Ireland in Five Easy Pieces IV: Northern Ireland and British Irish Relations

Seventeen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was brokered between the parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments in talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell.  I was privileged to be part of the Talks Team fielded by the Department of Foreign Affairs for those climatic negotiations. 

The Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was an historic breakthrough, the culmination of a series of statements, principles, declarations, reports and innumerable ingenious formulations deployed on the long road from conflict to peace.  [You can read more about it and the text of the Agreement here https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/the-good-friday-agreement-and-today/ ]  

The fourth piece in this series looks at the conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of its deep origins in Irish history and how the peace process untangled the complicated strands of British Irish relations bequeathed to us by that history.

* * *

The conflict in Northern Ireland lasted over 30 years and cost over three thousand lives, tens of thousands injuries and immeasurable grief to those directly affected.  It was brought to an end by ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  The work of realizing the society envisaged in that Agreement goes on, as does dealing with the consequences of the past, the realities of a divided society and the consequences of an island partitioned.

At its essence, the origins of the conflict in Northern Ireland lie in divergent identities, themselves the legacy of our history.  On the one hand there is the Catholic nationalist identity with its roots in an ancient Gaelic society untouched by Roman conquest but subsequently impacted by successive invasions, including Viking, Norman, Tudor, Stuart and Cromwellian.  By the end of the 17th century, Catholic Gaelic Ireland was conquered and a Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry, under the sovereignty of the British crown, ruled the land from their estates and over time increasingly from London.

Nationalist resistance to British rule was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and it adopted the ideas and nomenclature of republicanism; eventually the term ‘republican’ would be synonymous with a commitment to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an independent republic.   The flirtation with the French Revolution and the subsequent rebellion of 1798 came at a price: after the rebellion was suppressed, the local parliament in Dublin was abolished and the Act of Union of 1801 made Ireland part of the United Kingdom.

Nationalist symbols included the shamrock, the harp, the field of green, the Celtic cross, and the tricolour of green, white and orange representing the two traditions joined in peace.

The conquest of Ireland generated several attempts at ‘plantation’, that is the settling of British farmers on land in Ireland.  This only really worked in the northeast, the historic province of Ulster, where Scottish settlers crossed the narrow straits and settled in the four counties nearest the coast.  For them, the Union with Britain was a mark of their identity and their guarantee of safety, prosperity and stability.  Conversely movement toward even limited home rule for Ireland was regarded as a grievous threat to their identity, culture and well being.  For the Unionists in Ireland, some one million concentrated in the northeast, their identity was fused with totemic symbols; the Crown, the Union Jack, the Red Hand of Ulster, and King William of Orange on his white horse defeating the Irish at the Battle of Boyne in 1690.

Once it became clear in 1914 that Home Rule for Ireland was to be enacted, though on hold until World War I was concluded, the Unionists opted for their second choice – partition and their own home rule.  While nationalists fought British resistance to Irish independence from January 1919 onwards, unionists were accorded their own home rule with the opening of their parliament in Belfast in June 1921.  Though the province of Ulster comprised nine counties, this would have given unionists only a perilous majority so they opted for jurisdiction over six counties.   With the unionists catered to, the British Government offered a truce to the nationalists.  Subsequent negotiations resulted in the Treaty of December 1921 and the withdrawal of Britain from the remaining twenty-six counties in January 1922.

Without any options, the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland had little choice but to knuckle down.  They suffered persistent discrimination over the years.  Northern Ireland was, as the saying goes, a ‘cold house’ for nationalists.  Against the international backdrop of civil rights protests in the US and student unrest in Europe in the 1960s, a new generation of young and educated nationalists launched their own civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, triggered by a number of high-profile cases of discrimination involving public housing  allocation.  The unionist authorities were alarmed and suppressed these marches, igniting sectarian riots and leading to the re-emergence of the republican movement in the form of the Provisional IRA.

The Provos, as they were called, wanted the British out and partition ended without reference to the wishes of the unionist population. From their perspective, partition had been imposed by the British contrary to and before an act of national (island-wide) self-determination.   After a crescendo of violence in the early 1970s and the collapse of an attempted power-sharing administration in 1974, the Provos settled down to the ‘long war’.  The problem was that neither the IRA nor the British Army could dislodge each other; the long war became in effect the long stalemate.

Meanwhile, the moderate nationalists of the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) under John Hume in Northern Ireland argued that the problem was not solely the British presence but the relationship between the various parties; between unionists and nationalists, between Ireland North and South and between Britain and Ireland.  The formulation that peace could only be achieved through the totality of relationships became the lodestone and eventually architecture of the peace process.

Successive efforts to forge talks between moderate unionists and nationalists foundered under the weight of violence and hard-line unionist opposition.  Throughout these years too brave individuals and groups reached out across the sectarian divide to encourage dialogue and mutual understanding, building a network of contacts and relationships that encouraged an end to the violence and long term peace building.

By the early 1980s, and with London being encouraged by the White House to undertake a political initiative, the British and Irish Governments began to engage with each other diplomatically and politically, a process that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.  This was a major diplomatic achievement and a genuine breakthrough.  It established a formal intergovernmental conference of both governments with a standing secretariat near Belfast of British and Irish officials dealing with an agenda that sought to address the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland.  This process worked assiduously over the years to deal with discrimination, alienation, security issues like harassment and the use of lethal force, prison issues, confidence in the administration of justice, identity issues and economic marginalization.  This strengthened the relationship between Dublin and London and made considerable progress in reducing the causes of conflict.

The political stalemate began to loosen when the leader of the moderate nationalists within Northern Ireland, John Hume, opened discussions with the leader of the republican movement, Gerry Adams in early 1993.  Since the IRA’s campaign was still underway, it was an act of uncommon political courage on Hume’s part.

The outstanding achievement of Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds TD and his advisors was the creation of the conditions for ceasefires by the paramilitary organisations. He did this by negotiating with British Prime Minister John Major what became the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993, a breakthrough formulation of enormous import which led directly to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

The Declaration set out principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, this was political leadership of a very high order indeed.

With the active support and engagement of President Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair embarked on inclusive talks in 1997, including those elected to represent paramilitary organizations (though without the participation of the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party).

The talks led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a comprehensive settlement that mandated power sharing within Northern Ireland, formal North-South cooperation between the Governments in Belfast and Dublin and formal structures for consultation and cooperation between Britain and Ireland i.e. it addressed the totality of relationships.  The Agreement took a rights-based approach approach, grounded in the notion of equality and mutual respect between people and the traditions sharing the island.  The Agreement was voted on by both jurisdictions on the island on the same day in May 1998, thereby expressing self-determination by the all the people of Ireland and enshrining the principle of unity by consent alone.  The Agreement also mandated many reforms, building on those of the AIA of 1985, including an overhaul of policing and the administration of jutice: security sector reform was a critical in the transition from conflict to a peaceful, shared society.  Much time and energy was expended on getting the IRA to decommission its weapons.  New policing and the complete decommissioning of IRA weapons cleared the way for the establishment of a power-sharing government in March 2007.

This is a highly compressed and simplified version of what was a complicated, frustrating, tragic, heroic, futile, and inspiring narrative.  Lives were lost and ruined by injury, the death of loved ones, imprisonment, poverty, alienation, and marginalization.  Much energy that should have been devoted to social and economic betterment was diverted into violence, counter-insurgency, protests, resistance, negotiations without progress, frustratingly slow conflict resolution and many more of the reverberating consequences of a society in turmoil.

However, the forces of history and the imperatives of identity that roiled Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations were deeply rooted and it took much determination, courage, infinite patience and finesse to deal with them.  The violent expression of those forces was finally tamed so that, in Seamus Heaney’s immemorial words, ‘hope and history rhymed’.  The consequences of conflict and division however live on in many ways, much work remains to be done to bridge the sectarian divide, the peace process itself requires consistent vigilance and attention, and the work of peace building goes on.

In the years following the Good Friday Agreement the success of the peace process allowed an historic reconciliation in British Irish relations.  This was epitomized by the visit of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, to Ireland in May 2011, the first visit by a British Head of State to independent Ireland.  During the visit, she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin dedicated to those who had given their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.

The peace process also encouraged within Ireland the recovery of the many strands of Irish identity and experience attenuated by the nationalist struggle, including for example the service of many Irish in the British Army, especially those who had fought in World War I.

In March 2012, the Irish and British Prime Ministers issued a Joint Statement of principles governing the development and enhancement of British-Irish relations in the decade ahead, a decade marking the centenary of the seminal events of the struggle for independence.

The visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in April 2014 marked another milestone in British Irish relations.  The President addressed both houses of Parliament, laid a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey and reviewed the Colours of the five Irish regiments of the British Army disbanded in 1922.

[For more information on British Irish relations see https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/british-irish-relations/ ]

Peace in Northern Ireland, developing concord on the island of Ireland and the deep, multilayer rapprochement between Ireland and Britain are signal achievements when set against our history.  They allow us to approach the centenaries in the years ahead with generosity and confidence, embracing inclusively the richness of our heritage.  And they are too an intrinsic part of mutual understanding that is the ultimate guardian of the peace that we have won.

Eamonn McKee

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