The writer was chief British government negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997-2007
Twenty-five years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 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. Many hundreds are alive today who would have been killed if it were not for that agreement.
There have been painfully few successful peace deals around the world in my lifetime. Even those that are concluded, like the Oslo Accords in 1993, are often not implemented, resulting in 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, criminality and above all sectarianism. But what it has done is end the war and provide the space to resolve other problems. We are never going back to the Troubles.
Among those whose role is not celebrated so often, at least not on this side of the Atlantic, are the Americans. The approaching anniversary visit by President Joe Biden to Ireland, North and South, provides an opportunity to recognise their contribution to the peace.
Biden is not the first president to have an interest in Ireland. In the 19th century, presidential candidates regularly campaigned on the Irish question, attacking British rule and the famine. At the negotiation of the Versailles treaty, David Lloyd George was warned to head off Woodrow Wilson who was championing self determination, including for Ireland.
American involvement was not always entirely helpful. The support for Noraid, the fundraising arm of the IRA in America, at the height of the Troubles and the provision of weapons to the IRA, was positively destructive. As was the tendency of US courts to provide safe haven for IRA murderers on the run.
My introduction to Northern Ireland involved serving in the British Embassy in Washington in the early nineties. My job included making the British case with Congress and taking Unionist politicians to Capitol Hill to try to ensure their case was heard.
All that changed under the influence of John Hume, the Irish Nationalist later awarded a joint Nobel Peace Prize, who persuaded Senator Ted Kennedy and the other members of the “Four Horsemen” of senior Irish-American Democratic politicians, including the Speaker Tip O’Neill, the governor of New York, Hugh Carey, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to take on the IRA and discourage the public from donating.
Sometimes US involvement didn’t seem positive at the time, but turned out to be crucial. At the embassy, I had to lobby the Clinton administration against giving Gerry Adams a visa to visit the US even while the IRA armed campaign continued. I thought we had everyone squared, from the state department to the FBI, CIA and the justice department, 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 calls for three days. In retrospect the president was right; the visa allowed Adams to convince the hard men on the IRA’s Army Council that there could be political progress.
In the end, it was exactly those in the US who had supported the IRA that had most influence in persuading them to take this path. People like Peter King, the Republican New York Congressman, had been the bane of our life. 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 weapons.
President Clinton deserves particular credit for the time he devoted to helping bring about the Good Friday Agreement. He nominated Senator George Mitchell first as an economic envoy to Northern Ireland and then as independent chair of the peace talks. During the final negotiations, Clinton appeared to stay up all night in Washington, cashing in his chips with Adams to shepherd him towards accepting the agreement; he even called David Trimble, Ulster Unionist leader, in the middle of the night to urge his support. I remember going down to the Unionist suite of offices on the ground floor of Castle Buildings to tell Trimble the call was coming, only to see him rise to his feet — in his view the correct protocol for speaking to the president.
Decades later when the Good Friday Agreement came under threat from the consequences of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s casual political vandalism in reopening the issue of identity, Biden weighed in with the UK, urging Johnson’s government to negotiate a resolution with the EU. The White House did not make a public splash, but quietly urged moderation. Once Johnson had gone, that paid off with Rishi Sunak’s conclusion of the Windsor framework, which has settled the issue of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status once and for all, removing the practical difficulties created by an effective trade border in the Irish Sea.
As he prepares to visit, Biden is right to say that rather than just celebrating the past we should look to the future. And 25 years on there is good reason to be optimistic. The agreement has 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 rejoin the devolved government in Belfast and provide political stability, US and EU companies will pour in. If they do, then the work of the Good Friday Agreement will finally be done.