Twenty years of peace: Progress and possibilities in Northern Ireland

On November 30, the MacMillan Center, in conjunction with Queen’s University Belfast, hosted a conference commemorating and reflecting on twenty years of the Good Friday Agreement, titled “Twenty Years of Peace: Progress and Possibilities in Northern Ireland.” Organized by Professor Bonnie Weir, Yale University, and Professor Richard English, Queen’s University Belfast, the conference brought together diplomats, non-profit leaders, politicians, and journalists from Northern Ireland and the United States to reflect on how Northern Ireland has changed since the momentous peace agreement was reached twenty years ago. Representing various negotiating partners and all five of Northern Ireland’s major political parties, the speakers provided insightful comments on the greatest achievements of the Northern Irish peace process and started to chart a path through the country’s ongoing political division.

Professor Weir opened the conference by welcoming participants and remarking that the conference’s goal was not only to celebrate the Good Friday Agreement but also to turn an eye to Northern Ireland’s future in light of Brexit and the political stalemate between the region’s two major parties—Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—that has caused Northern Ireland’s regional parliament to be unable to meet since the Winter of 2017. Navigating political divisions and the persistent sectarianism that remains the defining force of Northern Irish politics was a major point of discussion throughout the day.

The conference consisted of three panels and one academic seminar, with expert discussants present throughout the day to pose questions to the panelists. The day’s first panel, “Making Peace: Past, Present, and Future”, was chaired by Professor Richard English, a Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and expert in Northern Ireland’s civil conflict—popularly termed ‘The Troubles’—and paramilitary groups in the region. The panel featured three of the most influential negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement: former Irish Taoiseach Professor Bertie Ahern, former US Senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), and General John de Chastelain, who has served as Chair of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in Northern Ireland. Panelists shared memories from the peace process, reflected on the Agreement’s greatest successes, and evaluated how the peace agreement that they helped secure has held up over time and how it will be challenged in the future. Senator Mitchell noted the challenges that Brexit has ignited in the region, hoping that the final Brexit agreement will enable the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland to continue their cooperative relationship. General de Chastelain and others recalled the difficult process of getting paramilitaries to the negotiating table and argued that giving youth a sense of purpose, hope, and status in their community was the best way to minimize the potential of paramilitary activity returning in the future.

Chaired by Jonathan Powell, the Founder of Inter Mediate and Chief of Staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Good Friday negotiations, the second panel focused on “Politics: Setbacks and Successes from 1998-2018” and hosted a spirited discussion on community divisions and reconciliation. Speakers included Peter Robinson, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland and member of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Sheridan, the Chief Executive of Cooperation Ireland, and Monica McWilliams, Emeritus Professor at Ulster University’s Transitional Justice Institute and the representative of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition at the peace talks. While all panelists recognized that more work was needed to reconcile Northern Ireland’s different unionist and nationalist communities, they also celebrated the successes of the peace agreement. Peter Robinson noted that while a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland was once viewed as impossible, it was viewed as inevitable once the Good Friday Agreement had been reached, a framing that undersells the hard work and difficult compromises made by all parties to the negotiations. Robinson and Sheridan both celebrated the Good Friday Agreement’s greatest success was stopping the conflict, which had once been seen as intractable, resulting in thousands of people being alive and well today that otherwise would have been killed or injured. Panelists also recognized the importance of policing reform, though the topic sparked some disagreement about how sufficient the reform actually was.

The final panel, chaired by Sterling Professor of Political Science Ian Shapiro, featured representatives of all of Northern Ireland’s major political parties—the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Sinn Fein, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Alliance—as well as the Northern Ireland Assembly’s one independent MLA and Justice Minister, Claire Sugden. Together, they discussed the political landscape in Northern Ireland and gave unique insight into the current situation.

The academic panel, led by Professor Weir, featured four academic presentations related to Northern Ireland and sectarianism. Kieran McEvoy, Professor of Law and Transitional Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, spoke on the role that apologies for paramilitary and state violence during the Troubles has played in giving communities a sense of healing and closure. McEvoy’s research in the region suggests that citizens of Northern Ireland place a high value on unequivocal and unconditional apologies for violence, especially when civilians were involved. Emma Sky, Director of Yale’s World Fellows Program, drew a comparison between sectarianism in Northern Ireland and Iraq, noting how coalition forces establishing an ethnic basis for governmental representation in Iraq made ethnicity the key dividing line in the country’s politics. Jonathan Powell, who has participated in peace negotiations around the world, shared the lessons he has learned, including an observation that it is necessary for governments to go back on their claims that they would ‘never negotiate with terrorists’ if they want to bring peace. Professor Richard English gave an account of the IRA’s political transformation and how its decision to turn away from violence drove the peace process.

The “Twenty Years of Peace” conference was generously supported by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, The Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund, Yale’s Office of the Vice President for Global Strategy, and Queen’s University Belfast.