The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ended a perpetual culture of violence that made a normal life in Northern Ireland impossible. The violence was widespread and unrelenting, and even extended into the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The three-decade conflict known as The Troubles involved violent clashes between Irish nationalists — the Catholic minority that advocated for minority rights and the unification of Ireland — and the Unionists, the Protestant majority that favored Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.
Those who lived through the hostilities experienced guerilla warfare, police brutality, bombings, assassinations, internment without trial, and outright civil war. Kneecapping — the tactic of shattering people’s kneecaps with pipes and clubs — was invented during the height of the conflict.
Ominous barriers, known as “peace walls,” were erected in Belfast, Derry and Portadown to separate the warring factions and isolate Irish Catholic nationalists.
The United States played an indispensable role in ending the war. But, getting the United States to take the lead took decades of lobbying by some of the Bronx’s own political leaders. U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel and Assemblyman John Dearie, among others, tried assiduously to get the United States to initiate a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Getting all of the participants to the table came after years of international diplomacy by the Clinton administration.
Ultimately, President Clinton asked former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to be the U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland to draft and negotiate the agreement.
After 24 months of intense deliberations and countless phone calls from President Clinton, a deal was finally reached. It was signed on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, ending the war in Northern Ireland.
The plan called for self-determination, majority rule, minority rights, and no hard border. Ireland agreed to amend its constitutional provision that claimed sovereignty over Northern Ireland, but only if soft border provisions were included (referred to as “Strand Two” of the agreement).
President Clinton convinced nationalists that the United States would indefinitely support their right to democratically and peacefully determine the future of Northern Ireland. Since the Unionists were the majority and wanted to remain in the United Kingdom, then that’s what would happen.
However, should that change — through a democratic referendum — then the United Kingdom agreed to allow Northern Ireland to secede and unite with the Republic of Ireland.
Strand Two was paramount: Ireland would give up its sovereignty claim. And the people would always have the right to democratically determine which country they wanted to belong to. But there would be no hard border.
The Good Friday Agreement (aka Belfast Agreement) was perhaps the most successful contemporary U.S. foreign policy initiative. Brexit, however, is threatening its very foundation. In direct violation of the treaty, a break with the European Union requires a hard border between E.U. member Ireland and Northern Ireland as territory of the United Kingdom.
Donald Trump’s incursion into the Brexit debate by dangling a trade agreement with the United Kingdom — contingent upon a clean break with the E.U. — entices the annulment of an accord that we created, sponsored and guaranteed.
In a recent visit to Ireland, Trump embarrassingly tried to charm Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar by stating that the final Brexit deal will “work out very well with your wall, your border.” Varadkar replied, “The one thing we want to avoid, of course, is a wall or a border.”
I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: Trump unwittingly goading the United Kingdom into violating the Good Friday Agreement, or his total lack of preparation and complete historical illiteracy.
Trump clearly has no idea that, to end the war, Ireland had to give up its claim to Northern Ireland, and was only willing to do so with the soft border provisions. Likewise, I’m sure he’s unaware that the indelible “peace walls” are grim reminders of a period of pure dread in Irish history. It’s apparent that our president ad-libs his foreign policy in almost every instance, and his obliviousness would be amusing if it weren’t so harmful.
It is heartbreaking that our president is contributing to the perils of an international peace treaty that we brokered. His ignorance of the violent history of Northern Ireland and its volatile relationship with the United Kingdom is appalling and frightening.
He is dangerously toying with a conflagration, and the results may be bloody.
Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired the marginalized, discriminated Catholic minority of Northern Ireland, once said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound in the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
I am fearful that Trump’s ignorance and carelessness may lead back to the starless midnight of racism, and war in Northern Ireland.