Ireland, America and lessons from historic Good Friday agreement

Religion can be a tool of peace or violence. Even in developed countries the belief system still matters. [iStockphoto]

Kenya boasts of giving the USA a president but the Irish have outdone us.

One Australian of Irish descent told me 26 of the 46 USA presidents have Irish blood. Irish is only second to German in USA heritage.  

About 34.5 million Americans claim Irish ancestry including our O’bama (get the joke?). Closer home, Irish influence is diluted by English.

We know Ireland for potatoes, golf and politics, more so the conflict that pitted Northern Ireland against Republic of Ireland. Peace was restored with a Good Friday agreement 25 years ago. It was brokered by an American president, Bill Clinton who also claims Irish heritage.

Joe Biden, with his Irish heritage, came to reinforce the gains of the Good Friday agreement. We cannot forget Ireland’s great writers such as James Joyce and poet WB Yeats.

The Irish tend to be Catholics but Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and Protestant. For the curious, the Republic of Ireland got its independence from UK only in 1922 and, like Mau Mau, violently. The English ruled Ireland for about 800 years, our colonial rule lasted only 68 years.

It seems blood is thicker than water, going by the interest Biden has shown in the Good Friday agreement which has been rattled by Brexit. Republic of Ireland is a member of European Union and shares a border with Northern Ireland which, like rest of UK, voted out of EU - the Brexit.

The trick is that there was no hard border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland as per the agreement. Hard means inspections and all the customs formalities. Brexit would return the hard border.

It was feared that Brexit would threaten the agreement and lead to a return to violence. Dialogue led by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (who has Kenyan ancestry) sorted out the issue and peace is likely to prevail in the Irelands.

Any lessons for us from the Good Friday agreement after 25 years?

One is the power of dialogue, sitting together and negotiating. That is what brought peace after years of sectarian violence between the protestant Northern Ireland and the republic.

Do you recall our national accord addressing the 2007-08 post-election violence?  The acceptance of dialogue has muted the opposition-led demonstrations that have rattled the economy.

Two, religion can be a tool of peace or violence. Even in developed countries the belief system still matters. Would the relationship between the two Irelands be different if they had the same religion?

Closer home, religion is playing a bigger role in public space when we thought it was declining. It is still an open question the consequences of that will be, both intended and unintended.  

Three, economic growth can bring peace and prosperity. You can see why the US has interest in peace in this Ireland beyond heritage. Data from EU shows that intra-EU trade accounts for 41 per cent of Ireland’s exports while outside the EU 30 per cent go to the United States and nine per cent to the United Kingdom.

In terms of imports, 38 per cent come from EU Member States while outside the EU 27 per cent come from the United Kingdom and 13 per cent from United States. Countries that trade together rarely fight. More so why integrating Somalia and DR Congo into EAC makes economic sense. Its another question if EAC is becoming too big.

Four, cultural influence can be a base for trade and diplomacy. The Irish community in USA is very influential. How influential is the Kenyan community in the US? Beyond O’bama, which other Kenyan has been that influential?

Nearer home, we have not been that culturally influential. Our movies, literature and music are not exported the Nigerian way. Are we are still forging our different tribes into a nation before fanning to the rest of the world?

The more lasting lesson is historic. Irish famine and resentment to British control led to Irish immigration to USA and Australia starting in the 1840s. Biden and other presidents are descended from such immigrants.

Five, with famine and other problems the Irish had new homes, USA, Australia and elsewhere. The English ran colonies and many English got new homes beyond the British Isles. Where do we run to with our current problems?

Colonialism is not viable anymore. And as crossing the Mediterranean has demonstrated, we are not welcome to Europe as the Irish in America. Maybe we should become pioneers in space exploration and find a habitable exoplanet and hope its “citizens” will be welcome just as we welcomed mzungu. 

Six, without immigrating like the Irish after the potato famine, we are stuck at home. Does that explain why politicians have such control over us, knowing too well we have no option? Even leaving your county for another is hard. What percentage of Kenyans own a passport?

We are too obsessed with local issues, missing global opportunities that are more rewarding both culturally and economically. When did you hear a hot discussion over East African Community, Africa free trade area or why China is now a countervailing force to the US, at least economically?

Finally, I am looking for an Irishman who lived briefly in my village, General Alexander Arbuthnot. Anyone who met him in Kenya?