Fordham Law School marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10 with a program featuring reflections and presentations on the accord that quelled decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
The event included a prerecorded interview of former Senator George J. Mitchell, who chaired the peace negotiations as United States special envoy for Northern Ireland under President Bill Clinton. Irish Consul General Ciaran Madden spoke at the beginning of the program, and Fordham Law professors Martin Flaherty and Michael W. Martin presented on the past and future in Northern Ireland.
The landmark political development of April 10, 1998, helped resolve longstanding strife between the nationalists, who seek reunification with the Republic of Ireland and are mostly Catholic, and the unionists, who are generally Protestant and whose loyalties are with the United Kingdom. The agreement led to the region’s legislative devolution from the United Kingdom.
“This event was right there as one of the most important events in the history of the world, or what was accomplished by this incredible agreement signed twenty years ago this day,” said Robert J. Reilly LAW ’75, assistant dean of the Feerick Center for Social Justice, during his introductory remarks. Reilly also thanked the program’s sponsors: the Feerick Center, the Ireland Summer Program, the Leitner Center for International Law & Justice, the Irish Law Students Association, the Fordham Law Review, the Fordham International Law Journal, and the Conflict Resolution and ADR Program.
Consul General Madden stressed the importance of Northern Ireland’s ongoing commitment to remembrance and reconciliation. Desegregation, he said, remains a necessary act of all the region’s people.
“It’s the work of everyone in Northern Ireland and many outside it,” he said. “It’s not easy work. It’s slow work, but it’s so, so important.” Madden also stressed the viability of this work by quoting from the late Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy,” which encourages hope for justice and healing.
Illuminating the history that necessitated such healing, Flaherty described the last 400 years of Ireland’s long chronicle of suffering. After recounting some of the older history—including the migration of English and Scottish Presbyterian dissenters to Ulster in the 17th century, and the Irish Parliament’s voting itself out of existence in the late 18th century because it failed to take the rights of minorities into account—Flaherty discussed the violent conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in the last century. For a long time, violence reigned and mistrust thwarted resolution. Flaherty addressed the need to hold governments accountable for the violation of their laws.
“What we need today still is to keep this kind of scrutiny, this kind of pressure, on all parties to live up to the Good Friday Agreement because there still remains much, much work to be done before we can have true reconciliation, true peace, and true adherence to the human rights that everyone in that community on both sides deserves to enjoy,” said Flaherty.
Program attendees then watched a prerecorded interview of Senator Mitchell, the man who played a pivotal role in shepherding the agreement to approval. Mitchell received Fordham Law’s prestigious Stein Prize six months after the agreement’s approval in recognition of his work in Northern Ireland.
During the interview, adjunct professor John Rogan LAW ’14 asked Mitchell a series of questions about challenges and expectations both during the peace negotiations and after the agreement’s passing.
“It was less an expectation than hope,” said Mitchell, who recounted the stressful few weeks before the vote. The two sides’ mistrust of one another and their initial unwillingness to hear each other’s perspectives led to unproductive and even disastrous meetings. Nonetheless, the parties managed to reach a consensus after Mitchell set a deadline for ending the talks. “It was an enormous relief, a sense of great exaltation and exhaustion combined,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell observed how, although the agreement is a historical landmark, it does not itself guarantee peace; rather, it makes peace possible. “Peace is not a guarantee in any society, especially not in those with a history of violence,” said Mitchell. When that history of violence has included thousands of deaths and punishment beatings, which resulted in permanent maiming, the challenge is steep. Mitchell stressed how people need to be vigilant of violence’s ongoing threat, especially in the face of Brexit.
Nonetheless, the country has come a long way from where it had been. When Rogan asked Mitchell about how he feels looking back at his role in the peace process, Mitchell beamed with pride. “It was for me a labor of love,” he said. “Personally it changed my life.” He recounted how his involvement led him to connect with his Irish ancestry. “The experience filled in a void that I didn’t know even existed,” he said.
For the final portion of the program, Martin, who has led the summer program for Fordham Law students in Northern Ireland for the last 15 years, discussed the future of the region. Martin addressed current issues, including the restoration of a devolved government, the question of direct rule and the role of the Republic of Ireland, the implications of Brexit and a hard border, and the management of a still deeply polarized society.
“There are more walls today than there were in 1998,” said Martin, referring to the physical barriers that divide the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. “That just gives you an idea of a society that is divided, a society that is learning to trust but is not there yet.”
Despite the difficult issues, Martin noted how much progress has occurred since the agreement, including an improving economy and citizens’ increasing feelings of safety.
Martin also spoke over Skype with Niall Murphy, a human rights lawyer in Northern Ireland. Together, Martin and Murphy addressed the importance of remembering the past in order to forge a more peaceful future.
The event was the latest chapter in Fordham Law’s ties to Northern Ireland and the peace process. Former Dean John D. Feerick ’61 was part of President Clinton’s trip to Northern Ireland in 1995 that helped lay the groundwork for the peace talks. Dean Feerick also created a conflict resolution program for community leaders from the region and started Fordham Law’s Belfast/Dublin Summer Program. Additionally, alumnus John Connorton ’71, who was at the anniversary event, helped call attention to the conflict in the years leading up to the agreement by bringing political leaders from Northern Ireland to address U.S. audiences.
Northern Ireland’s peaceful future, according to Reilly at the program’s conclusion, can be sought by all of us. “Everyone, even from right here, from 3,000 miles away, can have a role in this peace process in the years to come,” he said.