Twenty years ago, the government of the United Kingdom, the government of Ireland and eight Northern Ireland political parties declared their support for peace. In the current difficult political climate in Northern Ireland, it is useful for all of us to recall and to heed the powerful and moving words by which the governments and the parties pledged their support.
The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.
We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.
We affirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.
When I announced the Good Friday Agreement, I described it as an historic achievement, and it was. But I also said on that day that, by itself, the agreement did not guarantee peace, stability or reconciliation. It made them possible.
But achieving and sustaining those lofty goals would require of future leaders the vision and courage that the leaders of Northern Ireland in 1998 demonstrated. I hope that the current leaders of Northern Ireland, Ireland, the U.K. and the European Union, as they reflect on their responsibilities, will look back 20 years to what their predecessors did.
Much has been said and written about the long and difficult road that led to the agreement. Many have deservedly received credit for their roles. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his predecessor John Major. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his predecessors Albert Reynolds and John Bruton. They and their governments laid the foundation for the negotiations and then brought those negotiations to a successful conclusion.
President Bill Clinton was the first American president to make peace in Northern Ireland a central objective of his administration. He and Hillary Clinton were deeply concerned about the adverse effects of continued conflict, and they became deeply involved in and concerned about the lives of all of the people of Ireland.
But the real heroes of the agreement were the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders. The people supported the effort to achieve agreement, and afterward, they voted overwhelmingly to ratify it. Their political leaders, in dangerous and difficult circumstances, after lifetimes devoted to conflict, summoned extraordinary courage and vision and reached agreement, often at great risk to themselves, their families and their political careers.
Today, across the Western world, it is fashionable to demean, insult and ridicule political leaders. Certainly, much of it is deserved. But we don’t pay enough attention, or tribute, to those political leaders who do dare greatly and succeed.
In Northern Ireland, these were ordinary men and women. But after 700 days of failure, they joined in one day of success, and they changed the course of history.
I return regularly to Northern Ireland. The people are energetic, productive and a pleasure to be with. It’s true they can be argumentative and quick to take offense.
As the late David Ervine, a Northern Ireland political leader, loudly said to me on the first day of the negotiations: “Senator, if you are to be of any use to us there’s one thing you must understand.” When I asked what it was, he replied: “We in Northern Ireland would drive a hundred miles out of our way to receive an insult.” He was right, but nobody’s perfect.
The current problems in Northern Ireland are difficult and serious. They include the possibility of a return to a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland as a result of the U.K.’s exiting the EU, and the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, which could lead to a return to direct rule from London. These issues must be resolved. But, at the same time, we should not hold Northern Ireland to a higher standard than we apply to others. Every society, including the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland, has social and political problems.
What we Americans must do is to reaffirm to the people and leaders of Northern Ireland: our dedication to the principle that political differences should be resolved through democratic and peaceful means, not through violence; our continuing involvement; our strong and unwavering encouragement and support; our trade and tourism, all as tangible evidence of our deep concern and devotion to the cause of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
The U.K. government and the EU have publicly committed themselves to a Brexit that does not re-establish a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We welcome and accept and support and insist on that outcome. And the governments of both the U.S. and the U.K. must avoid any political or economic decisions that cost jobs and create hardship in Northern Ireland.
The people of Northern Ireland, like people everywhere, want and deserve peace, prosperity and reconciliation. We should encourage and support them in that effort.
George J. Mitchell represented Maine in the U.S. Senate for 15 years, including six as majority leader. He later led Northern Ireland peace negotiations and chaired the International Fact Finding Committee on Violence in the Middle East.
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