“I detect an accent…where are you from?” Since starting university in Washington DC last September, this has been the question I have received most frequently and yet it is still the one I struggle to answer. I continue to contemplate; what is my identity? British? Irish? Northern Irish?
Yet, identity is a concept that not only dominates my daily interactions but has prevailed in both the conversations and actions of Northern Ireland throughout its history. Problems of identity have often been hailed as not only the precursor for our violent battles but also the reason for the creation of historical binaries between citizens and communities. Hence, as we remember the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement, it is important to remember one of the major catalysts for the movement towards bipartisanship that transcended these resolute social and political paradigms of 1998, namely the role and intervention of the United States. Without the influence, dedication and commitment of this critical third-actor, and the courage of individuals such as President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell, peace may never have been brokered in Northern Ireland. On a personal level, as a child of the Agreement, born just three months after its signing, I would never have thought it a possibility to study at the same institution attended by both Senator Mitchell and President Clinton.
So, what was the significance of the intervention of the United States Government in Northern Ireland?
It is pertinent to note at the outset that President Clinton and his partners in government did not need to become engaged in Northern Irish affairs. In a post-Cold War world, his Presidential predecessors had maintained a relative indifference to Northern Irish affairs, instead favouring a traditional and longstanding “Anglo-American” partnership, centered on diplomatic, financial and linguistic alliances. Yet, as the political oppression, human rights abuses and violence only continued, Clinton ruptured the status quo on the US “special relationship” with Britain. He cut short the policy of abstentionist neutrality in Northern Ireland, and for this pioneering and progressive attitude alone, he must be commended.
Clinton’s unique approach to Northern Ireland is only compounded further in his fervent belief and commitment to making the seemingly impossible possible, by cultivating a mutually constitutive and consociational democracy in Northern Ireland. I use the word “cultivating” carefully here because imperative to understanding the power of Clinton’s approach was his emphasis that enduring peace would only come when the two opposing political ideologies of nationalism and unionism themselves transcended their respective factions. It was a recognition that while the US could act as a key broker, aid and ally, it was ultimately the role of both the policy-makers and the people of “our wee place” to build a society that was centered on the notions of cooperation and shared responsibility. In the words of Clinton himself, the US saw its role as, “. . . interested outsiders, not insiders.”
Put simply, Clinton placed his faith and trust in us, and frankly, we needed someone who believed we held the power to resolve our differences.
Let’s think more about trust…. It’s a concept that is inextricably tied to the first question of identity that I considered; where are you from? Although this question can often prove complex for me to answer in the US, it must be highlighted that before the Good Friday Agreement, its implications and repercussions back home were much broader. Whether you hailed from the Falls or Finaghy, the Shankill or the Shore Road, where you came from was a question coded in underlying, hidden meanings… what school you went to, what religious faith you practised, even the sports you enjoyed playing. In our contentious and closed communities of the 1970’s and 80’s, this only perpetuated the cycle of inequality and discrimination and exaggerated differences.
Yet, as a member of the Good Friday generation, at 19 years of age, I believe that the connotations of this simple question are diminishing with each year that passes since the signing of the Agreement. This is not to say that prejudice and discrimination have dissipated completely but more so, that we have learned to value each other as individuals alone and not in terms of our religious and political affiliations and identities. I credit much of this increase in tolerance and trust in our society to the work of not only Clinton but his key political envoy in Northern Ireland, Senator George Mitchell. Indeed, in 1999 Senator Mitchell stated, “I believe there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how much harm has been done, peace can prevail.” Indeed, as chair of both the International Body on Arms Decommissioning and the multi-party talks, Mitchell was central to paving the path towards peace.
However, can we truly say that the landscape of Northern Irish politics has really changed? Sadly, as we approach this significant anniversary, we have no government and many of the same issues that Senator Mitchell presided over during his tenure in Northern Ireland continue to affect our society, with far-reaching ramifications. The one that disturbs me the most is how, once again, politics in Northern Ireland has been reduced to a zero-sum gain to be won at all costs and where political opponents are perceived as sworn enemies. It’s what is fuelling the rising sense of ideological absolutism and in turn, creating a rising sense of mistrust and contempt for engagement in the democratic processes. It has been the root cause of our battles and our historical burdens and now pervades the conversation on the border question and the ever-changing calamity of Brexit. This, coupled with key legislative conflicts over the Irish Language Act and an inadvertent disregard for cooperation and compromise are jeopardising both the progress of the past and a vision for the future.
Northern Ireland has not had as US Special Envoy since 2017 and saw the departure of Senator Gary Hart with the Obama administration. Hence, by reflecting on the monumental role of the United States in the Good Friday Agreement, I believe that it is now, more than ever before, that we must seek out the support of our third actor - our “interested outsider”, the United States. Overall, we cannot allow the trust that has been established over the past 20 years to be replaced by the politics of territorial demands, Trojan horses and the tribalization of the truth.
Francesca is 19 years old and attends the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington DC. She plans to major in International Politics and minor in French. She's an aspiring Diplomat and DJ in training.