Retired Irish diplomat John Rowan discussed the early years of the Northern Ireland peace process and other topics at a recent Irish Network DC event. Rowan joined Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in 1974 and was posted to the Embassy in Washington in 1976, during some of the bloodiest days of the Troubles.
Rowan said nationalist leader John Hume was “a hero” of the earliest efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland through a strategy that “broadened the problem” beyond Ulster’s borders.
In America, it initially was tough getting much interest from the Jimmy Carter Administration, Rowan said, because the president and his top advisers had no connections or interests in Irish affairs. The U.S. State Department was dominated by those who favored the “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, while much of Irish diaspora in America supported the IRA.
Hume’s efforts soon got a boost from four prominent Irish-American politicians: Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan, Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and New York Governor Hugh Carey. They came to be known as the four horsemen.
“They visited Northern Ireland and they researched,” Rowan said. “They wanted people about a solution, not fighting for a solution.”
By 30 August 1977 Carter was persuaded to issue a key statement on U.S. policy in Northern Ireland, which signaled the start of America playing a more active role in the peace process. The statement said, in part:
The United States wholeheartedly supports peaceful means for finding a just solution that involves both parts of the community of Northern Ireland .and protects human rights and guarantees freedom from discrimination–a solution that the people in Northern Ireland, as well as the Governments of Great Britain and Ireland can support. Violence cannot resolve Northern Ireland’s problems; it only increases them and solves nothing.
“It was a game changer,” Rowan said. “We had another party interested in being our partner, a very powerful partner that would express its views. We also found that the diaspora was not monolithic in its support for armed struggle.”
Of course, it took another 21 years of incremental steps and set backs to reach the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Hume shared the Noble Peace Prize with unionist leader David Trimble. Since then the six counties of Ulster have enjoyed a level of peace and progress, if still imperfect, that was unimaginable in 1977.
Rowan said he expects to see “some derivation” of the Northern Ireland Executive created by the landmark agreement in the years ahead. “There will be some realignment on the nationalist and unions sides,” he said.
It’s possible, Rowan said, that Sinn Fein could eventually hold the position of First Minister instead of Deputy First Minister. He does not expect to see a unification referendum any time soon, nor does he believe the six counties might form their own statelet independent of Britain.
“That would not be viable,” he said, noting that Ulster is too dependent on government help to leave the U.K., which also why it’s unlikely the Republic would want to embrace the region. “The private sector is too fragile.”