I hope one of President Biden’s stops in Ireland last week stands out for him. On Wednesday night, he visited the DeeHub youth empowerment center in Ardee, in the border county of Louth. There he came face-to-face with kids whose lives and community are still being transformed today by a vote Biden cast in the Senate nearly four decades ago.
The DeeHub offers a better future for at-risk youth, kids who would otherwise be targets for recruiting by sectarian gangs and paramilitaries. It’s part of a vast network of civil society initiatives that keep the peace and work daily to overcome generations of sectarian division. All of that work was made possible when a congressional vote in the 1980s set in motion a strategy that should inspire us to do the same for Israelis and Palestinians, whose peace talks in the 1990s did not have the same happy ending as Biden celebrated last week in Ireland.
It was August 13, 1986, when then-Senator Biden and Senate colleagues debated funding a brand-new international institution, the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) to invest in projects that furthered reconciliation on the island. It was a bipartisan effort to inject some hope, strength, and momentum to a peace process that had not yet really begun.
At the time, the conflict still raged; almost a third of its deaths lay ahead. The recent Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 had been rejected by both Unionist and Republican groups. It would take years of further diplomatic struggle – culminating in what mediator George Mitchell called “700 days of failure and one day of success” – before peace was really at hand.
In Washington that day, senators debated how much and how long to fund reconciliation in a far-off place that was still full of unrest (then-Senator Mitchell was there that day, too). Senator Kennedy predicted that US funding would not only “provide substantial encouragement” for peace to the people of Northern Ireland but would also recruit other countries to join the effort and multiply its reach.
The final speaker was Joe Biden. He spoke passionately about the deep Irish ties and commitment to peace of “many millions of Americans who hold the fate of Ireland close to their hearts.” The funding, he said, would “help resolve a situation that has cost so many lives, limbs, and livelihoods,” improving people’s lives and advancing reconciliation in a society shattered by a death toll he equated to “six times that of Vietnam” in US terms.
After Biden finished, the bill promptly passed, and the IFI soon came to life, setting in motion a force that would prove unstoppable on the long road to peace. The US indeed went on to fund the IFI for 38 years – and counting. As hoped, the impact multiplied as partners in the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and private industry quickly joined.
The stunning collective results were on display everywhere Biden went this week. The IFI directly and indirectly generated $2.4 billion of impact through more than 6,000 projects. An entire ecosystem – a steel web of civil society – sprang up. New and safe shared spaces, including community centers, youth programs, employment initiatives, and educational projects came to dot the landscape and heal communities.
This then helped catalyze something even bigger. After seeing the fruits of co-investing in the IFI, the European Union itself decided to multiple its investment ten times over. Starting in the mid-1990s, it added nearly $4 billion more in “EU PEACE Programs” to fund more than 22,000 additional projects over three decades.
What role did it play? All of this money enabled peacebuilding at scale, bringing the people to the table to cement the peace. U.K. Chief Negotiator Jonathan Powell called it “the great unsung hero of the peace process.” Prime Minister Tony Blair said it helped “set the context, laid the ground, [and] created the environments for the negotiation to succeed.”
When the Good Friday Agreement finally arrived in 1998, it could rest on a sturdy foundation. Civil society campaigns delivered overwhelming “yes” votes in the referendum. Over ten more years, the peace process cleared many more crucial hurdles: moving extremists to non-violence, decommissioning arms, and creating a new power-sharing framework. More recently, when Brexit revived real division and fear, that same steel web has kept violence at bay, with a rich civil society filling much of the vacuum left by politicians bickering and governing institutions faltering.
Today, this story gives hope to millions of people trapped by other seemingly-intractable conflicts, especially in the Middle East. It’s what inspired a campaign to create a similar fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, resulting in another important vote in Congress: passage in 2020 of the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA) with $250 million for social and economic peacebuilding in the Holy Land. It’s why UK Prime Minister Richie Sunak recently endorsed the UK joining such a fund and why interest grows in other capitals, as well, including repeated discussion at G7 summits.
In the Middle East, foresight like President Biden and his colleagues had in 1986 can’t come soon enough. In a few weeks, he will again travel to the G7, where world leaders will need something constructive to say or do about a spiraling Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If Joe Biden once again rises in support of an international fund to build generational reconciliation, the world once again would surely respond in kind, and his legacy as a peacemaker may be cemented in another conflict close to his heart. One can only hope that meeting those kids at the youth center in Ardee, County Louth will come to his mind, reminding him of just how powerful that strategy proved to be.