Transatlantic conversations: the US role in renewing the peace process

Transatlantic conversations: the US role in renewing the peace process
by Ronan KIRBY
23 June 2021

The Institute for Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, joined the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies in Notre Dame in launching the “Transatlantic Conversations”, an online Zoom webinar series. The event consists of a series of webinars, all of which are dedicated to exploring the next generation of the Irish peace process.

Brexit and the accompanying protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland have created new challenges for the peace process, not least with fresh identity conflict and trade disruptions. This series of zoom webinars looks to discuss how policymakers can build on past success during the next generation of the peace process, the meaning of protocol and how it can drive conflict transformation, and the part that the US can play in sustaining peace through economic development.

Shared Future News attended the opening event of the Zoom: “The US Role in Renewing the Peace Process”.

The event was based out of the Keough-Naughton Institute in Notre Dame. Explanations around the current state of affairs on the ground in Northern Ireland, a summarisation of Brexit, the protocol, and what this means for the island as whole, was provided for the benefit of the US attendees.

Professor Peter Shirlow, director of the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, began by referencing the recent protests in Northern Ireland and the narrative that the media has developed around it. He made light of the fact that as a result of the media’s discourse on the situation, on a global scale, people just assume Northern Ireland is falling back into their troubled past, as if nothing of significance has happened in the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“Sometimes we forget how successful the peace process has been,” Shirlow remarked as he proceeded to display slides that did indeed show encouraging trends, such as those related to shooting incidents and conflict-related deaths from 1969–2019, which highlighted how this type of violence has declined in Northern Ireland.

Shirlow addressed what he described as one of the biggest achievements of the peace process, although seldom given the praise it deserves — the reform of the policing system. “Over 70 percent of Catholics and Protestants are confident in PSNI,” Shirlow stated. Many would have thought that as unimaginable 20 years ago.

Arguing for the concept of interdependence, the key points that Shirlow conveyed were: a third constitutional option (other than a united Ireland or not), an extension of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and the promotion of greater North–South cooperation. All of these components will provide, “an opportunity to build a new economy and new ways we interact with each other that are positive and neutral,” Shirlow argued.

Allison Grundle, former Special Advisor in the Northern Ireland Executive to the Minister for Justice, gave a breakdown of Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, and what this means for the peace process. This included a brief history of the EU–UK relations and the reasoning behind the protocol.

“The only available option was a sea border. The issues are customs declarations, paperwork,  and physical checks on incoming products. This is hugely problematic” Grundle explained. There are “practical challenges”, such as a lack of preparedness contributing to a bumpy start as well as shortages and disruptions to the flow of goods (she noted around 60% of jobs are in businesses with purchasers in Great Britain).

Grundle also spoke about “symbolic challenges”, which included the perceived erosion of British identity, the appearance of the North–South dimension being protected due to a speculative threat of Republican violence, and an argument that the protocol breaks the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. She stressed that solutions need to address both practical and symbolic challenges.

“Brexit is not an event; it is a process,” said Grundle, before making reference to the UK and Ireland’s relationship: “We are two small islands that won’t be separated. The peace process has endured bigger crises than this and we will not go back to war, and there’s opportunity for economic growth with the help of the US.”

Michael D’Arcy, Research Associate at the Centre for Cross Border Studies focused on the next generation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the opportunities that are available to sustain prosperity and embed peace. One of these opportunities is a new totality of North–South relationships, following Brexit, to be progressed by consultation, cooperation, and action, D’Arcy put particular emphasis on “action”.

D’Arcy outlined multiple all-island economic and business opportunities, which included Covid recovery, in the form of increased staycations, bringing with it money and jobs. Another opportunity was climate action, insofar that many climate actions won’t be optimum unless they are coordinated on the island of Ireland. D’Arcy also provided evidence of positive economic indicators, such as an all-island population of 7 million people, thus creating the possibility for the island to have the highest percentage of third level educated 30–35-year-olds in Europe.

“The protocol is also unique, as it provides the island the chance to do business with both the UK and the EU,” D’Arcy added. Further opportunities for businesses would be joined-up, all island investment in areas such as energy, agri-foods, digital services, and transport.

Barbara Stephenson, a former US Ambassador and former US Consul General to Northern Ireland, outlined the important part that the US has to play in supporting the continued progress of the peace process.

“Proper weight must be given to the transformation of the peace process,” Stephenson remarked. She highlighted the importance of talking and planning around future opportunities, whilst simultaneously easing current tensions. Stephenson detailed how the most effective way in which the US can help is by continuing to champion peace in Northern Ireland, and noted that there has been and continues to be an array of champions in the US government.

“US support for Irish peace process has always been rich and heartfelt,” Stephenson added. “We won’t be satisfied until the Good Friday Agreement yields the full fruit of a prosperous Ireland and we will be there to help along the way.”

The event was the first of three webinars involved in the “Transatlantic Conversations”. The remaining two events are “The Irish Government Perspective” and “The UK Government Perspective”. This opening event provided a refreshing outlook in regards to the Northern Ireland protocol and how, in contrast to the popular media narrative, it can be made into a positive for the island as a whole.

Full event available to watch online.

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