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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Releases > 2004

Northern Ireland: American Principles and the Peace Process

Mitchell B. Reiss, Director, Policy Planning Staff
New York City
September 30, 2004


It is a pleasure to be with you in New York today and I am honored to be speaking before the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Iím also delighted that so many members of the Irish-American community have been able to join us today.

Iím proud to stand here today with Bill Flynn, who has been a tireless advocate of the peace process. When I first met Bill in my new position as the Presidentís Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, he challenged me, asking if I was prepared to handle the roller-coaster ride of great expectations and heartbreaking disappointment, false hope and bitter frustration. "No problem," I reassured Bill, "Iím a Boston Red Sox fan."

Billís advocacy and diplomacy have been critical to the American role in Ireland for many years. He has maintained the channels of communication with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein and has been tireless in persuading the republican movement to realize that its struggle should proceed solely through peaceful means.

One of Billís best qualities is his open-mindedness. A few years ago, when a British policemen was appointed head of the PSNI, many were skeptical, but Bill met and got to know Hugh Orde and has approached the issue of Northern Ireland policing with fairness and integrity.

When the DUP became the largest party in Northern Ireland, Bill extended his hand to Peter Robinson. Bill saw that a lasting settlement would require the participation of the DUP and he recognized that we as Americans have a role to play in bridging the gaps that still remain between unionism and nationalism.

When we reach agreement in Northern Ireland, and I am confident we will, few people will have played a more positive role in making this happen than Bill Flynn.

The Leeds Castle Talks

"When we reach agreement in Northern Ireland"--those words sound nice, donít they? But the fact is that we have never been closer to that blessed day.

Two weeks ago, we met at Leeds Castle--Prime Minister Blair and the Taoiseach, and all the Northern Ireland political parties--to resolve the outstanding issues.

The Leeds Castle talks demonstrated a number of things. They demonstrated how fortunate the British and Irish people are in their leadership. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern deserve our credit and admiration for tackling this issue and working to keep the process going. Throughout the talks at Leeds, these two men displayed statesmanship, good humor and heroic patience.

The Leeds Castle talks also demonstrated that all political parties could play a constructive role. All the parties came to the talks genuinely committed to reaching an agreement. Much of the attention has been on the DUP and Sinn Fein, but I want to mention that the other parties--the SDLP, the UUP, Alliance, the PUP and the UKUP--also participated and made important contributions to the process. The Alliance Party, in particular, creatively proposed ways to improve the mechanics of the institutions without altering the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

The pragmatic approach of these leaders reflects what we all know--that the people of Northern Ireland crave normality, with responsible, forward-leaning political leadership. One such citizen wrote a letter to the Irish News that many of us read at Leeds Castle. He urged his fellow unionists to raise their sights beyond "depoliticized regionalism" and challenged them to embrace a new role "as an equal and fraternal partner of an economically and culturally dynamic Irish Republic."

Similarly, the vast majority of nationalists now recognize that armed struggle--even as a theoretical fall-back--must be put on the shelf forever. They have internalized the wisdom of John Humeís Nobel lecture, in which he said that "too many lives have already been lost in Ireland in the pursuit of political goals. Bloodshed for political change prevents the only change that truly matters: in the human heart. We must now shape a future . . . for the benefit of Ireland and all its people."

Perhaps most importantly, the talks at Leeds Castle demonstrated that the republican movement is now on the verge of an historic transformation. Ten years after the first IRA cease-fire, Irish republicans have indicated that they are willing to pursue their objectives exclusively through the democratic process. In Sinn Fein parlance, the ballot box has displaced the Armalite.

To a large extent, this turning point is a recognition of two new factors. First, Sinn Fein has proven time and again in the North and the South that it is able to compete effectively in electoral politics. Second, in a post-9/11, post-Madrid world, a mainstream political movement in Western Europe cannot, under any circumstances, be associated with terrorism.

As those who follow this process closely know, republican thinking has been moving toward this point for some time, but Leeds Castle will likely be remembered as the moment when this strategy was formally accepted as official policy. It is critical that we work to ensure that the republican movement follows through on this commitment and that all the loyalist paramilitary groups follow the lead of the IRA. We must also make sure that the devolved institutions are restored in a stable manner that fully preserves power-sharing, a fundamental principle of the Agreement.

As the American representative at Leeds Castle, one my roles there was to encourage the parties to appreciate the bigger picture. With Sinn Fein, I discussed my recent visit to the Middle East and praised Gerry Adams for the vision and leadership that has allowed him to steer his movement away from violence. This stands in marked contrast to the situation with the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank. In talking with the DUPís leaders, I urged them to take full advantage of the historic gesture being offered by republicans. And to accept the golden opportunity to take their place in governing Northern Ireland.

While Leeds Castle was successful, much work remains to be done. The parties have continued their discussions and Iím confident their constructive approach will eventually yield results. The Bush Administration is committed to seeing this process to its conclusion, starting with the President.

Earlier this year, President Bush stood with Bertie Ahern and said "we share a common vision for Northern Ireland. We seek a lasting peace for the people of Northern Ireland, a peace that will allow people to live free of terror and intimidation." In the coming weeks and months, we will again face challenges. But the American government, from President Bush on down, will continue to work for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Administrationís Approach

The Administrationís approach to Northern Ireland reflects core American values: the primacy of the rule of law, protection of human rights and safeguarding equality of treatment.

We bring to the table our experiences as Americans--in policing, and in building a shared society, including integrated education--all areas central to the Good Friday Agreement.

Because policing goes to the core of civic stability and is perhaps the most fundamental relationship between citizens and the state, this aspect of the Agreement has been a top priority for U.S. policy. We support the full implementation of the Patten Commission report, which provided the blueprint for a system of accountable policing in a democratic society.

Policing in Northern Ireland is never going to be perfect--just as policing will never be perfect in any community. But with proper oversight and accountability, it is possible to ensure that those who uphold the law are not beyond it. Northern Ireland now has the institutions in place to achieve this goal. The Policing Board governs all major policy decisions involving policing. The Police Ombudsman, Nuala OíLoan, provides accountability for police effectiveness and behavior. From the inception of the Patten reforms, Nuala OíLoan has been intrepid in doing her job: she investigated police actions at the time of the Omagh bombing, the conduct of officers involved in the death of Neil McConville and every instance when a plastic baton round
has been fired by police.

Within the PSNI, a new force is being built, with a new culture, grounded on the philosophy of community policing and the need to respect human rights. Since 2001, half of all new recruits joining the police are from the Catholic community, ensuring that tolerance and diversity are core values.

The policing community in New York deserves a huge debt of gratitude for the early successes of the PSNI. Gerry Lynch, former President of John Jay College, served on the Patten Commission. His successor, Jeremy Travis, has generously shared his expertise with PSNI officers and Northern Ireland political and community leaders. The NYPDís former Deputy Commissioner Joe Dunne hosted visitors from the Policing Board and one of New Yorkís rising stars, Jim McShane, spent several days in Northern Ireland in 2002 talking with Northern Ireland politicians about community policing, including in his fatherís home village in South Armagh. Community leaders in New York, including a Brooklyn rabbi, have also visited Belfast to share their experiences on community policing and inter-ethnic relations. These contacts have helped reinforce the central message of Patten: that policing with the community is the only effective and democratic way to administer law enforcement.

As these changes have rapidly transformed Northern Ireland policing, we have urged all of the political parties to participate fully and help shape the future of law enforcement. In 2001, the SDLP, the Catholic Church and the Irish government all agreed that the Patten process had matured to the point that it deserved their full support. This was a courageous decision and it has been thoroughly vindicated. The PSNI is winning community support by delivering trustworthy law enforcement. The most recent crime statistics show a ten percent reduction in overall crime in the year ending in March 2004, with significant decreases in theft and vandalism. The PSNI calculates that there were some 14,000 fewer victims of crime than in from the previous year.

Unfortunately, the largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, has remained on the sidelines of policing. This has slowed the PSNIís progress and reduced nationalismís influence on the new policing institutions. I hope the Leeds Castle talks signal a change in Sinn Feinís approach to this issue. I believe that Irish-America shares this view, as articulated in a Boston Globe editorial last week calling on Sinn Fein to join the policing oversight bodies.

Political violence in Northern Ireland is diminishing, yet the paramilitary groups are turning increasingly to criminal activities. For this reason, what is needed in Northern Ireland is a new security paradigm, one that stresses the prosecution of crime versus fighting an insurgency. Or expressed more succinctly, what is needed is a system that arrests bank robbers, not one that recruits them as informers.

Under Hugh Ordeís leadership, the PSNI has significantly reduced crime in Northern Ireland. But the PSNI needs new legislation to provide all the tools required for modern policing. NYU Professor Ron Goldstockís report on fighting organized crime in Northern Ireland outlined a number of ideas to address the problem of mafia-style activity. Many of his suggestions, such as the need to use wiretap evidence and accomplice testimony in court cases, seem completely reasonable--in fact, long overdue.

Professor Goldstock also called on the local authorities to reclaim public spaces from the destructive influence of paramilitary intimidation and domination. He wrote: "As long as groups have the de facto privilege to color communal rights of way, paint or maintain aggressive or sectarian murals on walls, fly provocative flags over thoroughfares, [and] place symbols at the entrance to housing estates, Ölegitimate governmental power will be seen as secondary." Residents of these areas require considerable courage to support the police. The government authorities and the police should be equally courageous in working to take back these neighborhoods from gangsters who continue to terrorize them.

Civil Rights and Economic Progress
The residual problems of paramilitary groups and mafia-style activity arise frequently in post-conflict situations. But it is important to realize how much has improved in the 10 years since the first IRA cease-fire.

In 1995, Seamus Heaney recalled the desolation of the Troubles as a quarter-century of "life-waste and spirit-waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities" Instead of provoking such despair, Northern Ireland now inspires optimism. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Sean Brady marked the anniversary of the cease-fire with a profoundly hopeful message about the prospects for long-term peace. The Archbishop noted that this year he will administer Confirmation to "children who, for the first time in several generations, have grown up free from the daily memory of killings, bombings, funerals and tears."

The confidence born of this peace is visible throughout Northern Ireland. The Belfast skyline demonstrates this vibrancy: the new Odyssey complex, the Waterfront Hall and many other developments on the Lagan river. Numerous companies in the software engineering and medical equipment sector have made significant investments. And, in a sure sign of the regionís up-and-coming status, Starbuckís coffee has already opened two shops and has plans for four more.

The new investment climate is a product of political stability and a reflection of the success of fair employment legislation. No longer are huge segments of the economy considered off-limits to the Catholic community. Now motivation and education--not family background--are the keys to success. A recent study suggests that education mainly determines social mobility and that religion plays no independent role. Accordingly, Catholics are rapidly becoming the majority in high-prestige professions such as medicine. Systemic discrimination in the business community is a thing of the past; many top local companies are owned by Catholics and top managerial talent flows freely between North and South, as well as to England, Scotland and the rest of Europe.

In fact, perhaps the greatest public policy challenge in the coming years in Northern Ireland will be to address the plight of the Protestant working class. Some areas of Belfast have seen a downward spiral of unemployment and low educational achievement since the closure of the large manufacturing plants. Only six percent of children from these neighborhoods now reach university, compared with 22 percent from poor Catholic areas. I have discussed these challenges with unionist political leaders and hope that the United States and the International Fund for Ireland can play a role in addressing some of these issues.

Shared Future
While employment is now based on equal opportunity, there are some troubling signs that Northern Ireland society has become less integrated in recent years. That fear is encouraging people to retreat into the "safety" of segregated neighborhoods, particularly in working-class areas. Most public housing in Northern Ireland is either 90% Protestant or Catholic. This segregation, the continuing activities of paramilitary groups, conflict at neighborhood interfaces and the annual controversy over parade routes mean that, while there is now considerably less violence in Northern Ireland, there may be more antagonism. Some residents in these deprived areas complain that their lives are more difficult now than they were during the Troubles.

Some have resigned themselves to this version of "benign apartheid," believing it is easier to manage separation than to promote integration. This approach may appear easier in the short run, but in the long-term it will deepen the cleavages in society. The "separate but equal" system of public administration is also prohibitively expensive, costing Northern Ireland an estimated one billion pounds per year in excess spending to cover the cost of duplicating medical, leisure and transportation services for each community. Designating territory as belonging to a particular community creates a zero-sum mentality that equates integration with political defeat. This, in turn, produces continuing public order difficulties as communities feel compelled to call on paramilitary groups to defend "their" space and evict outsiders. Neighborhoods handicapped by turf wars sink deeper into poverty, reinforcing this cycle. The Good Friday Agreement is premised on a commitment to take steps toward reconciliation--but if the communities become more polarized, the Agreement will face even greater strains in the future.

Recognizing the governmentís responsibility to shape the social environment, the Northern Ireland Office last year issued a document called "A Shared Future." The paper explains that building a pluralist, tolerant society requires coordinated efforts by all government departments: housing, education, culture, health and transportation. A truly shared future means a society that is self-confident and secure in honoring its diverse traditions, including the parades of the loyal orders and the celebration of the Irish language and heritage.

Once the new Stormont Executive is restored, it should harness the energy and creativity of those who worked on the Shared Future project to ensure that these goals are incorporated into a new program for government. I hope that the International Fund for Ireland will also play a leadership role in advancing this agenda, which has such promise and importance for the future of the island.

We must recognize that for many, it is difficult to build a shared future without coming to terms with the past. That is why, after consulting with many people in Northern Ireland, earlier this year I suggested some ideas for moving this process forward, such as creating a video archive, similar to Steven Spielbergís Shoah Project, that would give all those affected by the Troubles the opportunity to have their stories recorded and saved. This may be another area where the International Fund for Ireland could play a helpful role. I have also suggested that there is further scope for releasing official documents related to many of the tragic events of the Troubles. I have discussed this idea with the Chief Constable, who recognizes this need and is seeking ways to provide more information to family members and other survivors of the unsolved murders from that period.

Integrated Education
Looking forward, the United States also has a role to play in supporting the Shared Future agenda, as our focus on integrated education shows. After taking on this assignment, I was astonished to learn that roughly 95% of Northern Ireland schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools. As Americans, we have first-hand experience with segregation, not so long ago. And we know it doesnít work. Segregation short-changes the students by denying them exposure to one half of their society. And it weakens the country by embedding misunderstanding and distrust.

I have visited a number of integrated schools in Northern Ireland. Each time I am humbled by the dedication and sacrifice made by the parents and faculty of these institutions to build a better future for Northern Irelandís children. Given our own history and efforts to stamp out inequality, Americans instinctively understand the importance of this issue. A couple of years ago, we urged Irish America to learn more about integrated education in Northern Ireland and to consider its relationship to the vision and values of the Good Friday Agreement. The response has been excellent. This past June, a delegation from the American Ireland Fund visited the Hazelwood school in Belfast and made a generous donation to the Integrated Education Fund.

This school year, seven new integrated schools opened across Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, Northern Ireland has not reached the point where an integrated option is available to every family--in fact, this year some 700 students were turned away from integrated schools because of a shortage of places. As a matter of priority, the Northern Ireland government and civic and religious leaders should recognize that their society will be richer and stronger if their educational system encourages more integration, so children there grow up embracing the diversity of their culture.


At the closing press conference of the Leeds Castle talks on September 18, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern each paid tribute to the continuing interest and support of the United States in the peace process. Their words are testament to the dedication of Americans such as Bill Flynn, John Connorton and other members of the Irish-American community. You have ensured that our principles energize our efforts and our values shape our initiatives in Northern Ireland.

Our commitment is strong because it is bipartisan, reflecting a shared conviction among our political leaders that Americaís influence is magnified when we speak with a single voice. American generosity is clear in creating the International Fund for Ireland and in the efforts of the many U.S. nongovernmental groups at work in Northern Ireland. Our respect for the rule of law is evident in the New York policing communityís cooperation with the PSNI. And our commitment to integrated education is an expression of our belief in diversity and equality.

Weíve come so far. We have a little farther to go. But, as ever, we remain devoted to the idea that all the people of Northern Ireland can build a society that is stable, vibrant and just. Thank you.

Released on October 4, 2004

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