This coming Good Friday, the world will be observing a special anniversary. Twenty years ago, in 1998, the various parties involved in the Northern Ireland dispute signed a peace agreement to end the conflict.
It was not easy to negotiate this peace agreement. It involved years of careful, hard bargaining. The U.S. played a constructive role in this process and its involvement was critical to achieving a settlement. Because of our traditional “special relationship” with Great Britain and our large Irish-American population, we were seen as a fair-minded broker who could bring the various sides together.
The 20 years since the agreement have not all been smooth sailing. While the violence in the province is much lower than it was during the years of the “troubles,” there have been occasional incidents of politically motivated violence. And the distrust and suspicion between Catholic and Protestant communities continues to be deep enough that forming a compromise government is not easy.
Despite these difficulties, overall the peace settlement has held up, and the story of the Irish “troubles” and how they were finally resolved has some important lessons for modern American politics.
Unfortunately, for our nation in our current political environment, there are regular and reckless threats of violence. A Democratic state senator in Missouri said she hopes Trump is assassinated, and a Democratic congressmen from New York said that it may be necessary to use “second amendment methods” to stop what he sees as the abuses of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, in my home state of Kentucky, a Republican candidate for attorney general told an unfunny joke about wanting to shoot his opponent.
To date, with a few exceptions like the tragic shooting at a congressional baseball game in the summer of 2017, these threats have not resulted in actual violence. But they are worrisome nonetheless because one clear lesson that emerges from the Irish “troubles” is that once violence begins and there is blood on the ground, it is very hard to stop the violence.
In Northern Ireland, the first fatalities in the conflict occurred in 1969. Violence quickly escalated and by the end of 1972, more than 1,000 people had died, a staggering death toll in a province of only 1.5 million people. With that many people dead, virtually everyone knew someone who had been killed, which made the struggle personal and hence hard to compromise.
So, based on the Irish experience of 1969-1998, my advice to the sharply polarized U.S. political class is that you are playing with fire if you push this polarization to the point where violence begins. You may quickly find that the situation will escalate out of control and you are then going to face a long road back to peace. It is long past time for both sides of the aisle to return to the wisdom of the founders of our Republic who recognized that, far from being a dirty word, compromise is the only way to make a democratic society work.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.