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Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy and Diplomats Reflect on 25 Years Since Good Friday Agreement

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United States Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy III spoke at a gathering Tuesday morning celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and its lasting impact on peace in Northern Ireland.

The celebration — held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate — brought together officials from the U.S., U.K., and Ireland to discuss the landmark peace deal, which ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland between the region’s Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists through the creation of a power-sharing agreement.

Tuesday’s event was co-hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; the Consulate General of Ireland, Boston; the British Consulate General, Boston; and the Northern Ireland Bureau with support from the U.K. government.

The Good Friday Agreement ultimately acknowledged Northern Ireland as a member of the United Kingdom, a recognition that could only be reversed by referendum, ending the brutal sectarian conflict known as “The Troubles.”

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“What do the next 25 years hold?” Kennedy asked in his keynote address.

“Children will grow up to unite behind a vision of building one of Europe’s most dynamic energetic economies across a sectarian class and political divisions that pull together and are not drawn apart,” he said to attendees.

The program also featured remarks from George J. Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader; U.S. Representative Richard E. Neal; Lord Johnathan M. Caine, the U.K.’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; and Darragh O’Brien, a member of Ireland’s Cabinet.

“I remember as someone who was not involved in politics in 1998 that morning of the agreement as if it was yesterday,” O’Brien said. “That led that forward for me — as someone who was always interested in politics — was to actually get involved in politics.”

Caine was pressed by Meghan L. O’Sullivan — the director of the Belfer Center who moderated the panel — on the potential role the U.K. would play if Northern Ireland opted to form a United Ireland.

“It’s entirely a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide,” Caine said.

“The current U.K. government’s view is that we believe the best future for Northern Ireland is as a part of a strong United Kingdom, but I fully accept other people will have a different view,” he added.

Mitchell, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the inaugural U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, was an active player in the negotiations towards the peace agreement in 1998.

“On the very first day of the negotiations, I said to the delegate that I did not come with an American peace plan,” Mitchell said. “If there is ever to be an agreement, it must be your agreement, and it was. The agreement was written and agreed by the elected representative of Northern Ireland.”

During Kennedy’s keynote address, he reflected on his Irish heritage and great-great grandparents, who arrived at the wharfs of Boston in 1848, after fleeing famine on a “coffin ship” for a better life in America.

“The young couple represented Ireland’s most precious resource and its most valuable export: its people,” Kennedy said.

“It’s a story of a family, a community pulling together rather than being drawn apart,” he added. “For no political, economic, or social advancement was possible for penniless immigrants without communities coming together to forge powerful coalitions that demanded change.”

While Northern Ireland has still experienced sporadic violence, as recently as this spring, Kennedy urged the room of assembled representatives to continue to heal and build upon the work started 25 years ago.

“There is no progress to be made by ignoring our past or living numb to its present,” Kennedy said.

“From Belfast to Boston, we can help build a society where the troubles of the past give the way to triumphs for tomorrow, where children can read about their history without reliving it,” he added.

Kennedy, who was appointed to his current post by President Joe Biden nine months ago, jokingly alluded to his unsuccessful 2020 Senate bid at the beginning of his remarks.

“I just have to say personally, there is no place I’d rather be than with all of you at the floor of the United States Senate,” said Kennedy, who lost in the primary to Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in 2020.

“One way or another we got there,” he added during the audience’s applause.

Correction: September 27, 2023

A previous version of this article misquoted Joe Kennedy III as saying “the young couple represented Nothern Ireland’s most precious resource.” In fact, Kennedy said “the young couple represented Ireland’s most precious resource.”

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at thomas.mete@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @thomasjmete.

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