Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 between the British and Irish governments and among eight Northern Ireland political parties, the violence and killings, which marked the period known as the “Troubles,” apparently is over.
While undercurrents of decades old enmity between Protestants and Catholics may still exist, a delegation of representatives from Northern Ireland who are visiting Atlanta this week agreed while at the Global Atlanta office that times have changed and that the feuds of the past are being overtaken by new circumstances.
Accompanying Colum Eastwood, who leads the Social Democratic and Labour Party; Mike Nesbitt, the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Patricia O’Lynn, a representative of the Alliance Party, were Shane Stephens, Ireland‘s consul general based in Atlanta, Matthew Towery, who heads political, press and public affairs at the British Consulate-General in Atlanta, and Richard Cushnie, first secretary and deputy director of the Northern Ireland Bureau based in Washington.
The visitors’ stay in Atlanta was highlighted by a meeting with Marisha Shephard, commander for community policing at the Atlanta Police Department, attendance at a Rotary Club luncheon, a tour of the Martin Luther King Center, and a visit with the British consul general in the evening. On Tuesday they went to the Oxford College of Emory University where they met U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia‘s 4th Congressional District, and in the evening attended a screening of the documentary “In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America” at Oxford College. On Wednesday they are to meet with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
(The documentary is to be held at 6:30 p.m. at Oxford‘s Williams Hall in Covington, and will be followed by a panel discussion including members of the delegation. For more information, contact Cathy Wooten, Oxford College director of communications, firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-784-8331.)
Although the political views of the group probably differed individually, they did seem to come together on a number of themes. For instance, they were interested in the Atlanta Police Department‘s initiatives to deal with racial divides and the means of providing community engagement for its officers.
They met with local business leaders at a Rotary luncheon where Dan Amos, chairman and CEO of Aflac Inc. spoke of the benefits of a diverse workforce. The Northern Ireland visitors picked up on these comments because they were aware of the support U.S. companies including the Coca-Cola Co. and IBM, gave to the extension of civil marriage in their country, only a few days beforehand.
The official statement issued by dozens of U.S. corporations operating in Northern Ireland says: “As employers we encourage and welcome diversity and inclusion in our workforce and recognize the rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender employees to be themselves and to live and work free from discrimination, prejudice or exclusion.”
Same-sex marriages still have not been legalized in Northern Ireland, although civil arrangements are permitted. While the term diversity may apply to sexual rights, they also are relevant for different racial and ethnic categories, which have become increasingly important in Northern Ireland like in the U.S., as the workforce has absorbed immigrants from around the world.
They also agreed on the importance of the U.S. generally in the creation of the Good Friday Agreement as well as in terms of Northern Ireland’s economic growth through foreign investment and tourism. The critical role of George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator from Maine, in the Good Friday Agreement is a prime example who helped increase Northern Ireland as a U.S. destination for American companies.
Ms. O’Lynn, who said her party had provided a bridge among the different points of view of the parties, had strengthened ties between the U.S. and Northern Ireland during an internship program with a member of the U.S. Congress in Washington.
Mr. Nesbitt also underscored that Northern Ireland would be at the center of the world’s golf enthusiasts when the 148th British Open is played at Dunluce Links in Royal Portrush from July 18-21 next year.
The event is to be the biggest sporting event ever held in Northern Ireland, and marks only the second time that the championship has been held outside of Scotland or England in 150 years. Enthusiasts from Ireland and around the world are expected to descend on Portrush to witness the event.
Mr. Eastwood said that his party, the SDLP, had been inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement and the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King Center was a prime motivation to come to Atlanta.
The legacy of John Hume, the Irish former politician from Derry, Northern Ireland, is not to be forgotten, according to Mr. Eastwood. He was a founding member of the SDLP, and architect of the Good Friday Agreement, who is the only person to have received the three major peace prizes: the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, the Martin Luther King Prize in 1999 and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2001.
Mr. Hume visited Atlanta to receive the MLK Prize and then several times afterwards during which he encouraged local companies to invest in Northern Ireland. The film to be played at the Oxford College the evening of Sept. 18 reflects on the role of each of the parties in the peace process both before and after the Good Friday Agreement.
Despite the retrospective on the agreement, the delegation concurred that times have dramatically changed with Ireland’s ascension economically a prominent development.
Ireland’s current world standing was confirmed earlier in the week by the United Nations’ Human Development Index that ranked it fourth among nations in terms of its citizens living long and healthy lives, completing the most years of schooling and enjoying a decent standard of living.
Ireland has risen 13 places on the ranking since 2012 overtaking Germany this year as the fourth most developed nation in the world. Only Norway, Switzerland and Australia rank higher on the survey with the United States ranking 13th.
Aside from the economic advancement experienced by Ireland, it also has changed culturally. Long considered Catholic and monocultural, it now has a gay prime minister with one-fifth of its working population born outside of the nation.
“Not one of our political parties has campaigned against immigration,” Mr. Stephens, the Irish consul general, said. “We understand immigration,” Mr. Eastwood added, referring to the experience of the Irish diasporas.
In the midst of the cultural and economic growth positively affecting both Ireland and Northern Ireland, they acknowledged that the Brexit vote has introduced uncertainty in their future relations with both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Mr. Nesbitt said that upon learning of the vote in favor of Brexit his children were so upset he promised them Irish passports to settle their fears of being blocked from going to Ireland or the rest of the EU.
Mr. Eastwood said that from his party’s perspective access to both the UK and EU markets seemed critical. And he couldn’t foresee the closing of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if the UK leaves the EU.
Currently goods, people, finance and services are able to flow without issue across the borders, Mr. Nesbitt said. The most difficult of these on which to agree, he added, were services, an economic sector upon which Northern Ireland is particularly focused.
With these issues swirling around, it may not be totally surprising that Northern Ireland has been unable to form a local government since January 2017. There is little unanimity among the parties over an Irish language act, same sex marriage and dealing with various views of the past.
But these issues haven’t prevented it from benefiting from investment by U.S. companies as Richard Cushnie of Washington’s Northern Ireland Bureau pointed out. And he encouraged more Georgia-based companies to consider doing so.
Mr. Cushnie may be reached by email at email@example.com or calling 202-367-0462.