Niall Stanage: End of American Era in Northern Ireland

Roundup: Media's Take

[Niall Stanage is a New York-based, Irish-born journalist and the author of Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign (Liberties Press, Dublin).]

British and Irish leaders announced on Friday, with much fanfare, that an accord had been reached to allow Northern Ireland to take over its own law-and-order powers from Britain. The agreement, which should take effect in April, saves the Catholic-Protestant government in Belfast.

Though the agreement can plausibly be called a breakthrough, its historic significance is as much about the roles of America and Britain as diplomatic brokers as it is about the incremental progress in stabilizing Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration.

It is, in many respects, the end of an era in great-powers diplomacy.

Bill Clinton, who has been all but canonized in Ireland for his role in bringing the 30-year conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ to an end, once said of the bickering parties, “They are like a couple of drunks walking out of a bar for the last time. When they reach the swing doors, they turn right around and go back in and say, ‘I just can’t quite get there.’”

Clinton made those comments more than a decade ago, and he soon had to apologize for them. Mocking remarks about a fondness for booze are not looked kindly upon by either sensitive Irish-American activists or abstemious Northern Irish Protestants.

Even so, his words have only resonated more deeply over time, as a succession of self-inflicted crises have arisen in Northern Ireland. Every time, the squabbling parties in Belfast have turned to governments in Washington, London and Dublin for rescue.

Supporters of high-level international engagement argue that the U.S., in particular, has proven to be a valuable guarantor of the peace process. That may have been true in the early days, when the process was struggling for traction.

But the problem with having a permanent guarantor is that it ends up providing a license to act irresponsibly, since someone else can always be counted upon to clean up your mess.

This is an especially important concept to remember in the wake of the latest supposedly historic accord, which was reached between the Irish Republicans of Sinn Fein and the pro-British loyalists of the Democratic Unionist Party (D.U.P.).

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Friday's deal meant “we are closing the last chapter of a long and troubled story.” If that proves true, it will not be before time. After all, the rigid dogmas that once underpinned the conflict have long since been binned.

The Irish Republican movement, comprised of the guerrilla Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and Sinn Fein, used to be defined by its supposedly unquenchable determination to overthrow the Northern Irish entity by force of arms, subsuming it into an all-Ireland state.

These days, Sinn Fein still gives voice to a desire for a united Ireland, but it came to a de facto acceptance that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would not change except by the will of its people 12 years ago, when it signed the Good Friday Agreement. The I.R.A., meanwhile, put itself out of meaningful existence five years ago with an order to its members to restrict themselves to “exclusively peaceful means”.

The Democratic Unionists have also abandoned plenty of their old shibboleths. The party’s founder and figurehead, the Reverend Ian Paisley, for years railed against Irish Republican perfidy, often in Biblical terms. There could be no negotiations with the I.R.A., much less any talk of a deal with them, he said.

Lo and behold, in 2007 Paisley assumed the co-leadership of a power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, an acknowledged former I.R.A. commander. The two men got along with such incongruous jollity that they soon earned the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers.”

So why did the two parties find themselves cooped up in a castle near Belfast for most of the past two weeks, until the most recent agreement was signed? And why were the prime ministers of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland summoned to their sides?..

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