Northern Ireland’s Ordeal
On March 23, a funeral was held in Northern Ireland for Martin McGuinness, a top commander of the violent Irish Republican Army (IRA), who later joined the British-brokered peace process. Participants included Arlene Foster, the Protestant First Minister who shared power with Mr. McGuinness. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke.
British Prime Minister Teresa May and her predecessor Tony Blair, who achieved Northern Ireland peace, did not attend.
Several months ago, the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing arrangement broke down over accusations of mismanagement and possible fraud in a heating fuel program. The issues may seem obscure, but passions quickly escalated. The ultimate outcome remains uncertain.
The implications of these events reach far beyond the troubled province of Northern Ireland. Britain is implementing “Brexit,” shorthand for exiting the European Union (EU). Ireland remains a staunch EU member. Britain is a military power within NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), while Ireland is formally a neutral nation.
A common commercial market linking Britain and Northern Ireland with the rest of Ireland has been important in maintaining peace. That is already threatened, and could collapse completely with Brexit.
Wider relationships may prove crucial to keeping provincial peace. The G8 (Group of Eight) held a summit in Northern Ireland over June 17-18, 2013. Member nations reconfirmed commitment to economic cooperation. The venue selected underscored progress toward peace.
The conference was held at the Lough Erne golf resort, near Enniskillen, a setting both beautiful and pastoral. In a surprise move, U.S. President Barack Obama joined British Prime Minister David Cameron in a motorcade through the area, and visited an integrated elementary school where Catholic and Protestant children study together.
The Enniskillen Integrated Primary School was established in 1987 in the aftermath of an IRA bomb attack which killed twelve people. The attack occurred on Remembrance Day, established after World War I to honor those killed in the line of duty.
Cameron and Obama assisted students in painting a banner about the G8. The symbolism involved was silently eloquent. Politicians who value not talking deserve special respect, at least for that moment.
In addition to Britain and the U.S., the G8 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. The larger newer G20 has overshadowed this Atlantic-centered body, but only to a degree.
The Northern Ireland summit reconfirmed broad scope for the G8. The leaders agreed to work to ensure negotiations to end the Syria civil war became an urgent priority.
They also emphasized financial transparency, with agreements to provide automatic access to tax information on residents of member nations, and more clarity regarding true ownership of companies. These initiatives are designed to minimize tax avoidance, including in particular by corporations which move funds across borders to avoid taxes.
The Northern Ireland summit additionally agreed on new transatlantic trade negotiations between Europe and North America. These are now effectively on hold, though not necessarily dead. The growth of protectionism in Europe and the U.S. is discouraging, but makes maintaining existing agreements more important.
Bill Clinton’s presence implies the long, close American involvement with Ireland. For example, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1977 Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Pat Moynihan (D-NY) joined with fellow Democrats Governor Hugh Carey of New York and U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill from Massachusetts in urging Irish-Americans to stop sending money to the IRA. Kennedy remained actively engaged.
Current developments may provide opportunities for U.S. leadership in expanded economic and perhaps military cooperation.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin, and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org