In April 1998 negotiations to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. Later that year two referendums were held. In Northern Ireland 71% voted in support of the Agreement. In the Republic an astonishing 94% voted in favour of amending the Irish Constitution to abandon the territorial claim to the North. It is hard to overestimate the significance of this support for the Agreement on the part of the Irish voters who thus overturned traditions dating back centuries during which the dream of a united and independent Ireland was an article of faith. What then were the reasons for this successful outcome: were they based on adherence to specific values or the pressures of pragmatism?
In the world of diplomacy the urgency of immediate problems often overshadows any overt consideration of values. But it would be wrong to conclude that they play no role in decision-making. The majority of countries have accepted the validity of those values enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which can be summarised as peaceful co-existence, tolerance and freedom under the law. There may be nuances in their interpretation from continent to continent and indeed from country to country, but in Western Europe few would challenge their validity, even if there may often be differences of approach in their implementation. It is not every country which views negotiations as a series of trade-offs, which the British tend to do. Furthermore, however much a country may pride itself as an upholder of civilised values, the reality is often more complicated. For example Britain may see itself as a place of tolerance and mutual respect but it has never been immune from prejudice, including on grounds of race and gender.
Against this background it is not surprising that successive British Governments took a pragmatic approach to the situation in Northern Ireland when in the 1960s violence erupted there and then spread to mainland Britain and beyond. Over the ensuing decades more than 3600 people were killed as paramilitary groups from both the republican and unionist communities engaged in ruthless murders, the former believing that they had been unjustly treated by the majority unionist community. The aims of these groups were mutually incompatible: respectively to achieve a United Ireland; or to ensure that Northern Ireland remained under British jurisdiction.
The practical responses of the British Government were not always successful. Initially troops were despatched to keep the peace. But the army which had been schooled in the colonial era in such places as Palestine and Kenya did not easily adjust their values to Northern Ireland, with tragic results in January 1972 when Bloody Sunday saw the deaths of thirteen unarmed civilians. Over the years the military authorities changed their tactics and learnt to avoid unprovoked confrontation but preventing bloodshed proved an impossible task.
Attempts by the British Government to establish a stable system of government in Northern Ireland also met with mixed success. Agreements designed to bring together the Northern Ireland political parties encountered fierce opposition, notably from unionists who refused to accept power-sharing with those engaged in a campaign of violence. Such initiatives failed to endure.
It was not until the early 1990s that a combination of circumstances opened the way to real progress. By this time the republican paramilitaries, under pressure from John Hume, the leader of the largest nationalist party, had come to accept that violence was not reaping the hoped-for rewards, even if it had opened the way for their political representatives to sit at the negotiating table. By 1995 all the main paramilitary groups had declared ceasefires.This process had earlier been encouraged in 1990 when the British Government had stated that it was not the aspiration to a sovereign united Ireland against which it had set its face, but its violent expression. This statement had a powerful effect on the nationalist community.
There was thus the opportunity for real progress. It was seized by a group of politicians both in Britain and Ireland, and further afield in the United States, Canada and Europe. The intention was to achieve a settlement in which the principle of consent regarding the future status of Northern Ireland would be enshrined. At the time there were many who doubted that this would be possible. They were wrong. They underestimated the determination of the leaders involved: Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair in London, and Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern in Dublin. Support came from many quarters, including the personal involvement of President Clinton and Senator George Mitchell from Washington. Representatives of the European Union also played a positive role.
Negotiations leading to the eventual agreement were tortuous. While the values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence were certainly at the back of the minds of the negotiators, the balancing skills of diplomacy were to the forefront. These were demonstrated above all by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern who broke the deadlock and negotiated the final wording acceptable to all sides, apart from the Democratic Unionists in the North. On 10 April 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was born.
In formal terms the Agreement set out a devolved power-sharing system of government for Northern Ireland and established a number of institutions whereby the British and Irish Governmentscould work together on issues of mutual interest including joint membership of the European Union, as could also the people of Ireland, North and South. Central to it was the recognition of the principle of consent regarding the future status of Northern Ireland either as part of Great Britain or as part of a United Ireland: this was to be determined by whatever choice was freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Several factors contributed to the successful outcome. Shared values which underpinned the negotiations were important. So too was the combination of British pragmatism and the Irish ability to hold in mind more than one goal at a time. Crucial also was the mutual trust and respect which developed among those involved on both sides of the Irish Sea and beyond, and it was surely this that lay behind the level of Irish support for the changes to their Constitution. These factors together led to an Agreement which contains much that is ambiguous, but only thus could it be rendered acceptable to both sides: it enabled nationalists to believe that unification will be possible, while the unionists (somewhat reluctantly) can accept that the Union is safe. Pragmatic to the end Tony Blair gave them personal assurances on this point.
Twenty years on violence in the North is now the exception rather than the rule. But recent events have cast a shadow over the achievements of 1998. The suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive is a serious setback. More serious still is the damage to the bilateral relationship between Britain and Ireland caused by the British decision to leave the European Union, which from the Irish point of view must seem like a breach of trust. Let us hope that this damage is not irreparable and that the vision of a better future embodied in the Good Friday Agreement endures.