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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Campus marks 25th anniversary of Good Friday Agreement

In Ballina, the town of his Irish ancestors, President Biden walked out on Saturday to the Notre Dame game-day Celtic punk favorite “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” His trip to Ireland, marking the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, reinforced his “sense of optimism about what can be done,” he told reportersOn campus, in a panel marking the same occasion, Oxford historian Ian McBride called the agreement “a political miracle.”

Professors discuss the legacy of the Good Friday agreement in a panel held last week.
Professors discuss the legacy of the Good Friday agreement in a panel held last week.
Professors discuss the legacy of the Good Friday agreement in a panel held last week.

McBride was one of four speakers to take part in a roundtable on Friday afternoon, cosponsored by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. 

The panel began with Shelley Deane of the Keough-Naughton Institute, who presented on the context and legacy of the agreement signed on Good Friday 1998. The agreement was reached following years of negotiations between Northern Ireland’s political parties and between the British and Irish governments.

Deane joined other panelists in remembering the legacy of Irish leaders involved like the Nobel Prize-winners John Hume and David Trimble, as well as U.S. envoy George Mitchell, and the values of non-violence, consent and birthright that they brought to the negotiating table.

“According to [Northern Irish politician] John Hume, an accident of birth, and as a result, our differences shouldn’t determine where our rights are, our opportunities may lie,” Deane said. The agreement went to a referendum, passing on both sides of the border.

It was through the will of these leaders that the agreement was reached, Deane said, remembering how Mitchell, former senator for Maine, and the United States forced the negotiators to find a timely compromise.

“George Mitchell created an effective deadline for the negotiations by saying that he would love to be home for Easter to spend it with his wife and his [baby] son,” she said.

Twenty five years on, while it’s true that questions over Brexit — the Republic of Ireland remains in Europe, while Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, has left — have complicated questions about the island’s division and raised administrative concerns over the border, the panelists agreed that the agreement eased decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles.

Josefina Echavarria Alvarez, an associate professor of the practice with the Kroc Institute, deemed the Irish settlement “the most well-known comprehensive peace agreement.”

Rory Rapple, a history professor raised in Ireland, stressed in an interview with The Observer that the Good Friday Agreement is unique in both Irish and world history.

“In the national context, it takes the gun out of Irish politics. Internationally, it’s a success story that highlights that diplomacy and negotiation works and it has been held aloft as a great example of that,” Rapple said.

Rapple also praised the role of George Mitchell in mediating the peace talks.

“It’s a great example of how the U.S. government can be seen as an honest broker after the Cold War in the resolution of conflict in particular regions throughout the world,” he explained

Although political tensions persist in Northern Ireland with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) boycotting the Northern Ireland Assembly over the Northern Ireland agreement, which essentially established a trade border for goods traveling from North Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom, Rapple insisted that the Good Friday Agreement’s legacy remains unsullied.

“It doesn’t hamper the achievement,” Rapple stressed. “The fact is that there are many, many people alive today who would not be alive if the Good Friday Agreement had not existed.”

Rapple argued that the DUP’s actions have made the party a “marginal group” and may actually increase support for the island’s reunification. He insisted that for Unionists to make good on the promise of the Good Friday Agreement that the political situation in Northern Ireland can be made to work, they have to run the country well. 

“The DUP, by boycotting the institutions which are set up constitutionally by the Good Friday Agreement, what they’re actually doing is making Northern Ireland unworkable. If they continue … what it ultimately means is making unification more plausible and maybe even immediate than it might have otherwise been” he said. 

The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that reunification will occur if a referendum shows that a majority of people in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland favor it. There are several questions that need to be answered before this is possible, though, Rapple cautioned. 

“Do the majority of people within the Republic of Ireland, as it’s called, want reunification? The polls generally say that they do. However, there’s significant fiscal and financial burdens that can be anticipated with that; however, it also may bring significant economic booms with it as well, being able to operate an all Ireland economy. It certainly could be very productive,” he said.

While momentum may be moving towards reunification, Rapple said, such a step will likely take decades to occur if it does at all.

“Is it going to happen immediately? No. Is it going to happen within the next 10 years? I don’t think so. It’s going to happen within the next 50 years,” Rapple hypothesized. “I think it’s more likely to happen than not.”

Rapple also described how the role of religion in politics and society, once so central has changed since the Good Friday Agreement.

“Both north and south of the border, what you have is, you have really a post-Christian society. There’s a secularization that has taken place. There’s an anger at the Catholic Church,” Rapple said.

Because of this shift, Rapple questioned whether or not President Biden’s visit to the country was as effective as it seemed.

“It would have been very strange for many Irish people to see Biden arriving in Ireland and going to Knock Shrine and Marian Shrine in the west of Ireland, very much identifying himself as a Catholic,” Rapple said. “But the sort of Irish Catholicism that Biden was projecting in his Irish visit is totally at odds with the reality of political culture in Ireland.”

In addition to Biden’s emphasis on Catholicism potentially ringing hollow to Irish people, Rapple theorized that it could also fall flat in America.

“This is controversial in American terms because of Biden's position … relative to the Catholic Church in the U.S. and some of his views relative to that and the Democratic Party's views relative to that,” he said.

Ultimately, despite any challenges that persist in Northern Ireland today, Rapple emphasized that the peace that the Good Friday Agreement brought to Ireland should not be taken for granted.

“The Good Friday Agreement means that you don’t wake up in the morning, as we had throughout my teenage years, turn on the radio and hear that a whole load of people had been either shot or killed by an explosive. You don’t hear that anymore,” Rapple said. “Twenty five years of that is a tremendous gift.”