Facing History: Establishing Peace in Northern Ireland

By Mowlam, Majorie | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Facing History: Establishing Peace in Northern Ireland

Mowlam, Majorie, Harvard International Review

MO MOWLAM is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Maya Angelou has written, "History, despite its wrench and pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, it need not be lived again." The people of Northern Ireland took the poet's words to heart and have faced their history with courage in 1998. They voted to support a peace agreement that represents a radical departure from the past, and, determined to succeed, embraced the challenges and opportunities of a new future. By the end of February 1999, a great deal has been achieved. But there is still a long way to go before permanent peace is attained, with many hurdles to surmount. An agreement as far-reaching and comprehensive as was achieved on April 10 last year--Good Friday--will take many months, possibly years, to cement. The agreement will need to stand against the pressures created by decades of hatred and fear between Northern Ireland's communities. Thus, it is far too early to talk about drawing "lessons" from Northern Ireland's recent experience. Nevertheless, there are some signs we can point to, and factors that have contributed along the way, which are worth highlighting even at this early stage.

Inclusive Consent

The British Labour party began developing its policy toward Northern Ireland before its success in the United Kingdom's 1997 general election. A bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland was adopted at Westminster, to ensure that the message emanating from both of Britain's main political parties was clear and consistent. The Labour government chose to foster such a cooperative approach so that the prospect of a change in government in London would neither hamper nor undermine progressive steps in the peace process. The key difficulty when the new government began the process was how to ensure that the peace talks would be as inclusive as possible. Like the previous government, the Labour party wanted to see representatives of all the key groups in Northern Ireland--unionist, nationalist, loyalist, and republican--in discussion around the same table. That meant there had to be a complete and unequivocal restoration of the IRA cease-fire, an essential condition for Sinn Fein's inclusion. One of the very first acts of the new government was Prime Minister Tony Blair's authorization of contact between government officials and Sinn Fein to clarify the government's position on the requirements for Sinn Fein's entry into the negotiations.

The new government also acted on its long-held belief that the optimal way to achieve progress is for the British and Irish governments to work closely together. This was facilitated both by the previous government's relationship with Dublin, and by our work before the 1997 election to establish strong personal relationships with many Irish politicians. Also, another key partnership had been developed before the election between Tony Blair and President Clinton. Such ties allowed the concerned parties to work together for the same goals as three governments (the United States, Britain, and Ireland). There were no differences between the states in desiring a fair, balanced, and inclusive approach to the peace talks. The United States proposed that George Mitchell chair the peace talks; his consummate political skills, honed for several years during his time as US Senate Majority Leader, undoubtedly greatly encouraged the parties toward brokering the necessary compromises. The 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement that was eventually secured is a testament to his abilities and the spirit of partnership and cooperation between the governments. But first and foremost, the Peace Agreement is the achievement of political representatives from all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

One of the essential principles of the Agreement is that the consent of the people is required for change. All parties in the negotiations knew that they had to have the support of people across the community.

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