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Division Remains Deep in Northern Ireland as Biden Marks 25th Anniversary of Good Friday Agreement

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President Biden was in Ireland this week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the U.S.-brokered peace deal that ended three decades of fighting in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles. Biden’s visit comes less than two months after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced he had reached a deal with the European Union on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, and a year after the British Parliament introduced a bill to provide amnesty to former British soldiers and individuals involved in the Northern Ireland conflict. Human rights experts have accused the bill of undermining the Good Friday Agreement. We speak to renowned activist Eamonn McCann, a former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Biden is wrapping up his trip this week to Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement, that ended three decades of fighting in Northern Ireland. Earlier today, Biden visited his ancestral hometown in County Mayo. On Thursday, he addressed the Irish parliament in Dublin.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This week marks a vital milestone for peace: 25 years ago, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Twenty-five years ago. One of my best friends in the Senate, and a great, great friend to this day, is George Mitchell. As he said, “There were 300 days of failure” — or, “700 days of failure and one day of success.” But it was a success that one day. But more is to be done.

Yesterday, I was in Belfast to honor those who commit themselves to peace, to reiterate the enduring support of the United States for the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions. …

I think — I think that the United Kingdom should be working closer with Ireland in this effort and in this endeavor. Political violence must never again be allowed to take hold in this island.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden’s visit comes less than two months after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced he had reached a deal with the European Union on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland. Sunak said the deal will remove “any sense of border in the Irish Sea.”

We go now to Derry in Northern Ireland, where we’re joined by Eamonn McCann, journalist, writer, activist, former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, also took part in the march on Bloody Sunday in 1972 and helped form the Bloody Sunday Trust. He is the author of the recently republished 1974 book, War and an Irish Town.

Well, given your history, Eamonn, and also talking about the present, this week the visit of President Biden, can you talk about the significance of this trip in Northern Ireland and Ireland?

EAMONN McCANN: Well, I think the — I mean, how we evaluate the significance of it depends on the political perspective which we individually have. I think that, in my own view, sort of the main purpose of Mr. Biden’s trip, from the American point of view, from the point of view of the Biden administration, is that he wanted sort of the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement to be celebrated, in the North and in America and everywhere else, as a peace deal that President Biden himself had brought about or helped aid to bring about. But that hasn’t worked. And Biden must be very disappointed that it hasn’t worked, because there isn’t a reconstituted administration in Belfast, a power-sharing administration with nationalists and unionists serving in the same government. That has not happened.

Now, the way the powers that be sort of in Ireland and Britain and America all sort of expected things to happen is that we would have a deal, that the deal would have been saved, just within the last week, and this would have happened with great pomp and panoply, that we’d have all the parties signing up, with Joe Biden in the middle of them, and a peace at last in Northern Ireland being declared. That would have been a huge, a huge public relations coup, triumph, for Mr. Biden.

But what happened, of course, is that all the parties are not serving together because of the peculiar arrangements established by the Good Friday Agreement itself. Each side — Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists — each side has a veto over what might happen. And the Democratic Unionist Party has decided to exercise this veto, so the whole process cannot go forward.

This must be a bitter disappointment to those in America and in Ireland who were expecting a sort of unrestrained celebration. And Mr. Biden must have been expecting unrestrained celebration with himself at the center of it. It hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it’s going happen anytime soon.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Eamonn, could you talk a little bit about what is the cause of the current deadlock among the various parties? And also, how do you see Brexit as a threat to building peace in Northern Ireland?

EAMONN McCANN: Well, Brexit is certainly a factor, but there’s many other factors, as well. And, you know, as somebody once said about the Irish problem, you know, it’s a very simple problem, but impossible to understand. And Brexit threatens to erect a border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, or, alternatively, a border right down the Irish Sea, separating the whole of Ireland — Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — separating the whole of Ireland from the United Kingdom.

Now, that’s an immediate implication for the question of partition in Ireland, because if you have trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, then you have threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom. No matter what way you construe it, that is sort of a loosening or lessening sort of the bonds between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is, to some extent, both symbolically and a little bit on substance — it is detaching Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and putting it into a position which is closer to that, part of the Irish Republic.

Now, for those who want to see a transition to an Irish Republic, that’s terrific. That’s terrific. For those, like the Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, that’s absolutely anathema. So, here you have — once again, in 2023, you have the old Irish question come to the fore again. What Churchill once called — he says, after a war, the tide or the battle recedes, and when we look, what we see are the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone rising above the surface again. We are witnessing that today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this proposed bill by the British government, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) bill? What is it? And what’s been the reaction by various interest groups in Ireland and in Northern Ireland?

EAMONN McCANN: Well, the Troubles bill is a unique bill. We’re talking about division, and the Troubles were a reflection of the division. But the British Troubles bill has had the marvelous, marvelous result of uniting every party in Northern Ireland. From vivid green to deep-dyed orange, they are all united in saying they don’t want this bill.

And the reason why they’re all united is that the bill, sort of, in effect, would amnesty all those over recent years who have committed crimes in connection with the Troubles. That’s putting it very simply, but that’s what it means. And, of course, Catholic nationalists in Ireland say, “We are not having that, because we had Bloody Sunday, we had Bloody Friday, we have had a long history over this last 25 years of violence, and no justice for the victims.” Now, at the same time, you know, if you’re a Protestant unionist in Northern Ireland, you can say, “Wait a minute. If we implement this, everybody who did every IRA atrocity,” as they would see it, “is now forgiven. So we have no recourse.” Now, that dissatisfies everybody.

And that lies behind the fact that the — and as I said a couple of minutes ago, there is a unity against this bill, sort of which, one, you could say is a shining light for Northern Ireland, everybody working together. That’s everybody working together to refuse the amnesty bill, which the Conservative government in London is absolutely insisting on imposing upon people. Very briefly, in a sentence, the reason why the Conservatives, of course, are imposing this is that the Conservatives do not want their own soldiers, their being guilty of atrocities in Northern Ireland, to be held to account, to be brought before a court, to be given the same treatment as the British government would like to give to “terrorists,” as they say it. So this is a — I mean, “Oh, what a tangled web we have woven,” as Shakespeare might put it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eamonn McCann, we want to thank you so much for being with us, journalist, writer, activist, in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Next up, it’s day five of the first faculty strike in Rutgers University’s 257-year history. We’ll speak with one of the professors on strike. Stay with us.

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