At the National Press Club last month, there was an extensive photo exhibit by the Northern Ireland Press Photographers Association that offered a kind of retrospective on 35 years of Irish “Troubles”—the notorious period of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic and Protestant factions.
Some of the images were both powerful and harrowing—a stark wooden coffin lying beside the mangled wreck of a car bomb, a crying child framed by large adult figures at a funeral, two Irish Republican protestors photographed against a line of riot police.
Although some diplomats might distance themselves from such negative images of their countries, Washington’s Northern Ireland Bureau did all it could to promote the exhibit, especially as images of the Troubles are juxtaposed against the more positive images of modern life in Northern Ireland.
There was also an unmistakable message for the United States as it struggles for answers in Iraq, according to Tim Losty, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau.
“The exhibit was really part of an under-the-radar message we were trying to put out. There are strong similarities between Iraq and the Northern Ireland of the past. The basic reasons for the violence may be different, but the symptoms are very much the same.”
But the aim of the photographs was not so much to illustrate the symptoms of sectarian divisions, but rather to project a positive image of the United States as well as Northern Ireland. After all, it was U.S. negotiators under then President Bill Clinton who helped broker the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace deal and who spent years chairing talks to form a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.
In fact, one of the most striking images of the exhibit shows a smiling Bill Clinton greeted by thousands of fans in Northern Ireland, while another shows first lady Hillary Clinton enjoying tea at a woman’s community center in Belfast. “We were trying to show the positive effect of the U.S., when it is allowed to act as a neutral body and bring people together,” Losty noted.
But that’s where the comparison with Iraq ends. Northern Ireland was Britain’s nightmare, and it was the United States that helped calm things down. In Iraq, the United States is hardly accepted as a neutral party between the Shiites and Sunnis.
Losty accepts that point, but still believes that U.S. involvement in Northern Ireland confirms both America’s good intentions and the ability of a society to move from car bombs, riots and religious hatred to a level of cooperation where sworn enemies are able to form a government together.
As Iraq continues to wrestle with sectarian strife, Losty said Northern Ireland has gone through an enormous change—one that most people living in the British territory in the 1970s and 1980s would never have believed possible. “A lot of people thought the best that could be achieved was an acceptable level of violence. They would never have thought Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley would be in government together.”
Adams heads up Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), while Paisley is the fundamentalist Protestant preacher who leads the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which represents most of the province’s British Protestant majority.
But this month, Paisley and his longtime adversary, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, may well find themselves sitting across the cabinet table from each other if the proposed power-sharing government in Northern Ireland finally comes to fruition, marking the end of direct rule from London.
Northern Ireland held elections in early March for its own government and parliament, after both were mothballed for years because of Protestant distrust toward Sinn Fein, the largest Catholic nationalist party in Northern Ireland.
Some of that mistrust was well founded—Sinn Fein’s military wing killed more than 2,000 people in its struggle to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and was continuing to organize and carry out punishment shootings well after the 1998 peace deal. The Northern Ireland Assembly has also been suspended since October 2002 amid allegations of an IRA spy ring.
This time around, however, things are very different. Sinn Fein embraced the Northern Ireland police force earlier this year, and its military wing, the IRA, has officially disarmed and essentially voted itself out of existence. After both Sinn Fein and the DUP did very well in the March elections, the two parties were given until March 26 to form a unity government—a long-elusive goal of the 1998 peace agreement.
But Losty cautioned that in Northern Ireland, parties have a tendency of deliberately stretching deadlines. “You have to understand the psyche in Northern Ireland. If you tell us to do something by a certain date, we’ll go beyond that date just to show you that we can.”
If there is a delay in forming the government, it will probably be because both sides want to extract as much as possible from the British government. One of the key concerns, according to Losty, is the enormous cost it will take to rebuild Northern Ireland’s antiquated water system, a very local issue but one that could have a very significant impact on how much voters trust the new Northern Ireland government.
Losty said the two sides want the British government to offer a strong economic bonus so that the power-sharing government gets a “soft landing” and doesn’t have to impose strident water taxes on the general public.
There is another urgent issue on which both sides are in agreement: The Republic of Ireland to the south has a booming economy, largely based on its 12 percent corporate tax rate. This compares to the 30 percent rate in Northern Ireland, which the new government would want to lower.
Losty admitted that a special Northern Ireland corporate tax will be a hard sell for the British government and the rest of the United Kingdom, especially because Northern Ireland has just 4.2 percent unemployment, much lower than some parts of Scotland, Wales and the north of England.
“The Northern Ireland argument is that we’re the only part of the U.K. that has a land border with a region that has a much more competitive tax rate, but I know that some U.K. politicians are concerned about their own districts,” he said.
Nevertheless, the issue is a reminder, as in Iraq, that economic improvement is vital if a region wants to recover from sectarian enmity.
It was clear from the St. Patrick’s Day visit to Washington, D.C., by Northern Ireland politicians that much of the previous distrust has broken down. Members of Sinn Fein spoke with Unionist rivals at receptions, and members of the largely Protestant police force happily chatted outside the U.S. Congress with people who once plotted to kill them.
The annual trip to Washington is good for Northern Ireland politics, said Losty, because it puts politicians in a new environment where they are a lot more relaxed and a lot less likely to start sectarian disputes to please their voters.
“A lot depends on personality, a lot depends on the environment they are in. Many of the politicians have worked together on local council issues for 10 or 15 years. When they are over here, their voters are not watching their every move. They can relax and talk more freely.”
Losty has strong insight into the way politicians and their paramilitary counterparts think and operate. Before either side declared a ceasefire, he negotiated with men serving lengthy terrorist sentences as director of the East Belfast Partnership and the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Forces, which were established by government ministers to deal with disadvantages in the local communities.
He recalled numerous trips in 1992 to Belfast’s Maze prison, where many of the paramilitary prisoners were kept. “Some groups were very sophisticated, very organized,” he remembered. “I would talk to their representatives on the outside before I went into the prisons and they were very concerned about prisoner welfare. It was clear that there was a strong political motive and that they were willing to talk.”
With the annual St. Patrick’s Day visit now over, Losty is busy promoting Northern Ireland’s participation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival from June 27 and July 8, which anchors the Rediscover Northern Ireland campaign (www.rediscoverni.com), a four-month promotional program taking place at multiple sites throughout Washington, D.C., from March until July that is designed to raise U.S. awareness of Northern Ireland’s economy, revitalized cities and unique culture.
After that, Losty must prepare a successor before leaving his post in August. When he returns home, he hopes to work on cross-community projects in his native northern Belfast, an area notorious for civil strife between nationalist and loyalist groups.
Losty said he will miss some aspects of living in Washington “very, very much,” especially the American “can-do attitude and spirit.”
“If you go out and try to achieve something in America, you get a clap on the back and people say, ‘Well done.’ We haven’t quite gotten there back home yet, and there’s a lot we could learn.”
About the Author
Sean O’Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.