Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Peace and at least enough goodwill

10 years ago this month, the Good Friday Agreement was promulgated and ushered in peace in Northern Ireland. How are we doing today at settling similarly elusive political problems?

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams tells a news conference in 1998 that his party's executive committee is advising supporters to vote in favor of the Good Friday agreement May 7. (Reuters)

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?