Peacerunner! How An Unofficial Envoy Crafted An Improbable Reconciliation in Northern Ireland

Peacerunner by Penn Rhodeen

Will future generations remember how truly bad "the Troubles" were? This is a deceptively quaint name for a shocking, virulently hateful thirty-year cycle of terrorist attacks and reprisals that amounted to a slow-burning civil war between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Frustrated by an eternity of oppressive British policies, a new version of the Irish Republican Army emerged in the late 1960s to escalate the conflict over Northern Ireland into a total war that would kill thousands, maim tens of thousands, and pique such deep hatred between Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants that most people believed peace would never come to Belfast or Derry, or anywhere in the United Kingdom.

The Troubles lasted far too long, but the pessimists were eventually proved wrong in 1998. The miraculous fact that the people, paramilitary leaders and politicians of Northern Ireland and Ireland were able to come to terms and end the cycle of violence is the big story inside Peacerunner, Penn Rhodeen's exciting and informative book about the USA-led peace process that is now remembered as one of the greatest achievements of the Clinton presidency. As Rhodeen exuberantly points out in the moving final pages of this book, the peace agreement itself was a masterpiece, an object to be proud of, a new part of the legacy of Irish civilization in the world.

Peacerunner is an unusual history book for two reasons. It has a happy ending, and its hero is an everyman: Bruce Morrison, a former Connecticut congressman who had lost a bid for Governor and was looking for his next move in life. Bruce Morrison had not set out to change the world — but he had always nurtured ties to his Irish constituency, and he stumbled onto an intriguing opportunity in 1991 when he casually met with Niall O'Dowd, journalist and publisher of Irish Voice and Irish America, and heard from O'Dowd that the time might be ripe for a new attempt at a settlement between the violent parties fighting over Northern Ireland.

The governments of Ireland and Great Britain couldn't settle the terrible dispute by themselves, O'Dowd explained to Morrison, but there was serious interest in real change among the actual populations of Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the frustrated extremists on both sides. The IRA and the various Ulster paramilitary groups were exhausted by the endless violence, O'Dowd said, and American involvement could provide a badly needed bridge between the two sides. O'Dowd was interested in talking about Ireland with Bruce Morrison for one specific reason: Morrison happened to be an old Yale Law School college buddy of Bill Clinton, who was then running for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination and looking to present a bold positive platform for change. A new Irish peace initiative, O'Dowd and Morrison knew, would look great on Clinton's platform. "What about your classmate Bill Clinton?" O'Dowd asked Morrison.

This would turn out to be a key link in a chain that contained many tenuous links, as well as some dangerously illegal connections. Niall O'Dowd was a trusted associate of Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political organization aligned with the underground Irish Republican Army, which was outlawed by Great Britain as a terrorist organization. Gerry Adams was a politician and not known to be an IRA guerrilla — but Gerry Adams had a strong relationship with IRA's secret leadership, and had promised Niall O'Dowd that he could talk the IRA into a ceasefire if there were a new peace initiative offering the IRA some important concessions, such as realistic hope for an end to anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland.

These were the five links on the initial chain of communication that would lead seven years later to an actual peace settlement: The IRA would talk to Gerry Adams, who would talk to Niall O'Dowd, who would talk to Bruce Morrison, who would talk to Bill Clinton. As Clinton's candidacy veered happily towards electoral victory in 1992, the candidate took the opportunity to leverage his friend Bruce Morrison's hints that remarkable progress could be made in Northern Ireland into an appeal for Irish support. Once Clinton became President, it was left to Bruce Morrison to turn this small opening into a real program for change.

The new Clinton administration was not ready at first to implement controversial policy changes such as allowing Gerry Adams a US visa or appointing a peace envoy — mainly because Great Britain was not on board with an American peace plan. But Niall O'Dowd and Bruce Morrison had the gumption to realize that independent action was called for, and they travelled to Ireland, Northern Ireland and England as unofficial peace envoys (financed by private donations, and armed only with subtle suggestions of their ties to the new USA president). These meetings turned out to be a tremendous success. The tenuous chain of communication that linked President Clinton to IRA leadership through three degrees of separation became even longer and more tenuous when Morrison's group met with a shadowy group of hard-bitten Ulster loyalists — the IRA's sworn enemies, and their equals in tolerance for violence.

Unlike Morrison's group's meetings with Sinn Fein, these talks were kept far from public view, but they were critical to the peace movement's success. Penn Rhodeen's moving description of the group's secret first meeting with Ulster loyalists stands out as one of the most vivid moments in this important book:

As the door opened, the first sight—"emblazoned in my memory", Morrison says—was of an older gentleman in a tweed jacket smoking a large, curved-step pipe of the sort favored by Sherlock Holmes and Santa Claus. He looked more like a kindly professor emeritus than a murderous paramilitary soldier. This was Gusty Spence, a UVF leader who had been convicted of murder years earlier. During the time he'd spent imprisoned for a crime he denied committing, Spence started to think that a political path might be preferable to the violent one the paramilitaries had so far taken.

Two other loyalists in the room had also served long sentences: Billy Hutchinson, who had been convicted of murder, and David Ervine, who had been caught in a car loaded with explosives, likely on its way to its intended target. Hutchinson and Ervine got to know Spence in prison and had been strongly influenced by his evolving views, which, ironically, had been influenced by those of an IRA member serving his own sentence for murder ...

What struck Morrison as he listened to the UVF men was how their grievances sounded just like those of the republicans ... More than anything, Morrison and his companions heard the pain and uncertainty of human beings faced with massive changes that were completely beyond their control.

As Peacerunner's action moves steadily from first steps towards ceasefire and settlement, we see at several points how the deft psychological perception of Bruce Morrison and his small gang of unofficial envoys turns out to be an essential building block for peace. Both sides want to be heard; both sides need to be heard. Because this peace initiative was unofficial, the self-appointed amateur diplomats could break down more barriers than an official envoy group ever could. It may be only because these envoys could meet directly with non grata terrorists from Ulster that they were able to cement the basic level of trust required to bring the deal full circle to completion, as they eventually did.

Peacerunner provides an anatomy of a long peace process: a success model, complete with plenty of dead ends, setbacks and periods of inaction. Sadly and discouragingly, even though the initial ceasefire arranged by Gerry Adams as a demonstration of Ireland's willingness to make peace was matched by a similar ceasefire from Ulster loyalists, the British government was not responsive to the opportunity for change, and a few more improvised explosive devices killed many more innocent people even as the American-led peace process stepped slowly towards its goal. Rhodeen suggests that British Prime Minister John Major had to be defeated by Tony Blair in a 1997 election before the deal could finally move ahead. It's not clear whether or not some final IRA bomb attacks helped to encourage the eventual peace agreement, and if so that's a despicable truth. It is clear, though, that things have gotten a whole lot better in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain since 1998.

Today, we are so accustomed to Ireland at peace that we risk forgetting how much damage the "Troubles" caused, not only to precious lives but also to the whole social fabric of the British Isles. We risk losing awareness of the importance of the incredibly hard work and visionary courage shown by individual actors such as Gerry Adams, Niall O'Dowd and Bruce Morrison during the years when Irish peace seemed like an impossible dream. It's amazing to read Peacerunner and realize that IRA and UVF terrorists once seemed as intractable and evil as ISIL terrorists appear to us today. Who remembers that twenty years ago U2's song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" couldn't be played on a jukebox in a bar without starting a fight?

The 1998 peace settlement was a masterpiece, indeed. Peacerunner is not only a gripping read (it could make a great movie) but also a guidebook for anyone who sees an opportunity for an unlikely peace in any troubled area of the world. Peacemakers fight big odds, and they probably fail much more often than they succeed. That's why Peacerunner is an important book: it reminds us who the true heroes among us are, and how quickly a bad situation can change when a few well-meaning people do their best to make it better.

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