Last year, the lobbyist, lawyer, and former Congressman from Connecticut Bruce Morrison and his family took their first vacation in Ireland despite a decades-long relationship with the Emerald Isle.
“Well, the roads didn’t get any better,” Morrison quips, as I’m sure many would agree, but it seems a small price to pay in return for the enormous political improvements made since his own first trip to Derry in the late 1980s, improvements he can take much of the credit for.
From a country torn apart by the violence of the Troubles, the influence of Bruce Morrison and his determination to end the “human rights struggle” in Northern Ireland has brought about a peace in the state that some feared would never be reached.
The UN recently declared Northern Ireland’s capital city Belfast as the second safest city in the world, just behind Tokyo, an almost unthinkable achievement for those who lived throughout the deaths of over 3,600 people, and without Morrison and other Irish Americans in the driving seat, it’s hard to see how it could have come about so soon.
His role in the Northern Ireland peace process has now been beautifully penned by his friend and fellow lawyer Penn Rhodeen in “Peacerunner: The True Story of how an ex-Congressman helped End the Centuries of War in Ireland,” drawing on Morrison’s unique experiences in Northern Ireland on the path towards the Good Friday Agreement.
In terms of the average American you’d expect to become so deeply involved with human rights issues in Northern Ireland, Bruce Morrison may not have come top of the list. He was not raised as Irish or Catholic.His grandfather was Scots-Irish from Co. Cavan, but his German American heritage on his mother’s side of the family was always the part of family history that was given more precedence.
This is not to say he was not interested, however. There was an engagement and an awareness of the country and its problems that especially came into play on the subject of human rights. Traveling all over the world to promote human rights as a Congressman it was this struggle in Northern Ireland that suddenly became most important to him.
Speaking to IrishCentral before the release of the book, Morrison said: “The unequal treatment and lack of open political process that had resulted in violence interested me,” noting that his previous success with the “Morrison” visas meant he’d already passed “a certain litmus test” with the Irish American and Irish community, earning him a respect that allowed him to become so involved in the process.
“Peacerunner” opens with the tale of then congressman's Morrison’s first trip to Ireland in August 1987, a tale that’s far from the average fawning over green fields, the Cliffs of Moher and the Guinness brewery.
Driving through Derry with Gerry O’Hara, an official from Sinn Féin, Morrison had been warned their car could be pulled over. Little did he expect the warning was really needed and that a gun would be pointed at his kneecaps as a result.
“It’s still vivid in my memory,” Morrison said. “It was something I was warned about and Gerry O'Hara said we might be stopped but I discounted what he said until it happened.”
“I had heard people saying they were harassed in Northern Ireland, more from nationalists and republicans, but I didn't know how to rate it [until then].”
Bad events like this came with the good in Northern Ireland, however, and this bizarre and unsettling first encounter with how things worked in the country was only the start for Morrison in a determined effort to involve the US in the peace process.
The next few years would see him as a major player in an Irish American delegation which featured billionaire Chuck Feeney, business leader Bill Flynn, Irish Voice publisher Niall O'Dowd who created the group, and union leader Joe Jameson.
Their aim was simple --to find a way to leverage American infleunce in Ireland. They were the first to engage President Clinton on the issue in a protracted manner and they shuttled back and forth to Belfast forging close links with paramilataries and politicians on both sides convincing them the US would take a major role if the violence could first be stoped.
They ended up as the intermediaries between the Repubican movement and the White House when communication was forbidden with Sinn Fein by the White House. As the official spokesman Morrison played a critical role, negotiating with Sinn Fein reassuring unionists that the US intent was not to have a winner or loser but to help with the peace process.
The group made the vital breaktrhough by winning the fight for a visa for Gerry Adams which was a key element in securing an IRA cesefire and the eventual peace process.
It was the end of a three year quest, but much work needed to be done.Morrison and the others endured frustration with British Prime Minister John Major at his reluctance to engage in all-party talks despite an IRA ceasefire; and eventually watch as George Mitchell, US economic envoy, oversaw the negotiations that would result in the Good Friday Agreement.
“The important thing is to understand your role and not feel competitive with the role of others,” he observes of the Good Friday negotiations.
“There’s no one person role in the world and people who make things happen in the world understand they need to share the work and share the stage. I was an active observer and shared perspective and when it was over I came [to Northern Ireland] and talked to people who ran the campaign [to pass the Agreement].
“I couldn't have kept up the pace that we were at from ‘93-’97/’98. It was an intense period of time and good things were happening. I don't miss that intensity but I was glad to be there.”
The trick for Morrison was always to talk to as many people involved as possible.
“One of the main things I learned was to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” he said.
“I always insisted on as broad a possible set of meetings and encounters and the habit in Irish America was only really to talk to the people you agreed with, whether it was [Gerry] Adams,or Adams and John Hume.
“It was certainly not loyalist paramilitaries.
“I needed to try my best to talk to both sides because when people feel you are just another American, it was easy to be immediately painted green [deemed a supporter of the republican movement alone] and forgotten.”
The voice of loyalists is something that is still missing from Northern Ireland politics if complete peace and democracy is ever to be achieved, Morrison believes, referring to the lack of political party that will speak on behalf of working class loyalist people.
“Republicans had a well developed political plan and they had embarked on a political project. The loyalists never managed that. The UUP and DUP had sucked all the politics out of the communities. They were expected to be the warriors, not the politicians, and this disadvantaged them,” he said.
“It's still true today and the communities that have been struggling the most with progress have been the loyalist communities, because they’ve been left behind and they don't know what happened to themselves.
“There’s high unemployment, high drug abuse and high dysfunctionality.”
Although some would question why the communities that had previously discriminated against Catholics are entitled to feel put out by progress, the former Congressman doesn’t believe that complete progress can be made without them.
“You can take that view if you want,” he argues, “but being attentive to the social advocacy for the working class needs of unionists is important for the long term health of Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland would be better for non-sectarian politics and it is still decidedly sectarian.”
As for last year’s stalemate in Stormont, Morrison emphasizes the good practices now being adopted by the political system and the proper attempts made by political parties to argue through a democratic process, praising the DUP for their in-out policy, a party that walked out of the Good Friday Agreement talks, abandoning the democratic process almost 20 years ago.
“You don't tell the political process what result to get, you give them a process, that’s the difference between peace and war,” he explains.
“The achievement is not that people agree on everything but that they agree to argue about them in a democratic progress. It’s finding a way that we can process these disagreements.”
An extract from “Peacerunner” by Penn Rhodeen will be featured on IrishCentral.com on Monday.
You can purchase the book and read the remarkable story of Bruce Morrison and the journey towards the Northern Ireland peace process here.