Last Monday, I attended a talk given by Senator George Mitchell on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement was a peace brokered in 1998 between the competing political factions of catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland. During the talk Mitchell recounted various difficulties he encountered as a neutral third-party mediating the longstanding grievances of the various participants of The Troubles. According to him, the primary obstacle he faced was constantly having to petition everyone involved for patience and time. He and the other mediators simply wanted enough time, without another act of violence or retaliation, to find some path forward agreeable to all.
Once the peace was agreed to by all sides, it primarily fell on Mitchell to sell the agreement to the general voting public across Northern Ireland so that they may ratify it. The conflict in Northern Ireland had killed around 3,000 people and maimed about 50,000. An overwhelming number of families across the island had experienced some tangible grievance as a result.
When Mitchell approached these families, he found that they accepted most terms of the agreement except for one: the pardoning of past crimes and the freeing of political prisoners. For that provision, the agreement was intolerable to many. Mitchell says that he understood where these families stood, or at the very least understood the futility of asking them to forgive.
Despite these challenges, the agreement was ultimately ratified. I believe that the crucial ingredient in both forming the agreement and convincing people to vote for it was asking everyone involved to step out of the day-to-day demands of the conflict and to just stay suspended in place and time for a little while. Mitchell didn’t ask anyone to forgive, he simply asked that they stop fighting for just a little while longer.
The talk brought me back to a question I’ve had for a while now: how does one break a vicious cycle? It’s a question with inevitably many answers, but one thing I believe is that breaking a cycle sometimes means lengthening time. Rather than responding immediately to some seeming injustice or violation with action, one chooses to wait and observe instead. Not everyone is presented with the opportunity to choose inaction or even afford the choice of inaction, but for those who do have this choice lies within them a significant moral responsibility.
I have thought a lot about choosing inaction because aspects of making money, performing masculinity, or even performing “myself” have made me deeply uncomfortable. What are things that I could choose not to do in order to make the lives of my family, loved ones, and community more peaceful, non-violent, and fulfilling? I don’t know, but I hope to keep searching for answers.
The miracle of the Good Friday Agreement is just one of many things that reminds me that it is possible to transcend seemingly inescapable cycles, and that there may be ways to turn back corruption, violence, and exploitation through acts of refusal.