The writer was the British government’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007.
Twenty-five years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was signed at Castle Buildings, a shabby government office on the Stormont Estate in Northern Ireland, ending 30 years of civil war. More than 3,700 people lost their lives in the Troubles. Several hundred are alive today and would have been killed had it not been for this agreement.
There have been painfully few successful peace agreements in the world in my lifetime. Even those that are done, like the Oslo accords in 1993, are often not implemented, leading to a return to even worse violence. There are many problems in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement has not solved – political crises, sporadic violence, crime and above all bigotry. But what he did was end the war and provide space to solve other problems. We will never return to The Troubles.
Among those whose role is not so often celebrated, at least not on this side of the Atlantic, are the Americans. The approaching anniversary visit of President Joe Biden to Ireland, North and South, provides an opportunity to recognize their contribution to peace.
Biden is not the first president to take an interest in Ireland. In the 19th century, presidential candidates regularly campaigned on the Irish question, attacking British rule and famine. During the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, David Lloyd George was warned to remove Woodrow Wilson who defended self-determination, including for Ireland.
American involvement has not always been entirely helpful. Support for Noraid, the fundraising arm of the IRA in America, at the height of the Troubles and the supply of arms to the IRA, was positively destructive. So has the tendency of US courts to provide a safe haven for fugitive IRA murderers.
My introduction to Northern Ireland was serving in the British Embassy in Washington in the early 1990s. My job was to advocate the British cause to Congress and take Unionist politicians to the Capitol to try let their cause be heard.
This all changed under the influence of John Hume, the Irish nationalist who later received a joint Nobel Peace Prize, who persuaded Senator Ted Kennedy and the other members of the “Four Horsemen” of senior Irish Democratic politicians- Americans, including President Tip O’Neill, New York Governor Hugh Carey, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to attack the IRA and discourage the public from donating.
Sometimes the involvement of the United States did not seem positive at the time, but proved to be crucial. At the embassy, I had to pressure the Clinton administration not to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States even as the IRA’s armed campaign continued. I thought we had everyone squared off, from the State Department to the FBI, to the CIA and the Department of Justice, only for Kennedy to persuade Clinton to grant the visa in January 1994. Sir John Major, then prime minister, was furious and refused to take Clinton’s visa. calls for three days. In retrospect, the president was right; the visa allowed Adams to convince the hard men of the IRA Army Council that there could be political progress.
In the end, it was precisely those in the United States who supported the IRA who had the most influence in persuading them to go down this path. People like Peter King, the Republican congressman from New York, had been the bane of our lives. But after 9/11, they came to see the dark side of terrorism and pushed Adams and Martin McGuinness to implement the agreement signed three years earlier and give up their guns.
President Clinton deserves special credit for his time in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement. He appointed Senator George Mitchell first as economic envoy to Northern Ireland and then as independent chairman of the peace talks. During the final negotiations, Clinton appeared to stay awake all night in Washington, cashing in his chips with Adams to guide him toward accepting the deal; he even called David Trimble, Ulster Unionist leader, in the middle of the night to ask for his support. I remember going down to the Unionist office suite on the ground floor of the castle buildings to tell Trimble the roll call was coming, only to see him get up – in his view, correct protocol for speaking to the president.
Decades later, when the Good Friday Agreement was threatened by the fallout from Brexit and Boris Johnson’s occasional political vandalism in reopening the identity issue, Biden weighed in with the UK, urging the Johnson’s government to negotiate a resolution with the EU. The White House didn’t make a public splash, but quietly called for moderation. Once Johnson left, it paid off with Rishi Sunak’s conclusion of the Windsor framework, which settled the question of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status once and for all, removing the practical difficulties created by a border effective trade in the Irish Sea.
As he prepares to visit, Biden is correct that instead of just celebrating the past, we should look to the future. And 25 years later, there are good reasons for optimism. The deal worked. As part of both the EU and the UK, Northern Ireland is in a unique position to benefit from new investment. And if the Unionists decide, as I hope they will, to join the devolved government in Belfast and ensure political stability, American and European businesses will flood in. If they do, the work of the Good Friday Agreement will finally be done.