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Speech at University of Maryland

Frederick Douglass and Ireland:

I am happy to be at the University of Maryland this afternoon to talk about the Good Friday Agreement and the 20 years of peace it has brought to Northern Ireland. 

I want to thank the University for giving me this opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved in Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland and in relations between Ireland and Britain. I will also say something about what remains to be done especially in light of the UK's decision to leave the European Union.

I feel that the University of Maryland is an apt place in which to mark this important Irish anniversary, for it coincides with an important Maryland anniversary that has a connection with Ireland. I refer, of course, to the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Maryland's most famous sons, Frederick Douglass. 

Douglass spent 4 months in Ireland in the 1840s where he witnessed the horrors of our Great Hunger and met, and was inspired by, the leading Irish politician of that time, Daniel O'Connell, whose advocacy of peaceful methods in the pursuit of political reform impressed his American visitor. Douglass returned to the US determined to apply the lessons he learned in Ireland to the campaign against slavery. 

He returned to Ireland in the 1880s when he supported the Irish bid to secure Home Rule. It was the failure to deliver a Home Rule three decades later that led ultimately to the partition of Ireland which left a legacy of division that continues to affect us today.

There is it seems to me to be a parallel between the man from Maryland who sought to heal the divisions in this country in the 19th century and those men and women who sought to transcend Ireland's divisions through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The Good Friday Agreement: 

I know where I was on this day 20 years ago. I was in Belfast for the conclusion of negotiations between the Irish and British Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland which resulted in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement whose 20th anniversary we mark today.  

The Agreement, whose significance I will try to explain, was the culmination of a long process, but it was also the beginning of another one - the process of reconciliation - which continues to the present day and will be with us into the future as well. 

At the end of a painstaking negotiating process, the Agreement succeeded in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, a place where during the previous 30 years more than 3,500 people had lost their lives as a consequence of violent conflict there. 

It took a further 9 years, however, for the power-sharing Executive provided for in the Agreement to be established.

In my remarks today, I would like to examine the nature of the problem, the critical success factors in the negotiations, the shape of the solution devised in 1998, the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement and the challenges confronting us today. I will also seek to draw some conclusions from the Irish peace process that may have relevance elsewhere. 

The Problem

I was just 14 years old when the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ began and can remember their sombre continuation through my school and university years as a clash of political identities fuelled a violent conflict and stymied successive efforts - the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement - at forging a compromise solution and bringing the conflict to an end. 

The Northern Ireland problem was one with deep historical roots, but for our purposes today it will be sufficient to begin with the partition of Ireland which left an aggrieved minority in Northern Ireland who felt that partition had deprived them of their birth-right as part of the Irish nation. For their part, Ulster unionists had a strong sense of British identity which they were determined to preserve. For a half century after the partition of Ireland, the Protestant/unionist community in Northern Ireland retained a virtual monopoly of power. This eventually provoked determined resistance on the part of the minority in Northern Ireland, initially through a civil rights movement modelled on the American example in the 1960s, but this later a violent conflict developed. 

This spiral of violence continued during the first fifteen years of my professional career, although I was not at that time directly involved in Northern Ireland affairs or in Anglo Irish issues. During that time of strife in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government sympathised with the aspirations of the minority in Northern Ireland by firmly opposed the recourse to violence and pressed for a political solution. 

By the early 1990s, it was possible to believe that the conflict might continue endlessly, an ineradicable stain on Ireland's international reputation. 

Then in 1994, a seismic change came with the declaration of paramilitary ceasefires which opened the road towards a renewed political push for a negotiated settlement. 

How did this happen?  There were, of course, multiple influences behind these developments, but among these was the fact that, after 25 years of violence, there was a general weariness with the conflict and a willingness on the part of those involved to at least consider alternative courses. 

And the Irish and British Governments were willing, in the event of a cessation of violence, to offer former paramilitaries a pathway into political negotiations. The key turning point was the decision to bring a long era of violence to an end. That is a lesson that could be applied to other conflict situations – end violence and talk!  

The negotiations:

There was, of course, no guarantee that that particular ray of hope would be any more productive than previous ones. That is where Senator George Mitchell came in. 

He displayed the requisite patience and determination to keep a sometimes rocky talks process on the rails until agreement could be reached. 

As head of our press operation at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and, in that capacity, I can distinctly recall attending press briefings by Senator Mitchell when the whole arrangement looked like it was headed for the rocks and when he managed, with his calm resolve, to keep the talks on the rails until Agreement was reached in April 1998. 

Senator Mitchell could not have achieved what he did without the willingness of the Governments and the political parties to work closely with him. It was fortunate that we had a group of political leaders, in government and in the Northern Ireland parties - Unionist, Nationalist, Republican and Loyalist - who were willing to embrace the opportunities and the risks of political engagement in the cause of peace. 

The Agreement:

The Agreement concluded 20 years ago was a complex structure with three strands, and constitutional and equality elements designed to assuage the conflicting concerns of the two communities. 

It dealt with the constitutional issue by enshrining the principle of consent. The Agreement made it clear that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only be altered with the consent of its people expressed through a referendum. Both Governments committed themselves to giving effect to such a decision of the people in favour of a united Ireland. The Irish Government introduced a constitutional amendment to reflect the constitutional provisions of the Agreement.

Strand 1 of the Agreement involved the creation of an elected Northern Ireland assembly and a power-sharing executive composed of figures from both communities and drawn from the Assembly. 

Strand 2 involves arrangements for North-South cooperation in Ireland including the establishment of a North South Ministerial Council and a set of North-South bodies that manage issues on an all-island basis. The most visible manifestation of this North-South cooperation is Tourism Ireland which markets the whole island of Ireland in overseas markets. Ireland's tourism industry has benefited significantly from this joined-up promotion of Ireland's attractions as a travel destination. Last year saw a record number of Americans visiting Ireland.

And Strand 3 created a British-Irish Council which brings together the Governments in Dublin and London, as well as the administrations in Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The Agreement’s equality provisions also give expression to what’s called ‘parity of esteem’ as well as justice and human rights commitments. The cultural dimension of the Agreement include the status of the Irish language, which has been a source of some contention this past year.      

The legacy of the Agreement:

The Good Friday Agreement secured resounding approval from the public in referendums held in both parts of Ireland on the same day in 1998. 

The Agreement turned out to be a major milestone rather than an end point. Many significant issues needed to be dealt with, such as on weapons decommissioning and policing, in order to secure consensus on the implementation of the agreement.

Looking back from the vantage point of the twentieth anniversary of the Agreement, the balance sheet is definitely a very positive one. 

First, Northern Ireland has been free of major incidents of violence for almost two decades. This means that there are perhaps thousands of people who are alive today because of the peace brought about by the Agreement. 

Second, with the removal of the major security apparatus that accompanied the violence, Northern Ireland now has an air of normality about it. Belfast looks and feels very like any other city in Western Europe.

Third, the border in Ireland has become an invisible one to the great benefit of Irish people, north and south, and especially those who live in border areas. People on both sides now cross that border freely for work, to do business, to visit relatives and as tourists. 

Fourth, Ireland's relations with our nearest neighbours have undergone a positive transformation, albeit that the advent of Brexit is now a complicating factor for the future. It was a privilege for me to be our Ambassador in London during the first ever Irish State Visit to the United Kingdom in April 2014. 

Sadly, as we look back over the achievements of the past two decades, while huge strides have been made, the situation is not as positive as it ought to be. 

Since January of last year, the power-sharing Executive that stands at the heart of the Agreement has been suspended and several efforts aimed at its restoration have failed to resolve the impasse, in spite of often torturous negotiations supported by the Irish and British Governments. 

The issue that divides the DUP and Sinn Fein at present revolves around the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. This is seen by Northern nationalists as an essential expression of their Irish identity. In the eyes of some unionists, however, the Irish language is viewed as a threat to the Britishness of Northern Ireland. 

It is particularly unfortunate that this deadlock should persist so long at a time when the Brexit negotiations are entering a crucial phase and where the political voice of Northern Ireland's specific interests ought to be heard. 


The twentieth anniversary of the Agreement is an opportunity to reflect on the big picture, on how far we have travelled and how much better things are today than they were two decades ago. We need to remind ourselves of the risks entailed in any turning back of the clock to less happy times. 

It is important for people in Ireland, north and south, to know that we have friends around the world who care about our affairs and wish us well. 

The US influence has been significant throughout the past few decades, going back to the time of Presidents Carter and Reagan. I have already referred to the central role played by Senator Mitchell, but I recall during the latter stages of the talks in Belfast, late night calls coming in from President Clinton urging the parties to seize the opportunity and push on towards agreement.

Successive US Special Envoys have sought to support the political process and US investment in Northern Ireland is helping to provide an economic dividend to the peace process. 

We are fortunate to have so many prominent members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who take an active interest in Ireland. 

Two decades ago Senator Mitchell and those who wanted to end Northern Ireland's 30 year nightmare of violent division refused to be deflected from their resolve to find an agreed solution. So too in our time, there is no alternative to the Good Friday Agreement, which remains an indispensable framework for the future. It is therefore incumbent on all those involved to find a way to renew the power-sharing Executive and to get back to work on implementing the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. 

I hope that this 20th anniversary will remind everyone of the long and positive road we have travelled and of the need to ensure that there is no turning back of the clock in Northern Ireland. We have come too far and there is too much at stake for any slippage to be risked.    

In terms of lessons that can be learned from events in Northern Ireland, it is obvious that no two conflicts are the same and that no solution can have general application. What worked in the case of Northern Ireland was the application of endless patience, persistence and perseverance. Those involved showed a dogged determination to secure a negotiated agreement. It was also of vital importance that the Irish and British Governments worked together in the search for agreement and that we had the support of European Union and the United States. Ultimately, however, the parties to a conflict need to want a solution.      

Concluding Remarks:

To come back to Maryland, President Wallace Loh of this University this morning presented me with a pin containing your mascot, a turtle which moves forward one step at a time and to do so needs to stick its head out! That sounds to me like a fitting motto for any process of conflict resolution, including in Northern Ireland! 

And what better way to conclude my presentation than with some lines of poetry from the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. In his verse translation of a play by Sophocles, which he called The Cure of Troy, Heaney wrote some lines that were clearly intended to resonate with the situation in Northern Ireland and with contemporary conflict situations around the world. Here are some of Heaney’s inspirational lines:

Human beings suffer

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.


The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker’s father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.


History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.


So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.


Thank you for your attention.

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