Tearing down walls: how those who are vehemently opposed can sometimes forge peace

Britain, the US and France are locked in stalemate – but history tells us common sense can and should prevail

The historic handshake between Prince Charles and former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, right, in Galway, Ireland, in 2015, the first time a leader of a political party with links to the Irish Republican Army had met a senior royal. Adam Gerrard / Reuters
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At a time of great division in the US in the 1960s, then president Lyndon Johnson asked Americans to unite to solve their problems. “Come let us reason together,” was one of his frequent pleas, a resonant phrase with its roots in the Bible. It was a sincere attempt but Johnson could not heal all the divisions after the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war, racial unrest and America’s so-called culture wars, which pitted traditionalists against progressives in fundamentally different ideas of national identity.

America is now divided again, only this time over Donald Trump's wall – a wall he said Mexico would pay for. Mexico won't. Neither will Congress. The result is the longest government shutdown in US history.

Meanwhile, Britain is also split, over its future post-Brexit, with no real vision of how to move forward. And France is so divided over the gilets jaunes protests that French President Emmanuel Macron last week launched Le Grand Debat, two months of public consultations held up and down the country to give them a chance to "reason together".

But let’s be optimistic. People who are vehemently opposed to one another can sometimes forge a kind of peace. It happened in 1997. That summer, I was moving furniture into a new house in London, covered in dust and grime, when the telephone rang. It was Ken Maginnis, a Unionist politician I had known in Northern Ireland. Ken had been a major in the British army, the Ulster Defence Regiment, which had been a target of deadly IRA terrorist attacks. He knew he was an assassination target and so what he said to me on the telephone was a total shock.

He told me he wanted to debate the future of Northern Ireland on television with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. Was I interested? For years – it seemed like centuries – Unionists like Mr Maginnis had refused to meet or even sit in the same TV studios as Sinn Fein representatives. But by 1997, the icebergs were melting. Within a few days, I was chairing a BBC debate between Mr Maginnis and Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein representative and former senior member of the IRA. There was heat and some light in this debate. Both men’s surnames are variations of the same family name and I joked that they must be brothers under the skin. They had the good grace to laugh but they argued strongly with each other, especially over the use of violence. Mr Maginnis demanded Mr McGuinness ensure the IRA handed over their guns.

Nothing was solved that night but the moment was nevertheless both symbolic and significant. Behind the scenes, the British governments of John Major and then Tony Blair had been working with the Irish government and the Clinton administration in Washington to bring together Protestants and Catholics,  Unionists and Republicans. The Maginnis-McGuinness double act was the start of a long series of face-to-face debates, often confrontational, which helped set the tone for what became the Good Friday Agreement and peace – an imperfect peace, but peace nevertheless – on the island of Ireland.

Fast forward two decades to 2019. Unlike the era of the IRA, political groups in Washington and Westminster are firing verbal salvos rather than real bullets at their opponents. But they are doing great damage to their parties, their governments and democracy itself. Mr Trump appears to be enjoying his government shutdown. After all, he is the beneficiary of nearly 40 years of Republican rhetoric that claims the US federal government is often the problem rather than the solution.

Ronald Reagan once joked that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help". But when I reported from Washington during the 1995 government shutdown, Americans who attacked big government often softened their tone once they no longer received their military veterans' pension cheques, were denied medical treatment or were unable to access state services. Yet in this shutdown, Mr Trump and Congress remain deadlocked.

In Britain, there is also political paralysis over Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn clearly loathe each other. Unlike Mr Maginnis and Mr McGuinness, they find convenient excuses not to talk seriously together. Instead they argue about "red lines" as if in a competition to see who can be the most unreasonable. Fortunately there are better people in both main parties seeking unity on the issues that matter. The British Parliament is full of intelligent, well-informed, decent MPs. At a rally last week in favour of a final referendum on any Brexit deal, I chatted to Conservative, Labour, SNP and Green MPs, all co-operating across party lines, all "reasoning together".

The tricky bit is how to turn goodwill into good deeds, especially since time is short. In one of her many serious political errors, Mrs May created a hard March 29 deadline for Brexit, setting a definite time limit without agreeing a clear destination. That self-inflicted deadline, known as Article 50, must be delayed or rescinded. Britain today is like a group of determined mountaineers setting off on a great expedition but without agreeing which mountain to climb. We need to reason together or we risk a serious fall. To do that, we need more time – and much, much more common sense.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter