Failing to get beyond past puts ceasefire gains at risk

Hard-won progress in North is vulnerable, even reversible, because of an abysmal abdication of leadership

Today, too many in Northern Ireland take two decades of a ceasefire for granted. They still focus on their own sense of victimhood of the past and fail to forge a new united community that can not only solidify the peace, but even build shared prosperity. A look back at the hard-fought ceasefire may encourage some broader thinking about the responsibility of leadership to build a better shared future for the people of Northern Ireland.

Two decades ago, I was pulled out of my brief August vacation with repeated requests for president Bill Clinton to offer a visa to one of the most notorious IRA members, Joseph Cahill. Earlier that year, Clinton had stuck his neck way out by admitting Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams into the United States, despite his visa ban for terrorism. As one of Clinton’s senior advisers, I’d argued that doing so would test whether Adams was serious in his claim to be pushing for an IRA ceasefire.

Yet, eight long months had passed and still no ceasefire. I’d frankly given up and was thinking more about how we could squeeze Irish Americans from supporting the IRA. The last thing I was about to do was recommend another visa, especially given Cahill’s record of direct involvement in the violence.

But the phone kept ringing. First it was repeated requests from then US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy: “You must let Cahill make the case to the IRA hardliners in America.” I responded, “No Way! Let us see a ceasefire first.” She called again. Then, once I was back at my desk in the West Wing, the taoiseach Albert Reynolds was on the phone arguing for a Cahill visa. I said forget it.


Then the taoiseach, whose role in the peace process has been rightly widely commended following his recent death, told me something extraordinary. The IRA statement was ready to go – but to seal the deal, Cahill must be allowed to first talk to the American supporters. Then he read me the statement under the condition of complete secrecy. I was stunned.

Rather than the usual murky and heavily caveated statements, the IRA statement clearly stated it would implement a unilateral ceasefire. President Clinton soon approved the visa. We held our breath.

The historic ceasefire announced by the IRA on August 31st, 1994, and that of the loyalist paramilitaries in October, set in motion a dance of engagement by three governments – the United States, Britain, and Ireland – and the two sides to the conflict in Northern Ireland, unionists and nationalists.

Deeply resented

The British deeply resented US engagement in what they considered an internal affair; in Northern Ireland, the two sides to the conflict each considered themselves the victim and did not trust the other, much less talk. The US became an honest broker to all sides, which made a conversation possible – and helped pave the way for an end to a conflict that in 1994 was still taking 200-300 lives a year.

President Clinton had two good partners in British prime minister John Major and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds. Their 1993 joint declaration provided a peaceful path for both communities to achieve their goals. The British government committed itself to abide by the wishes of the majority of the citizens of the North, and the Irish government renounced its claim to the North until the people agreed to change its status. Without the leadership of these two men, the peace process would never have been started that year.

Clinton had always felt the US could play a peacemaking role between these two close US allies. Now he had his chance. Clinton used increased access to the White House and senior government officials as incentives, eventually meeting Gerry Adams in November 1995 during his historic visit to Belfast. Clinton reached out to the unionist politicians as well, usually a level higher, such as inviting Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble to the White House.

Such access bestowed political legitimacy on the players, thus increasing their political power at home and helping them to move forward toward peace.

Clinton also put considerable efforts into promoting trade and investment in Northern Ireland. If the US could spur economic growth, the next generation of potential terrorist recruits might choose a job instead. Clinton’s focus on “commercial diplomacy” gave an important boost to the peace process. Suddenly, people could feel the benefits of peace.

Clinton brought in former senator George Mitchell in 1995 to push for economic initiatives. Of course, Mitchell then became the key mediator in the peace process. After an extraordinarily difficult negotiation, Mitchell succeeded in securing an historic peace agreement among the parties on Good Friday on April 10th, 1998.

Yet, rather than spending these past years building a shared prosperity, both sides remain far too stuck in the past, making progress vulnerable and even reversible. Certainly, progress has been made, on governing, on policing and holding the peace. But the two communities remain far too focused on the injustices of the past. Certainly, there are plenty to go around. The unionists feared their right of the majority was at risk and suffered the violence of the IRA. The nationalists suffered under British troops, discrimination and high unemployment. Both sides committed murder, as did the British army, and both sides had loved ones killed. This painful past has made compromise a very difficult thing to achieve.

Fixation on injustices

But that is where leadership comes in. Richard Haass, the chair of last autumn’s unsuccessful negotiations, has laid out proposals to help both parties get past their fixation on the injustices of the past, including a programme of historical investigation, information recovery, and thematic appraisals of patterns and practices by state and paramilitary forces.

But the parties have failed to pick up that plan to deal with the past, and thus they are failing to get on with the future. That is an abysmal abdication of leadership.

Good leaders would be able to recognise the righteousness of the other side and step forward to compromise and build a more prosperous future. Good leaders would get past the flags, parades and the legacy of the violence of the Troubles and work together to attract investment, technology, and build the best schools which are no longer segregated.

So on this anniversary of peace, let the leaders of Northern Ireland think about the thousands of people walking the streets today who would have died had the ceasefire not taken hold in 1994. They want to live in the future, ideally a prosperous one. It’s time to get beyond the past and build a Northern Ireland that can compete and thrive in the 21st century.

Nancy Soderberg was Deputy National Security Advisor and an Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton Tomorrow: Gerry Adams