Ambassadors Archive 1

Ireland: Ambassador Sean O'Huiginn.

Committed to Peace

By Susan E. Pritchett Post 

As the Irish-American community, comprising 1 of 7 Americans, looks forward to the celebration of St. Patrick's Day on March 17th, thoughts of cultural unity and international harmony have been overshadowed by current events in Northern Ireland. There, anger and sadness, dismay and frustration have followed in the wake of the February 12th suspension of the democratically- elected coalition government established under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Irish Ambassador Sean O'Huiginn is uniquely qualified to provide perspective on these recent events. A native of County Mayo and career diplomat who has served as the Ambassador of Ireland to the United States since September of 1997, Ambassador O'Huiginn has been actively involved in the conduct of his country's policy in Northern Ireland for over a decade.

During this time he was centrally involved in implementing the structures envisioned in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Accord. This agreement gave the Irish Republic a consultative role in Northern Ireland and set up an inter-governmental conference of ministers and civil servants with its own secretariat. From 1987 to 1990, Ambassador O'Huiginn led Irish diplomats assigned to the Anglo- Irish Secretariat in Belfast. Then from 1991 to 1997 he headed up the Anglo-Irish Division in Dublin where he was involved in the negotiations of such historic agreements as the 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the 1995 Framework Document, the cease fires initiated by the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups, and the establishment of an inclusive talks process open to all parties in Northern Ireland. Now as Ambassador to the US, an untiring advocate of the Good Friday Agreement, he plays a key role in working directly with President Clinton, Senator Mitchell and other US leaders on issues pertaining to Northern Ireland.

In a recent interview Ambassador O'Huiginn not only highlighted some of the root causes of the current situation, but also expressed his optimism that with 'hard work and imaginative effort' the parties could resolve their differences.

By way of background it should be noted that the Good Friday Agreement, which summarized the importance of cooperative effort and outlined a structure to be established for local government, was signed by the Nationalists and Unionists of Northern Ireland as well as by Britain and the Republic of Ireland on April 10th, 1998, after intensive negotiations on all sides. In a public referendum held in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland on the 22nd of May of that year the people ratified the agreement by an overwhelming margin (71.2% in Northern Ireland and 94.4% in the Irish Republic). An assembly was elected in June of 1998, but it took another 18 months, until December of 1999, to appoint an Executive (cabinet).
In order to obtain his party's participation in the local government, David Trimble, the head of the Ulster Unionists, promised his constituents that he would resign from his post as head of the new coalition government if the IRA did not make significant progress in decommissioning by the end of January. Since initial feedback on the IRA's decommissioning progress presented by the De Chastelain Commission report of 31 January was disappointing and the Unionists increasingly felt that adequate progress was not being made. Mr Trimble and his unionist colleagues threatened to resign from the Executive before a key meeting of their party on 12 February.

In order to avoid the collapse of the government by virtue of Mr. Trimble's resignation, Peter Mandelson, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, suspended the local coalition government on 11 February. Many issues have been raised by his actions not the least of which is the appearance that his actions were premature since the second of the De Chastelain reports, showing a positive effort on the part of the IRA, was delivered on the same date. Also, the suspension of the government unilaterally by a British politician raises political and legal issues since the Good Friday Agreement, and the structures it anticipated, have been ratified by the people of the Republic of Ireland and have been incorporated into their constitution.
In his assessment of the circumstances leading to the suspension of the government, Ambassador O'Huiginn pointed to the differences of perception that have arisen on the critical issue of decommissioning.

'The decommissioning issue has taken on different symbolic meanings for the two sides in Northern Ireland. For one side, the Unionists, it was seen as an issue of good faith since guns can have no role in the operation of democratic institutions. For the other side, the Republicans, it was seen as a test of good management, a very delicate issue which had to be handled sensitively to preserve a unified Republican commitment to the peace process. Unfortunately, primarily due to pressures from their constituencies, the leaders have not able to reach out sufficiently to each other so as to ensure that both of these valid concerns are fully met.'

Ambassador O'Huiginn added that the risk in suspending the government is that a political vacuum is created and there is the risk of de-stabilization associated with disappointment and anger. His ideas for the prompt re-establishment of the government reflect his experience, idealism, and pragmatism. He called on all sides, all people, to step back and to put the decommissioning issue into its proper perspective as an important confidence building objective, which will be achieved over time building on the significant progress already made. Specifically, he urged that people focus on the 'enormous and unprecedented' nature of the Good Friday Agreement, as a whole, which is central to the current plan for peace and is the democratic mandate of the people.

In addition, Ambassador O'Huiginn noted that the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement have had excellent management successes during their short tenure. 'It is important,' the Ambassador stated, 'that we remember that we are not starting from zero. Democratic processes are in place and the objective now must be to improve the public's confidence in those processes and the structures created.'
Specifically, Ambassador O'Higuinn suggested some steps that would increase public confidence and aid in the restoration of the government.

'First, there needs to be broad recognition of the Good Friday Agreement as a cornerstone for peace, and of the processes it embraces as the expression of democratic determination. Then there needs to be a focus on the broader range of commitments covered in the Good Friday Agreement. Decommissioning must go forward, but it is not the only issue addressed there. Other aspects of the agreement can be implemented, even during the suspension of the local government. In fact, confidence that these aspects - which relate to fundamental issues of equality and human rights - will be carried out is critical to the ultimate success. Finally, it is clear that the leaders of Britain, Ireland, and the United States, as key protagonists in the Agreement, are working and will work very hard both publicly and behind the scenes to resolve the issues and I have great hopes that all this hard work will bear fruit.'

Despite the risks and frustrations in Northern Ireland, the Irish Embassy is making preparations for St. Patrick's Day. Ambassador O'Huiginn indicated that this is always a time of 'stock-taking of the close relationship between the United States and Ireland' and reminded us that 'the celebration of St. Patrick's Day is not based on nostalgia and historical connection alone, but on current strong political, economic, and cultural ties. The good news story of the Irish economy is in large part based on the closeness of the two countries and, specifically, on US investment in our country. The peace process has had an enormous input from the US. So the American dimension is crucial for the two most important objectives of the Irish people - peace and prosperity on our island'.

St. Patrick's Day is, however, always a time of celebration of our cultural heritage, the common roots we share, Ambassador O'Huiginn reminded us.

'We are proud of the recognition of the quality and contribution of Irish culture and the strong ties that exist between the Irish and American cultures. The up-coming Island of Ireland event at the Kennedy Center in May is testimony to the significance of that relationship. We are grateful to former US Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith for making this happen and for the support given to it by Ambassador Mike Sullivan. We hope that our President Mary McAleese will be able to attend this expression of the rich diversity of Irish culture. This is definitely a 'save the date' occasion that we can all look forward to.'

Good Friday Agreement - Declaration of Support
(Preface to Good Friday Agreement)
1. We, the participants in the multi-party negotiations, believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning.

2. The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.

3. We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.

4. We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.

5. We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement. It is accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements - an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North/South Ministerial Council, implementation bodies, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland - are interlocking and interdependent and that in particular the functioning of the Assembly and the North/South Council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other.

6. Accordingly, in a spirit of concord, we strongly commend this agreement to the people, North and South, for their approval.