Of Christmas Truces and Peace Deals: Ambassador’s Message, 31 December 2014

On the brink of Christmas, peace building in Northern Ireland received a major boost with agreement between the parties on how to resolve outstanding issues on the budget, parades and dealing with the past. Minister Flanagan and his team worked hard with the parties and their British counterparts to bring this about.

As the Minister said, “On one of the darkest days in the bleak mid-winter we have forged a broad agreement that will undoubtedly give rise to brighter days in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland and indeed throughout the island of Ireland.”

After twenty-six hours of continuous negotiations, the Irish Times summarized the deal thus:

STORMONT HOUSE AGREEMENT

Key proposals include:

  • The creation of a Historical Investigations Unit to inquire into killings during the Troubles;
  • A commission to enable people to privately learn how their loved ones were killed;
  • The creation of an oral history archive where experiences of the conflict could be shared;
  • A commission to report on flags within 18 months of being established;
  • Devolving responsibility for parades from the Parades Commission to the Northern Assembly;
  • Slimming the size of the Northern Assembly from 108 to 90 members by the time of the 2021 Assembly elections;
  • Reducing the number of Executive departments from 12 to 9 by the time of the 2016 Assembly elections;
  • The potential to create a formal opposition at Stormont.

This deal builds on a succession of negotiations and benchmark agreements, for a peace process is a living system of adjustments as conflict and mistrust is gradually replaced by concord and cooperation. The origins of this very dynamic diplomacy can be traced back to the early 1980s. The private story is being revealed thanks to the release of British and Irish archives under the thirty-year rule. Arguably it begins with the relationship between Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

What the record shows of their relationship is explored here; http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/love-hate-the-haughey-thatcher-relationship-revisited-1.2047899#.VJs1hfRCmqI.twitter …

This was of course about more than personalities. It was in effect a strategic shift whereby Dublin and London began, tenuously but necessarily, to find common ground in trying to solve the conflict in Northern Ireland. President Reagan, leveraging his own relationship with PM Thatcher, gave an important impetus to the negotiations in nudging her forward. After a decade of violence, Britain and Ireland now embarked on more or less continuous negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the ceasefires in 1994, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and each successive agreement, down to the Christmas deal this year.

The first great diplomatic breakthrough was the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, negotiated by Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald, his government and senior officials from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs. It was a major achievement: In forging a structured and agenda-driven relationship between London and Dublin which began to tackle many of the underlying causes of the conflict, the AIA laid the essential groundwork for the peace process and the1998 Good Friday Agreement. The archival material from both Irish and British sources being released under the thirty-year rule makes for fascinating reading; examples of the coverage are here:

http://www.irishtimes.com/state-papers-fitzgerald-criticised-thatcher-s-rejection-of-new-ireland-forum-report-1.2042568#.VKGQm1Wl4ac.twitter …

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/anglo-irish-agreement-a-triumph-of-persistence-and-backdoor-diplomacy-1.2043042#.VKNMruwFouA.twitter …

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/30/national-archives-thatcher-vetoes-anglo-irish-agreement

For more coverage, go the ‘State Papers’ section of the Irish Times here; http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/state-papers

Of course the roots of the conflict go back deep into British and Irish history. Looking back just one hundred years, against the backdrop of the Home Rule Act, the European war offered for unionists an opportunity to prove they were vital to Britain just as nationalists saw it as an opportunity to prove that they deserved a state of their own. There was too a more widespread notion abroad, tragically innocent, that the European war would be a short, even romantic opportunity for beleaguered manhood, displaced by machines and sensing the assertion of women to rights and equality, to reassert martial prowess. Ironically, the war would prove the destructive capacity of machines to kill vast numbers of even the most heroic of men while women were called upon to do man’s work at home, boosting their confidence and their claims.

These developments lay in the future as soldiers settled down for their first Christmas in the trenches. That Christmas one hundred years ago saw the famous truce between troops in the British and German armies facing each other along the Western Front. To mark its anniversary, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese gave a lecture at Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Against the background of her own pioneering peace building efforts as President, she explores the truce’s meaning, particularly for Irishmen serving with the British Army, and its implications for peace building in Ireland.

You can read her speech, thoughtful and significant, here; http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/mary-mcaleese-the-christmas-truce-1.2048413#.VJ0ydmPanac.twitter …

For Ireland, expectations that the war would be a proving ground for both traditions were doubly trumped; by a war far removed from heroic expectations, one that became in fact a gross caesura with all that had gone before; and by the Easter Rising in 1916.

Thanks to the 2014 Christmas Deal, the Northern Ireland peace process moves forward. As we look back one hundred years, and thirty years and now with this latest achievement, we can be reassured that our complex dialogue with our shared past continues to be a positive one for the present and the future as we encounter the coming anniversaries and commemorations.

On a more festive note, and perhaps because I am not a big New Year reveler, I found traditional Irish wariness about the New Year appealing. I enjoyed this charming piece from the Irish Times on Irish New Year traditions here; http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/irish-new-year-s-day-traditions-looking-to-2015-in-the-shadow-of-the-past-1.2051343#.VKOZvTdDycs.twitter

Every best wish to you and yours for 2015.

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador Tel Aviv

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