters in Northern Ireland rejected Brexit.

The judge said it “remains to be seen” what precisely Brexit will produce. “While the wind of change may be about to blow, the precise direction in which it will blow cannot yet be determined.”

Full coverage from the BBC and The Irish Times.

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Support for united Ireland not boosted by Brexit

Just over half (52 percent) of Northern Ireland voters in a new opinion survey say they do not want a referendum on political reunification of the island.

The poll for BBC Northern Ireland’s “The View” comes just shy of three months since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. In the referendum, 56 percent of the Northern Ireland electorate voted to remain in the E.U.

british-irish-flags-dublin-390x285.jpg (390×285)In the wake of the Brexit referendum result, Sinn Féin demanded that the secretary of state call a border poll, as provided by the Good Friday Agreement. The government can call a border poll if it “appears likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

The BBC poll shows that if such a border poll were held now, 63 percent of northern residents would vote to stay in the U.K., while just 22 percent would support joining the Republic of Ireland.

Shortly after the 23 June Brexit vote, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin reported a sharp rise in the number of people from the North applying for Irish passports. Some observers quickly interpreted this as indicating support for a united Ireland.

Post-Brexit United Ireland? A Q & A primer

Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has stirred talk of reuniting the island of Ireland as one political as well as geographic entity. It’s not going to happen soon (this year, next year…), but Brexit makes it more likely such an effort will be tried, whether successful or not, before the centennial of Irish partition in 2021. Here’s more background:

Why did Ireland split up, anyway?

How much time have you got? In the World War I era, Irish nationalists were close to obtaining limited domestic autonomy, called home rule, while remaining within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which was created in 1800. The effort split internally as more militant nationalists, or republicans, demanded full independence from Britain. The Protestant majority in the northeast province of Ireland, called Ulster, wanted to keep the status quo, hence the term unionists. The May 1921 partition of Ireland was an attempt to keep both sides happy. Six counties in the northeast were renamed Northern Ireland and remained part of Britain. The other 26 counties of the island, predominantly Catholic, were at first called the Irish Free State, then later became the fully independent Republic of Ireland. Read a more detailed history on “The Emergence of the Two Irelands.”

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A 1937 map shows Irish Free State (south) and Northern Ireland.

What impact does Brexit have on this arrangement?

Voters in Northern Ireland voted by 56 percent to 44 percent to remain in the European Union (joining Scotland and the city of London in opposition to Brexit), but the overall referendum passed by 52 percent to 48 percent. Though leaving the E.U., Northern Ireland remains part of the U.K. Got that? Now, instead of a soft border between two E.U. countries (Ireland and U.K.), a hard divide will be created between E.U. and non-E.U. nations. It will be more difficult for people and goods to cross the border.

What about reuniting the ‘two Irelands’ so both are in the E.U.?

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that created a power-sharing (home rule) government in Northern Ireland contains a provision for a “border poll” on becoming part of a united Ireland. The Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party immediately called for such a referendum after the Brexit results were announced. “Not so fast,” responded British Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and unionist politicians. As The Guardian reports, “there cannot be a poll on Irish unity or remaining within the U.K. unless the majority of political representatives of both communities in Northern Ireland demand it.”

What does the polling say?

Last fall, an RTÉ/BBC cross border poll showed that just under one third of those surveyed in Northern Ireland favored political reunification of the island within their lifetime, compared to two thirds of respondents living in the Republic of Ireland. It’s important to remember that the poll was taken months before the Brexit vote. A sustained economic downturn resulting from Brexit may prompt Northern Ireland to embrace the Republic. Historical note: A 1973 referendum in Northern Ireland asked whether people wanted to remain in the U.K. or rejoin Ireland. The remain vote won by a landslide 98 percent, but Catholic nationalists boycotted the election for a variety of reasons. Of course, 1973 was just beginning of The Troubles, and long before economic globalization.

What else could happen in Northern Ireland?

There are already suggestions that Northern Ireland might join Scotland, if and when it splits from Great Britain as the result of Brexit. Northern Ireland and Scotland have shared historic and cultural ties. It’s also possible that a few of the six counties in Northern Ireland could rejoin Ireland, especially those on the border, while the others remain linked to Britain. Or Northern Ireland could opt for its own independence.

Belfast among Rockefeller’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’

Belfast is among “100 Resilient Cities,” the Rockefeller Foundation initiative to help urban hubs “plan for more integrated solutions to the challenges posed from globalization, urbanization, and climate change – including important social and economic impacts.”

The Northern Ireland city of 333,000 joined 36 others in a selection announced 25 May, rounding out two earlier groupings named since the program’s inception in 2013. No cities from the Republic of Ireland are among the first 100, though the Foundation says it plans to expand the network. (Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh are among 23 U.S. cities.)

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Belfast City Hall, opened in 1906 during the city’s early 20th century industrial peak.

Belfast “is working to address lingering political instability after 30 years of conflict while also confronting an increased risk of coastal flooding,” according to the city’s profile on the 100 Resilient Cities website.

Belfast City Executive Suzanne Wylie spoke about the selection and promoted her city during an Irish Network-D.C. event earlier in the week at the Washington offices of the Northern Ireland Bureau. She said access to Rockefeller grant money will help the city “make priority investments to resolve difficult legacy problems.”

Most people know about the historic and lingering sectarian divide in Belfast. Wylie noted that The Troubles began in the late 1960s as the city’s legacy shipbuilding and linen industries were collapsing. The economy, and the society, have improved in fits and starts since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Today, financial services, health and life sciences, and the film industry (more than just “Game of Thrones“) are leading an economic resurgence. Foreign direct investment is on the rise, with 40 percent coming from the U.S.

“The city is unrecognizable from just 15 years ago,” said Wylie, a lifelong resident (she’s about 50) who was appointed to her post in 2014. The city’s own “Belfast Agenda” plan calls for more than $400 billion in infrastructure investments by 2030, including a new downtown transit hub, plus more hotel rooms and office space. Wylie also emphasized the city is very safe.

“We still have significant problems,” Wylie said, “but now is really Belfast’s time.”

Election drama builds in Ireland, north and south

This is an important week in Irish politics on both sides of the border.

In the Republic, negotiators from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil continue their intensive talks on forming a new government. A key leadership vote is tentatively set for 14 April, which is 48 days since the 26 February election.

Ireland’s record for going without a government is 48 days, when a November 1992 election failed to produce a coalition pact until January 1993, according to the Associated Press. Now, if the two major parities and incoming small party and independent members fail to reach a deal soon, calls for a second election are likely to increase. That hasn’t happened since 1982.

Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly building in Belfast.

Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly building in Belfast.

In Ulster, campaigning is heating up for the 5 May Northern Ireland Assembly election, with the first debate among leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Féin, Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Alliance Party set for 13 April.

This is the fifth such election since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 created the historic power-sharing legislature. Voters will cast ballots for 108 members from 18 constituencies in the six counties.

Notably, the generation born in 1998 and a few years earlier will be able to vote for the first time in this election. That could either soften or harden recent electoral trends. In a preview, the London School of Economics and Political Science observes:

In 1998, the (moderate) SDLP was the party with most votes in the Assembly, while the (moderate) UUP was the party with most seats. In the 2003 election, the (stronger pro-British) DUP took the most votes and seats, and (stronger Irish nationalist) Sinn Féin moved from being the fourth largest party, to the second largest party. In 2007 this trend consolidated, when the sum of votes for the DUP and SF reached 56%. By 2011, the DUP and SF were the undisputed largest parties in the system, leaving the SDLP, the UUP, and the Alliance significantly behind.

The northern vote not only comes on the heels of the still-unresolved election outcome in the Republic, but also ahead of the 23 June referendum on whether the U.K. (including Northern Ireland) remains in the E.U. All of which puts the lie to notions that the U.S. is the only place having interesting elections this year.