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The Peace Process: Lessons Learned

General James Cullen’s Gateways to Tomorrow speech

I invite you back in time to 1775 in a period of revolutionary ferment when Boston had a permanent population of about 6800 people, and when New York City had only about 5,000 people. The total number of people in the American colonies at that time was less than 3 million, or 50% less than in the present day island of Ireland.

Many of those people in the thirteen colonies traced their origins to the nine counties of the ancient Irish province of Ulster.

Historians have estimated only about 1/3 of the population of the thirteen colonies supported rebellion and separation from England at the beginning of the American Revolution. Another third remained loyal to the British crown. The remaining 1/3 of the population attempted to remain neutral and get on with their lives.

The American Revolution was in many respects a civil war in which those who wanted to maintain the status quo and union with England fought those who wanted independence from England and the opportunity to create their own destiny.

There were many different traditions even among those who supported American independence.

The anti-elitist traditions of Calvinism, with Calvinism’s radical democratic character, heavily influenced views in the New England states. Traditionalist Presbyterian thinking had a powerful influence in many areas and was more distrustful of radical democracy, but Presbyterians tended to distrust absolute monarchies and arbitrary power even more. The Anglicans of the emerging Southern landed aristocracy adapted their traditional respect for authority to value individual ability more than social position. As Americans, we adopted, with great effect, their collective views about the role of law as a restraint on arbitrary power and as a guaranty of equality and equal opportunity.

These traditions came together in Philadelphia in 1787 after the chaos experienced under the Articles of Confederation in the years following the Revolution. The Philadelphia negotiations led to a constitutional settlement that would guide the United States into the future. That settlement was, at its heart, a series of compromises among the large states and the small; the merchants and the farmers; the tradesmen and the planters; the Calvinists and the Anglicans. To ensure that basic rights and liberties would be protected, a system of checks and balances was agreed upon to prevent the executive, the legislature or the courts from asserting unchecked power. These men who gathered in Philadelphia would only place their trust in a written constitutional settlement, and not the changing whims of political expediency. They did not want to grant to a legislature the power to write laws to satisfy the demands of a majority if those laws violated fundamental principles and protections. They recognized that to accommodate several traditions and win the allegiance of the people, they had to offer protection of individual liberty and freedom while assuring the traditions and beliefs of any one sector of society was not imposed on another.

The essence of what occurred in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1787 was a process of intense negotiation and reflection, followed by more negotiation. We now know from the personal diaries, correspondence and debates that no one achieved everything they desired. Indeed, negotiations were to continue for several years after adoption of the Constitution. Negotiations to resolve the location of a national capital and establish a national bank continued to occupy the energy of men at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but compromise brought resolution of these issues as it had with issues resolved in the constitutional negotiation.

The parallels between what occurred in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and what was to occur in Belfast and St. Andrew’s over two hundred years later, are striking. The American Revolution lasted six years. Much uncertainty followed in the years after the right of self determination was achieved. The economy was in tatters. Sectional leadership lacked the ability to develop the abundance of natural resources and inherent skill of the people. Disunity under the Articles of Confederation, which predated the Constitution, made clear the need for a constitutional formula that would bind together disparate and distrustful interests to work for the common good.

The conflict in Northern Ireland, in its latest iteration, lasted almost 30 years. The economy was wrecked by the conflict. It was heavily dependent on subsidies from the British treasury. War weariness led to intense negotiation to achieve a political settlement.

In retrospect, we see in the Northern Irish experience, as in all serious negotiations, the further apart the starting positions of the parties, the longer the distance they have to travel to reach accommodation.

The Dublin Government and main stream Nationalists agreed to modify Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which had claimed de jure jurisdiction over the entire island of Ireland.

London and the Unionists agreed that the future sovereignty of Northern Ireland would be determined by the wishes of the majority of people living in Northern Ireland. Local control was returned to a local parliament that requires cross-community concurrence for legislative initiatives. In fundamental terms, the people of the Six Counties will determine their future governmental allegiance and ensure that the majority of both traditions support their self government.

The good news from Northern Ireland is that intelligent people from the Nationalist and Unionist communities learned the arts of negotiation and compromise. They have experienced first hand the consequences of failure to negotiate. Both sides have conceded on points they would have considered unimaginable or impossible three decades ago. Each side took considerable risks, and some risks remain.

There are some on both sides who reject compromise and working together for a common future.Republican dissidents and Unionist extremists cannot see the value in what has been achieved. Unionist extremists, like Jim Allister, have induced a certain amount of paralysis in some Unionist politicians. Yet enormous progress has been achieved. Most people can see a better future, despite the risks inherent in change. They have redirected the wasted energy of conflict into a drive for opportunity for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Some difficult challenges remain, like those which faced Americans before they reached a constitutional settlement.

There is still a fear of change among many.

Some communities have seen few benefits from the peace process. Training programs, relevant education, and investment are needed to bring the peace dividend to Nationalist and Loyalist communities that were usually the last to receive benefits under the old regime.

There is a need for investment in interface areas, which remain deprived.

We cannot let the people living in these areas lose faith in the peace process.

There remain deep class divisions, which are impediments to educational and economic progress.

Sectarianism is still present in less blatant forms, but present nevertheless.

More energy needs to be devoted by the government to combating sectarianism. This effort must begin in the schools and extend to the other institutions of society.

I would like to conclude with two modest observations drawn from my own experience, which tell me that Northern Ireland is embarking on a new, positive future despite the challenges that have to be addressed.

A few of us have met privately with leaders from both Loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and the UDA.They carried on the violent fight to maintain the privileges of Unionism even though they enjoyed few of those privileges. The leaders of Loyalism are drawn from working class and deprived areas. They possess the street wisdom needed for survival in a society that knew only violent conflict. They realize now that they were often used by political leaders and others who disowned them when their past roles became an embarrassment. Loyalists leaders see their communities afflicted by unemployment and drugs. Their young people often lack marketable skills and goals for the future. Many of these leaders are now fathers and grandfathers. They, like all human beings, want a better future for their children and grandchildren.They realize they have much in common with the working class people in the Nationalist communities, although traditional barriers still separate them. There are deep divisions in the Unionist community based on broad barriers of education and economic privilege. People in Loyalist communities are descendents of metal workers, machinists and skilled tradesmen. The conflict broke down the old system under which they were granted meager rewards for their willingness to serve the interests of their social betters. Their street wisdom allows them to see the old order no longer has a place in the world, but they do not yet know how to create a place for them and their children in the new order. We, as Americans, should be prepared to help. The genes that helped produce engineering marvels and successes of the last two centuries in America and Ireland are still there in working class areas of Northern Ireland. A generation of Loyalists has missed the educational opportunities and training necessary to claim a place in today’s world. They know what they missed because of the conflict. They know they must catch up to take their rightful place in a new future. We can help provide them the means to do that. People who have missed so much as a result of conflict are in a better position to appreciate investment to help them recover from conflict.

Equally encouraging to me have been sincere and often expressed views of Nationalist leaders, and in particular Sinn Fein leaders, who are determined not to see done to Unionists and Loyalists what was done to Nationalists under the old regime. The Nationalists know too well the economic and social costs of second class citizenship. No community can prosper where artificial barriers are put in place because of one’s religion or social class. This pragmatic but highly moral approach by Nationalist leadership will underpin a settlement based on equality and parity of esteem of all people and traditions in a transformed Northern Ireland.

Like Americans living under the Articles of Confederation, people and politicians in Northern Ireland have come to a new awareness that economic prosperity and a better life for all the people can only be achieved through the rule of just law, stability and investment in infrastructure. Mature debate continues to take place, just as it did in Philadelphia, to evaluate means and methods to achieve that better future.The debate now takes place in the context of long experience and the benefit of lessons learned from what cannot work. The people of Northern Ireland have forged and will continue to refine a system that can and does work.

Those who have not been to Northern Ireland will find a warm welcome from the government, the political parties and the people. They are ready and motivated to make it worthwhile for American firms and pension funds to become their partner.

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