Arthur I. Cyr: Preserving fragile peace in Northern Ireland
On July 21, Shane Lowry from Ireland clinched his win of the British Open golf tournament, held this year in Portrush, Northern Ireland. The prestigious competition was inspiring, but also was held in a politically tense environment.
In March 2017, the funeral for Martin McGuinness took place in Northern Ireland. He was a top commander of the violent Irish Republican Army (IRA), but later joined the peace process and was Deputy First Minister for the province from 2007 to 2017.
That government combined representatives of both the Protestant majority and Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. The coalition helped end IRA violence against British rule.
Memorial service participants included Arlene Foster, the Protestant First Minister who worked with McGuinness. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke. British Prime Ministers Teresa May, and predecessor Tony Blair, who was instrumental in achieving Northern Ireland peace, did not attend.
Several months earlier, the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing arrangement collapsed over accusations of mismanagement and possible fraud in a heating fuel program. The issues may be obscure, but passions quickly escalated. Since then, Britain has again expanded direct rule.
The implications of these events reach far beyond the troubled province. Britain is implementing Brexit, departing the European Union (EU). Ireland remains a staunch EU member. Britain is a military power within NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), while Ireland is a neutral nation.
A common commercial market linking Britain and Northern Ireland with the rest of Ireland has been important in maintaining peace. That is threatened.
Wider relationships may prove crucial. The G8 (Group of Eight) nations held a summit in Northern Ireland June 17-18, 2013. Members reconfirmed commitment to economic cooperation. The venue selected underscored progress toward peace.
That conference was held at the Lough Erne golf resort, near Enniskillen, a setting both beautiful and pastoral. In a surprise move, U.S. President Barack Obama joined British Prime Minister David Cameron in a motorcade through the area, and visited an integrated elementary school where Catholic and Protestant children study together.
The Enniskillen Integrated Primary School was established in 1987 in the aftermath of an IRA bomb attack that killed 12 people. Cameron and Obama assisted students in painting a banner about the G8. The symbolism involved was silently eloquent. Politicians who value not talking deserve special respect, at least for that moment.
The Northern Ireland summit reconfirmed commitment to economic and wider cooperation. Leaders agreed to work to ensure negotiations to end the Syria civil war became an urgent priority.
They also emphasized financial transparency, with agreements to provide automatic access to tax information on residents of member nations, and more clarity regarding true ownership of companies. The Northern Ireland summit additionally agreed on new transatlantic trade negotiations between Europe and North America. These are now effectively on hold, though not necessarily dead.
Bill Clinton’s presence implies the long American involvement with Ireland. For example, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1977 Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Pat Moynihan (D-NY) joined with fellow Democrats Governor Hugh Carey of New York and U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill from Massachusetts in urging Irish-Americans to stop sending money to the IRA. Kennedy continued active engagement.
Today, the U.S. could again mediate renewed talks between Dublin and London to try to reestablish a unity government in Ulster. Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) performed this role skillfully during the Clinton Administration. Brexit provides a strong incentive.
Sports indirectly helps promote peace.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.