The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 12 April 2010

Lessons from Ireland - the 'out of the box' theory

Arguably the most interesting lesson from the Northern Ireland peace process is the role of the United States as an 'out of the box' player, a deus ex machina.

Whereas previously the US had been little more than a place for the IRA to procure high-grade weapons (both legally and illegally), when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992 this changed - for two reasons:

Firstly, as the first non-veteran to become President since 1945, Clinton brought a post-Cold War vision in which the State Department's hands-off policy on Northern Ireland - in deference to Britain's role as America's most important military ally - no longer held sway.

Secondly, Clinton the uber-politician was very aware of the unavoidable influence of Irish-America at the polls.

It was in that context that a number of prominent Irish-Americans launched an energetic lobbying campaign. One of their number, Jim Reilly, a former top executive with IBM, is credited with the 'out of the box' theory which best sums up US involvement in Northern Ireland during the 1990s.

According to Reilly, all the parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland were frozen in the same box and any move was immediately countered by a check-mating move from the other side. The introduction of an 'out of the box' player would completely change the dynamic inside the box.

So it proved. Without going into the finer details here, constructive US involvement - notably granting visas to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and veteran IRA member Joe Cahill - showed the republican movement that politics could open doors and subsequently led to IRA ceasefires in 1996-96 and from 1997 onwards, ultimately leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

I must add a caveat at this stage. London and Dublin had increasingly worked together over the previous years, even decades, to build a conflict resolution process and the triangular Belfast-London-Dublin dynamic was already an improvement on the confrontational IRA vs London dynamic. So while Washington's involvement helped to change the dynamic and open up new possibilities for political settlement, this was only possible thanks to the solid foundations which had already been laid over many years in Belfast, London and Dublin.

American involvement in Northern Ireland, although partly motivated by genuine good intentions, was not entirely devoid of the interests of national security. Many US policy-makers were concerned about the implications of the resources that Britain committed long-term to the north of Ireland. In simple terms, they wondered how long Britain would be able to endure the conflict without compromising its commitments elsewhere.

However, self-interest is to be expected. Interests - be they strategic, economic or whatever else - have to be accounted for when considering to what extent the 'out of the box' theory is applicable to other conflicts.

An obvious question is why American involvement elsewhere during the Clinton administration - or since - did not necessarily result in similarly positive effects as in Northern Ireland. Much of that has to do with the long-standing connections between America and Ireland, between America and Britain and, above all, the efforts and intentions of the Irish-American lobby. Much of that also has to do with the American interests at stake in other given situations.

Conclusion - if the US role as an 'out of the box' player in Northern Ireland is to serve as an example for a potentially successful approach to conflict resolution elsewhere then two key pre-conditions must be established:

i/ the 'out of the box' player is ideally regarded as impartial and reliable, or at the very least each party to the conflict must believe it to be in their best interest to cooperate with the 'out of the box' player;

ii/ that the 'out of the box' player sees a peaceful resolution to the conflict as being in its own best interests.

No comments:

Post a Comment