O'Keefe: Ireland's peace deal could be a global model
Today is the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement's ratification by the Irish people. At the heart of the agreement is a promise of peace: that those who want the six counties in Northern Ireland to be reunited with the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland -- the nationalists -- and those who want them to instead remain part of the United Kingdom -- the unionists -- will pursue their aspirations exclusively through democratic means.
The Good Friday Agreement's lesson for the world is that opposing communities can honorably agree to continue their ancient struggles without bloodshed. That lesson, given at the end of the most violent century in history, may prove to be Ireland's greatest gift to civilization -- but only if peace holds.
The decade and a half of peace borne of the Good Friday Agreement is the fruit of the Irish people's wisdom in reaching that accord. The dispute between the Irish and the English began in the 12th century. The most recent period of violent conflict, which is rooted in the partition of Ireland in 1920, ignited in the late 1960s after Catholics in Northern Ireland demanded equal civil rights with their Protestant neighbors.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, neither nationalists nor unionists have abandoned their respective political goals. But it will not be before a majority of people in Northern Ireland choose to reunify that Ireland will be reunited -- and the parties in the North and South cannot agree on whether it is time to conduct the poll on reunification specified by the agreement.
A small minority still espouse force to reunite the country. While they lack the support of nearly all of the people who live on the island, they have two allies: apathy and complacency. Americans can help challenge those allies by supporting those who chose a peaceful end to the Troubles and a democratic path to a reunified Ireland.
To borrow from Jonathan Powell, chief of staff under British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a peace process is like a bicycle: It stays upright so long as it moves forward. Those who work to reunite Ireland must keep the peace process moving forward.
Although many unionists would disagree, the natural culmination of the peace process is a reunified Ireland. Efforts to persuade and assure unionists now will make peace in a reunified Ireland more likely.
To let time pass without progress in the reconciliation between the communities is a threat to peace. The recent announcement by Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of a plan to tear down some 60 "peace walls" between Protestant and Catholic communities is encouraging. When Ireland is reunited, the message for history will be that peace works.
As the Irish should be proud of their Good Friday Agreement, Americans should be proud that former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) helped orchestrate the resolution. He will speak about the agreement at a symposium at the Great Hall of the Cooper Union in Manhattan at 6 o'clock this evening. Hundreds of people from around the country will attend to show the Irish that we in America recognize the significance of this anniversary -- and that we still support them in their peaceful quest for reunification.
We are neither apathetic nor complacent, for we know that the ultimate success of the Good Friday Agreement will not only be a victory for the Irish, but for everyone in the world who cherishes peace.
Brian P. O'Keefe is president of the Brehon Law Society of Nassau County, an organization of Irish-American lawyers and judges dedicated to promoting peace and justice in Ireland.