NI accord is EU-style sovereignty pooling to optimise influence

Attention this week has concentrated on the all-Ireland significance of the Belfast Agreement as its provisions are finally implemented…

Attention this week has concentrated on the all-Ireland significance of the Belfast Agreement as its provisions are finally implemented and its institutions put in place, but it has an important international dimension, which changed the circumstances in which negotiations took place. The agreement also sets up precedents for states in central and eastern Europe.

One writer, Michael Cox, has referred to the Northern conflict as "the war that came in from the cold", in recognition of how it was influenced by the end of the Cold War in 1989. On November 9th, 1990, the then Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, made a crucial speech in which he said "the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland".

The Guardian recently reported that Margaret Thatcher refused to allow him to make the speech before then because she was reluctant to use such neutral language when nuclear submarines passed close to the North to patrol the Atlantic.

The speech enabled John Hume to convince Gerry Adams that the strategic assumption on which the IRA's campaign of violence was based - that the British presence was to prevent a united neutral Ireland refusing military facilities to NATO - no longer held. One does not have to agree with the analysis to take the point, as the Sinn Fein leadership did in those years, stimulated in good part by their secret dialogue with the British government.

Everyone acknowledges the vital role played by President Clinton's administration in setting the scene for the peace process.

As Conor O'Clery reports in his vivid account of those years, The Greening of the White House, Clinton told the Irish-American pressure group before he was elected: "I think sometimes we are too reluctant to engage ourselves in a positive way because of our longstanding special relationship with Great Britain . . . in the aftermath of the Cold War we need a governing rationale for our engagement in the world, not just in Northern Ireland".

He was as good as his word in office, overriding outright opposition from the British government and the State Department to giving Adams a visa in 1994. As a result, Albert Reynolds wrote in this newspaper yesterday, between 1992 and 1994 "a sea-change occurred in Anglo-Irish relations", setting the scene for the IRA ceasefire.

Mr Reynolds also stressed how good his relations were with John Major, saying: "We had got on well together at EU meetings and there was a natural rapport between us when we were heads of government." It is all too easy to take that EU dimension for granted in understanding how changing Anglo-Irish relations contributed to the peace process.

Reading memoirs by Mr Major, Mrs Thatcher, Edward Heath and Dr Garret FitzGerald, it is striking how successive side meetings at EC/EU summits became part of the furniture of Anglo-Irish relations over those years.

It is a reminder of how Europeanisation has levelled the playing field between Ireland and Britain, making the relationship more equal in a multilateral setting. Political and economic diversification away from over-dependence on Britain during the last 25 years has been crucial in setting the scene and creating confidence to make the compromises over sovereignty built into the Belfast Agreement.

Nationalism in Ireland, unlike in Britain, went with the grain of European integration.

The Belfast Agreement is best understood as an exercise in sovereignty-pooling to optimise influence, just as the EU does. That explains its attractions to nationalists, who foresee functional spillover - and unionists' reservations, who fear a process beyond their control rather than a settled event.

In this perspective it is interesting to look forward to discussions about substantive EU affairs through the North-South bodies as well as with Scottish and Welsh representatives in the British-Irish Council. Constitutional changes in Britain are intimately bound up with those in Ireland.

The same applies to Britain's relationship with the EU. The strengthening sterling against the euro has already affected North-South economic relations.

In a wider framework, 1989 liberated central and eastern European states from totalitarian rule and enabled them to transform their economic and political systems. There was an eruption of new nationalisms, renewed confrontations between majorities and minorities and several ethnic conflicts. Many of them reverted to business unfinished in the Versailles settlements after the first World War.

The nature of the conflict in Ireland may fruitfully be compared with nationalism, majority-minority relations, cross-border relations and ethnic conflicts in central and eastern Europe. They share many characteristics - modern Ireland too was a product of the post-imperial settlements after the first World War.

Increasingly, the literature on comparative nationalism recognises Ireland as a central European oasis in an uncomprehending Western Europe. Poland and Czechoslovakia as independent states in the inter-war years and both parts of Ireland after 1922 had much in common.

Not least was the demographic distribution of majorities and minorities and the comparatively well-developed social and infrastructures inherited from a much more comprehensive integration with adjacent imperial powers than was ever the case with the Asian and African colonies of any of the European empires.

Such similarities were lost sight of through Nazism, Stalinism and the Cold War. The end of that geopolitical conflict has, therefore, been something of a liberation, allowing the Northern conflict to be seen as more normal and less insoluble, as with other regional conflicts the world over. The Belfast Agreement is frequently used as an exemplary model for them by Mr Clinton.

It has relevance as a means of addressing minority and ethnic issues in the EU accession states, just as Ireland is often quoted by them as a model for growth and development in a setting of regional integration, without the loss of political identity.

Seamus Heaney has drawn a distinction between optimism - the wish for a better future - and hope, the more rationally grounded expectation that it can indeed come to pass. Northern Ireland is suspended somewhere between them this week.

So, it may be suggested, are the countries of EU accession states in central and eastern Europe, as pan-European integration is seriously addressed at the Helsinki European Council next week. Ireland certainly has an interest in creating sufficient solidarity between east and west to ensure that optimism makes way for hope.

Paul Gillespie can be contacted at pgillespie@irish-times.ie