Almost 17 years after the 1998 US-brokered Peace Agreement between the major UK/Irish parties that ended 25-plus years of civil war in northeast Ireland, many difficult issues remain unresolved that threaten to unravel the historic agreement. In an environment of still-segregated schools and walls still-divided neighborhoods with, as one reporter aptly noted, “generational narratives oversimplified and shockingly devoid of respect for other points of view,” many diplomatic veterans viewed this US diplomatic initiative to help achieve agreement as “mission impossible.”
But the most recent envoy to the UK/Northern Ireland, Gary Hart, did succeed in helping the parties to agree.
Central to the agreement is a devolved tax structure, funding for 60,000 new jobs, cross-community education, war victims’ compensation, and public sector reforms to be funded with $3.1 billion by the UK government. How did this happen?
Just two weeks earlier the New York Times and the Boston Globe cited the UK prime minister as returning to England saying there was “no prospect of any imminent breakthrough” as the parties were unable to agree on the budget and key legacy issues. The US News & World Report also noted little progress but cited the importance of learning the lessons of US envoy leadership and encouragement as a model for the rest of the world based on the UK/Irish experience, noting that “most of the world’s intractable conflicts are now sectarian – one indigenous population battling another – over how the state ought to be governed.”
Hart’s success is attributable to his hard-earned wisdom of knowing when to be present, when to leave, when to speak out, and above all, to have the humility – as noted by The Belfast Newsletter – to set the right tone and work behind the scenes while leaving the limelight to the party leaders and prime ministers.
As first reported by The Irish Examiner, this most recent diplomatic journey as the US Secretary of State John Kerry’s personal representative began in late August with informal meetings with the leaders of the UK and Irish Republic. In late October, Hart returned to Ireland for informal talks with the leaders of the six parties in Northern Ireland.
In early December he flew back to Ireland again for a second round of talks with each of the six party leaders that observers described as “intense” sessions. Having set the tone and helped prepare the way for the party leaders to agree, he left the closing to the national leaders as he quietly flew home.
Reuters quoted a major Northern Ireland party leader as saying the Christmas Agreement was a “Monumental step, beneficial to all. This is only the start. It is not the end, but about how we move forward."
Secretary Kerry said he looks forward to Hart continuing his efforts as his personal representative in support of a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
“I am very lucky to have Gary devoting his time to this effort.” “This is statesmanship, pure and simple,” Kerry added, praising Hart’s “deep engagement” for the success of the negotiations. President Obama thanked Hart for his “hard work” behind the scenes.
Hart was first to propose the idea of a US Envoy and “all-party talks” during his 1984 presidential campaign. Now, the former senator is building on the successes of his predecessors, US Senator George Mitchell, who led the breakthrough talks in 1998; and Richard Haass, who worked for most of the ensuing 16 years to keep the peace.
The 1998 agreement set a new norm that replaced overt brutalities with an uneasy peace among the many traumatized survivors and many more with unsettled grievances. Only five at the time of the Civil Rights massacre, the UK prime minister accelerated the healing with his sincere apology in 2010.
Before “intense” sessions with leaders of the six major parties last mid-November, part of Hart’s address to the leaders and the media and as published in full by The Belfast Telegraph helped set the overall tone for the talks right from the start:
“Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland have been very welcoming to a continued US presence. They both understand that we have no political agenda of our own. The ability of the United States Government to add encouragement, ideas, and assistance is dependent on this collective trust among our governments and we will continue to build upon it. After many years of public service at home and engagement in projects in nations around the world, I find a concern that virtually all human beings share - the love of our children and the hope for a better future for them. This is perhaps the most powerful common human instinct. We can build upon it.
"All of us must appreciate this: we do not have to sacrifice the common good and the interests of future generations in order to maintain our identity. My nation, a nation of immigrants, did not demand that immigrant groups give up their cultures and histories in order to become American.
"But we have promoted the idea that all in America, regardless of their origin, had an interest in achieving a better common future as a nation. The ghosts of the past must not be allowed to haunt the future of those yet unborn. Despite historic differences, I am struck by the intelligence and goodwill of all the party leaders I have met. Yes, they have their respective party agendas. But there is in each and all of them a desire to move beyond the past. It is not a question of whether; it is a question of how.
"We in the United States can seek to encourage private investments, and thus employment opportunities, to Northern Ireland. But our success in that effort will require political stability and a functioning, problem-solving government operated by men and women of goodwill. Perhaps if we all keep our eyes on the republic of conscience, a place where politics and power are kept in perspective and we atone for our presumption to hold office, those in Northern Ireland and those of us in America, can escape the worst of our past. A friend of mine once said that each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.
"Americans must always be cautious in our interventions. We must always keep in mind that we killed hundreds of thousands of our own citizens in a bloody civil war. We are still atoning for our early history of slavery and that has not been easy. But each generation of Americans has produced a few citizens of the republic of conscience who have led us to higher things and who have urged us to keep our eyes on the stars. So too with Northern Ireland; you have some remarkably capable and visionary leaders in office and in the public square. You have every right to be optimistic, to hope for a better future for your children, to say, in the words of Martin Luther King's memorable speech: 'I have a dream today.' The people of America wish for you to achieve that dream and to be with you when it happens. As President Obama put it in his speech in June 2013 at the Waterfront Hall: "And you should know that so long as you are moving forward, America will always stand by you as you do.”
A few months ago, John Kerry introduced Gary Hart as “a problem-solver, a brilliant analyst, and someone capable of thinking at once tactically, strategically, and practically.”
Now, another word may well be added to that description as Gary Hart stood neither behind nor in front of the six UK/Northern Ireland party leaders, but stood beside them – every step of the often seemingly impossible way – to help them take another giant step for peace. Even better, Hart then stepped away as the UK and Irish prime ministers rejoined the negotiations. That word is “wisdom,” a hard-earned quality he may yet be allowed to share with the American people, as he said; “for a better future for your children.”