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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden’s trip to Northern Ireland and the power of diplomacy

By The Editorial Board

President Joe Biden and Bill Clinton will be among a bevy of Irish, British and American leaders traveling to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the April 10, 1998, signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The landmark peace accord ended the 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as “the troubles.”

The deal, in which American mediators played a central role, is worthy of celebration. It won a Nobel Peace Prize for two negotiators from Northern Ireland, and it stands as a paradigm for resolving seemingly intractable sectarian conflicts. Political violence has been relatively rare on the Irish island since it was signed: The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, once pockmarked with watchtowers and roadblocks, is almost undetectable, and downtown Belfast, a battlefield during the troubles, could now be the hip center of any European capital. Public opinion in both North and South overwhelmingly supports the agreement.

But the old sectarian differences fester. Despite surveys that consistently indicate support for integration, Protestants and Catholics still live largely apart. Even if they are no longer fighting, their schools and neighborhoods remain mostly segregated.

The problems have become more complicated since Britain opted out of the European Union in 2016, leaving Northern Ireland in limbo. The Assembly and Executive that comprise the power-sharing government, one of the primary products of the Good Friday Agreement, have not been functioning for months because of the main unionist party’s dissatisfaction with the final Brexit trading arrangements.

In fact, the Assembly and Executive — the devolved legislature and the committee that runs the devolved government of Northern Ireland, which require active participation by both unionists and nationalists — have been unable to operate for much of the time they’ve been in existence, leaving the business of government to civil servants for long stretches.

At the heart of the matter, according to political scientists, is that the Good Friday Agreement was focused largely on ending the bloodshed, and less on efforts to integrate the warring communities — the largely Protestant unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, and the Irish nationalists, most of them Catholics, who would prefer union with the republic to the south.

The Good Friday Agreement did not, and could not, apportion blame for the troubles, in which, as in so many such conflicts, one side’s terrorist is the other’s hero. The best it could do was to call for “sensitivity” in dealing with deep-seated cultural and symbolic differences, like flags, language, sectarian commemorations or handling the past.

Attitudes are changing, especially among the young, but slowly. Some public opinion polls in Northern Ireland have tracked a steady rise in support for Irish unification, especially since Brexit, and more people identify as neither nationalist or unionist than identify with either of those groups. Yet identification with their cause remains strong among those who still identify as nationalist or unionist.

Brexit — Britain’s break with the EU — fanned the old flames by threatening the unionists’ geographic links to Britain and the nationalists’ insistence on an open border between North and South. Brexit potentially meant an end to the free movement of goods between the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland was a part, and Ireland, a proud member of the European Union. Reimposing a hard land border was ruled out by all sides, leading to an arrangement to introduce checks on British goods entering Northern Irish ports.

Unionists protested that arrangement fiercely, and in February, the new British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, agreed with the EU to soften the terms by creating a “green lane,” without any controls, on British goods destined solely for Northern Ireland. The Windsor Framework, as it is known, easily passed in the British Parliament. But Northern Ireland’s main Protestant party, the conservative Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, has refused to accept the deal and return to the power-sharing Assembly.

That is where things stand today.

It’s not clear that there is any arrangement that the DUP — which opposed the original Good Friday Agreement, supported Brexit and continues to staunchly champion all the old unionist causes — would agree to. Basically, the only choice is whether trade controls are to be on land or at sea, and there’s not much more that either London or Brussels can do.

The hope among more moderate Northern Irish is that Biden’s visit to Belfast might persuade Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, to relent. Biden is expected to be accompanied by Joe Kennedy III, his special economic envoy to Northern Ireland, whose presence signals the promise of U.S. investment in the economically struggling North.

Despite the current political stalemate, the president is right to join all sides in commemorating that remarkable achievement 25 years ago, and the proud role the United States played in it. It stands as an example of what diplomacy and careful, principled negotiation is capable of achieving.

The agreement ended a bitter and cruel sectarian war that had come to seem intractable after three decades and the loss of some 3,600 lives, most of them civilian. And the key elements of the agreement — the principle of consent, power-sharing and democratic institutions — have stood the test of time and remain a model for other nations rent by internal discord. The Northern Irish know this: A recent poll found that 69% of them believe that the Good Friday Agreement is the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, even while 55% think it could be reformed in some way.

Yes, there is much work that needs to be done to realize the full promise of the Good Friday Agreement and to bring down all the walls, figurative and physical, between the people of Northern Ireland. But that is not a sign of failure; it is a lesson that a peace agreement is never final, and needs regular renewal to endure.

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