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Remembering Syracuse Congressman's peace brokering amid Biden Ireland trip

A man walks by a row of military members standing at attention.
Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden reviews the troops as he meets with Irish President Michael Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain, the presidential residence, Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Dublin.

A Syracuse native and former congressmember can closely identify with the political and personal reasons behind President Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Jim Walsh played a key role in building the framework that led to the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago. He, like so many Central New Yorkers, also traces his family back to the republic.

WAER’s politics reporter Scott Willis spoke with Walsh about the significance of Biden’s trip, and the difficult negotiations of the 1990’s.

JIM WALSH: Biden, I believe is the fourth American president to visit Ireland. They make a big deal of it. They always take whoever it is, including President Obama, to a place where their family is originally from and President Obama had some relatives from Ireland. Joe Biden has relatives from Ireland. His family's from Mayo County up in the northern part of the Republic of Ireland where my family's from. So, it's a huge deal. And he visited Northern Ireland to celebrate the peace process and the Republic of Ireland just because we have mutual relationships, in trade and other in other aspects of foreign affairs with Ireland.

SCOTT WILLIS: The visit also marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. One of your legacies as Congressman was helping to build the foundation that led to the ratification, I think it's fair to say. Take us back 30 years ago or so, and tell us what were some of the challenges toward reaching this agreement?

JW: Well, the challenges were, were monumental. People in the north of Ireland had been fighting for 30 years. Thousands of people were killed, thousands more were injured. People no longer lived in common neighborhoods. They sort of walled themselves off into Unionist neighborhoods and Republican neighborhoods. It was not so much about religion. It was about national identity, whether you identify it as Irish or British. Certainly for my role I was I was fascinated by it. I had an opportunity now at the federal level to involve myself in it. One of the key things was to give Gerry Adams a visa to come to the United States to meet with political leaders, and with Ireland supporters. But he had been considered by our own government a terrorist up until that time, and so he could not get a visa to come here. So a group of us wrote to the President, then President Clinton, and asked him to allow for a visa for Adams, which he did, and it gave Clinton cover to do it.

Adams came over and had meetings and explained the the Sinn Fein position. And it gave him the stature that was required for him to negotiate. The IRA, Sinn Fein, Unionist British government had been negotiating privately for a long time, but it wasn't really moving. And I think the impetus was provided by the U.S. shining a bright light on the process and making people focus and getting the British to move from their positions. The Unionists from theirs in and the IRA from theirs.

I think we played a very significant role as a facilitator more than anything else. They had to make the deal. And it was a very complex deal. But I think our involvement, Senator George Mitchell's involvement, really crystallized the urgency of getting this peace agreement done. What I learned in this process, and it was fascinating, really. There were these private talks. What happened was the leaders of both the British government and the IRA realized that this was never going to be resolved militarily. And that had to happen. That that has not happened in the Middle East yet, between Israel and the Palestinians. It did happen in Ireland. And once the leadership realized that the military solution was off the table wasn't going to ever resolve it, they realized that there was only one other option and that was to get an agreement, to find a compromise.

What was really fascinating was, the hardcore folks were the last to come along. The moderates, John Hume at SDLP, David Trimble at Ulster Unionist Party, they were the moderates, and they were in agreement on the scope and the steps. Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, Mark McGinnis, and then Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist side, were the hardest to bring along, but they had their bases to bring along.

And again, what was fascinating was those leaders knew how far they could stretch themselves to make this compromise. We didn't know. We were constantly urging both the hardline Unionists, the hardline Republicans to compromise, to move to the middle. But they knew how far they could go, how far out they could get ahead of their base. Then the IRA has a history of splitting when someone some of the leadership of IRA or Sinn Fein, the political arm, was ready to compromise, there was a diehard group would always split off. They needed to bring as many people along as they could and Paisley with the DUP and the loyalist paramilitaries, they were the same way. They were going to fight until the end, even though they knew it couldn't be resolved. The leaders knew it couldn’t be resolved militarily. But the others didn't. So they had to come to that realization. And they did. And then the structure that was put in place with George Mitchell leading the discussions, was also fascinating to watch, because they actually got to a point where they were helping each other very subtly. I knew what was going on. Other people knew what was going on. But to the outside observer, Sinn Fein would say, well, we're giving up too much. Our people are really fighting us on this. And it would make the Unionists look like they were doing better negotiating so that their base would come along. And so little by little, they moved everybody, including their base, which was essential, to the middle point where they reached an agreement.

SW: So now 25 years later, has the agreement held up? What pressures might threaten it going forward?

JW: Well, it has held up. One of the essentials of this way back then was was weapons. And the IRA was never, ever, ever going to surrender to the Brits, ever. But in order to get the agreement, violence had to stop. And the language was essential. The language became putting weapons beyond use, basically, meaning that the guns would be destroyed, or buried, or filled up with concrete or whatever it was that they did, nobody really knows other than a few select observers. So once the weapons were put behind use, then then good faith was established. So that has held. There's no inner sectarian violence going on. Now, a lot of the paramilitaries have moved into crime, drug dealing this sort of thing. But as we know, in our own country, we have our own serious crime problems and violence problems. In a sense, they’re far less violent than the U.S. is right now. But the governmental structure that was put together, again, it's very complex, because in order to get agreement on legislation, the majority of the majority have to agree, and the majority of the minority have to agree on the legislation. So it's very difficult to get complicated, difficult decisions made.

At the same time, while progress was being made, United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, which put more stress on Northern Ireland, because Northern Ireland now had a border with Republic of Ireland, which was the European Union, and with the UK, which was, was what Northern Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom. So they had to figure out and finesse the border issue, because in the Good Friday Agreement, there was to be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And if they tried to reimpose that, it would have caused violence again, for sure. There's no question in my mind about that. So they've been working through this for about three or four years now trying to get an agreement on trade. And it looks like they have one now. But the DUP the Democratic Unionist Party, Ian Paisley's party, has walked away from the government until this is resolved, basically, to their satisfaction, which it may never be. So the government is not functioning right now. And so the civil servants are running the country, but they're doing a pretty good job. But the big decisions like health care and that sort of thing, or not being made. But in many respects, it's working. In some respects, it's not. But interestingly, a recent poll said that the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland still believe the Good Friday Agreement is the only way forward, which is very, very encouraging.

SW: What role does the U.S have going forward? I mean, besides having a president of Irish ancestry, or maybe members of Congress, like yourself who have a vested interest, how else can the US continue to keep the spotlight on the agreement and to ensure that it holds up?

JW: Well, U.S. has a pretty big footprint, globally. People, like us, fear us, respect us in any event. And so, we still have a lot to say. The United Kingdom, Great Britain, they need our trade. And, and when they left the European Union, they bragged that they were going to be the global Britain and they were going to have trade agreements with free trade agreements with the United States. We withheld any discussion of free trade agreements until they got this issue of trade in Northern Ireland, the Brexit agreement, now called the Windsor Protocol for Trade, until they get that resolved. The U.S. withheld any discussions on free trade, which was really a big stick. And it really helped to bring the British along. So we can play that role. And what's great for Northern Ireland is, under this agreement, they have basically a free trade with the Republic of Ireland, with the UK in the European Union. So it's a great place for American business to go and invest. So President Biden appointed Joe Kennedy III to be the new envoy for trade. And so we will continue to play a role in helping to improve the economy of Northern Ireland. When you have a strong economy, it's a lot easier to keep the peace than when you have chaos and high unemployment. So by encouraging them and helping them with their prosperity, we can further cement the peace.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at