BOSTON — The “Good Friday Agreement” that brought peace to Northern Ireland was promulgated 10 years ago this month, and in these times of seemingly intractable differences, one can look back at the decade of the 1990s as a time of settling political problems that had eluded solution for most of the 20th century.
It was as if, with the end of the Soviet Union, the world sought to clean up its other messes before the beginning of a new millennium.
Within a few short years South Africa gave up apartheid and accepted majority rule, Northern Ireland turned away from violence and agreed to seek a political solution, and the Oslo Accords hammered out a formula that would have forged a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Two were successful, one fell short, but all were the products of individuals who saw a chance to make a workable peace and grabbed it.
In South Africa the haves simply gave way to the have-nots and redistributed political power. In Palestine, the compromise would have meant a restoration of an old partition that the 1967 war undid.
In Northern Ireland both sides agreed to cure the symptoms of their troubles, not the cause. Protestants were not asked to give up their allegiance to the United Kingdom, and Catholics were not asked to give up their dream of joining the Republic of Ireland. Final goals were postponed, and like cholera, a disease in which if you can keep the patient alive and hydrated, the disease burns itself out, the British and the Irish simply sought to end the violence and move on to the field of politics — kicking the final outcome down the road.
True, both sides had reached exhaustion and were ready for a deal. But could it have come off if John Hume of the mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party had not seized the moment and reached out to the political arm of the Irish Republic Army, Sinn Fein? Would less flexible Sinn Fein leaders than Gerry Adams and Martin McGuniness have been able to bring along their followers whom the British considered little better than terrorists?
And could a less able leader than David Trimble of what was then the largest Protestant Party, the Ulster Unionists, have brought his following along on the deal?
Then you had just the right men leading Great Britain and the Irish Republic. Both Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern had the vision and the political clout to get behind the deal and make radical changes in their own laws to facilitate it.
Ireland changed its constitution to give up its claim to Northern Ireland, which was anathema to Protestants, and Britain repealed the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which had created the partition of Ireland into north and south, thereby clearing away any legal barrier should the majority of the Northern Irish vote to leave the U.K. and join the republic one day.
“Northern Ireland was a society looking to make peace,” says Britain’s secretary for Northern Ireland, Shawn Woodward, “but they didn’t know how to go about it.” That was the moment for the “great ring master,” as Woodward calls him, George Mitchell of Maine, to step in with his endless patience and willingness to listen, again and again, to the endless grievances of both sides. I won’t say that they couldn’t have done it without Mitchell, but it would have been harder and taken longer.
As for South Africa, I am certain that only Nelson Mandela had the vision and the ability to bring about a racial and national reconciliation, and perhaps a leader other than Frederik Willem de Klerk would have failed to persuade the white community not to make a suicidal last stand on the mountain of apartheid.
Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were the right men in the right place to bring about a compromise between their two warring constituencies. Arafat had the vision to give up the struggle to gain back all of Palestine, and settle instead for a return to the old partition of pre-1967. And Rabin, had he not been assassinated, might have been the man who had enough stature as a soldier and political leader to lead the people of Israel into the paths of territorial compromise.
But Rabin was assassinated, and Israel was never able to quite live up to the agreements of Oslo. Jewish settlement activity, for example, never stopped, and Israel’s grip on the Palestinians was never sufficiently loosened to make Oslo a success.
Arafat could never give up violence to nudge the Israelis along, and when the second intifada broke out that was the end of it. Arafat’s death removed the one person who could unite the Palestinians, and without him they drifted off into warring factions.
The father of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, Ariel Sharon, could have had the stature to lead Israel completely out of the occupied territories, but by the time he had changed his mind sufficiently and seemed about to do so he was felled by a stroke.
And so Israelis and Palestinians continue to kill each other with temporary halts when exhausted, waiting for the next round of violence.
George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the problem, has little chance of succeeding because, unlike Northern Ireland 10 years ago, the protagonists are not yet ready for peace. And until that happens not even the most skilled negotiator can hope to pull it off.