Peace in the North is now a global template for conflict resolution
Published 16/05/2016 | 02:30
The Good Friday Agreement turns 18 this year, its landmark birthday reminding me of how often I see the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process echo in other contexts. The simple act of talking to your enemies, of looking for and finding common ground that can eventually turn the guns silent, can never be underestimated.
I remember when the agreement was signed and voted on in 1998. I was a student in Belfast at the time. I recall the naysayers who pointed out flaws in the deal, the critics who said it would never work. Yet all these years on, the agreement holds. It still underpins Northern Ireland's fractious politics. And the process that birthed the agreement acts as a model that other conflict-torn countries can learn from.
During his recent visit to London, US President Barack Obama spoke at length about how the world can learn from the story of how peace was made - and is still maintained - in Northern Ireland.
"One of the things that you've seen in Northern Ireland that's most important is the very simple act of recognising the humanity of those on the other side of the argument," he said, "having empathy and a sense of connection with people who are not like you."
While this has taken time, Obama noted, it was increasingly evident among young people in Northern Ireland, who are engaging more with each other than previous generations had.
"It requires forging a new identity that is about being from Northern Ireland, as opposed to unionist or Sinn Féin, just deciding the country as a whole is more important than any particular faction or any particular flag," he added.
Obama took that lesson and applied it more widely to a world which, despite having grown smaller, due to technology and globalisation, is also witnessing the rise of ultra-nationalist tendencies bolstered by a creeping fear of difference.
"There is so much uncertainty in the world right now, because things are changing so fast, there's a temptation to forge identities, tribal identities, that give you a sense of certainty, a buffer against change. And that's something our young people, they have to fight against, whether you're talking about Africa or the Middle East, or Northern Ireland or Burma," Obama (pictured) told his audience in London.
"The forces that lead to the most violence and the most injustice typically spring out of people saying, 'I want to feel important by dividing the world into us and them. And them threatens me and so I've got to make sure that my tribe strikes out first'."
The battle against such a mindset and impulse must begin at a very young age, Obama argued, going on to cite non-denominational educational initiatives in Northern Ireland as an example.
"One of the most encouraging things in Northern Ireland is children starting to go to school together and having a sense that we're all in this together, as opposed to 'it's us against them'," he said.
During my career, I have reported from dozens of countries either mired in conflict or experiencing the pangs of moving beyond conflict. Time and again, the example of how Northern Ireland found peace has come to mind, very often because the people I have met in these places have raised it with me when they learned that I was Irish.
From ETA members in the Basque country to insurgents in Afghanistan, from Palestinians in the West Bank to Libyans trying to find a solution to their ongoing civil war, all knew something - even if in some cases the flimsiest details - of the Northern Ireland story.
I have just returned from a short trip to Libya, where a unity government - the fruit of almost two years of painstaking UN-mediated negotiations - is trying to take shape. The nascent administration faces enormous challenges, not least from the array of armed groups buttressing all sides of a civil war that erupted in 2014, three years after Gaddafi had been ousted in a popular uprising aided by a Nato-led military intervention.
The UN-brokered dialogue process to end Libya's war has a Northern Ireland connection in that the British special envoy to Libya, Jonathan Powell, was Tony Blair's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.
When Libya was tipping into civil war two years ago, I had conversations with key protagonists on all sides where they dismissed the idea of dialogue and insisted on a military solution.
Two years on, with many lives lost and much destruction caused, several bitter lessons have been learned. But not everyone has taken heed. A number of factions still believe they can prevail over their political opponents.
Sadly, true and lasting peace will elude Libya for some time yet.