Friday 22 February 2019

How Northern Ireland's peace process has given hope in conflict zones around the world

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the peace pact that became known as the Good Friday Agreement at Castle Buildings in Stormont, Belfast
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the peace pact that became known as the Good Friday Agreement at Castle Buildings in Stormont, Belfast

Mary Fitzgerald

Next Tuesday will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a document which - along with the negotiations that birthed it - continues to be a reference for peacemakers across the world. Every war is different, with its own unique rhythms and characteristics, but the story of how the Northern Ireland conflict was brought to an end after three decades remains inspiring far beyond this island.

Growing up in Cork, some key moments in the conflict pushed beyond the blur of news bulletins to lodge in my childhood memory - the tremble in Gordon Wilson's voice when he recalled his last conversation with his dying daughter Marie as they lay trapped in the rubble of the Enniskillen bombing; the grainy footage of loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone throwing grenades at mourners as he ran across Milltown cemetery during the funeral of three IRA members killed by the British army's SAS in Gibraltar; the image of Fr Alec Reid kneeling beside the bloodied, half-naked body of one of two British corporals killed at the subsequent funeral of one of those who died in Stone's attack.

Years later I moved to Belfast as an undergraduate where the history of the conflict formed part of my studies. The experience of living there as a student and later as a cub reporter covering the post-Good Friday Agreement news cycle - which still featured sectarian killings and paramilitary feuds - for local and international media was to lay the foundation for my work later reporting on societies either wracked by conflict or navigating fragile post-conflict situations.

I found the story of this island, its experience of colonialism, its struggle for independence and the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland, resonated with many I met in troubled parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe.

The Irish example, albeit sometimes based on a rather muddled reading of history, has been cited to me by figures ranging from Taliban commanders in Afghanistan to insurgents in Iraq; from ETA activists in the Basque country to Maoist guerrillas in India.

Peacemakers have, in turn, taken up the Northern Ireland peace process as a model to - if not follow to the letter given the particularities of every individual conflict - at least learn from. "What happened in Northern Ireland is one of the best examples of what Churchill said about it being better to jaw-jaw than war-war," a mediator in Africa once told me.

For Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief negotiator during the peace process, the experience was seminal. He has written extensively about how Northern Ireland taught him the importance of talking to all protagonists in a conflict, no matter how unsavoury. He has been criticised for going as far as advocating that approach when it comes to Isil. Powell recently worked on Libya, as Britain's special envoy to the country, but the two main factors that made the Good Friday Agreement possible - a recognition by armed actors that there was no military solution to the conflict plus the existence of leaders that could deliver their respective communities - are not yet present there.

I know of one person from Belfast who was key to knitting together cross-community projects in the 1990s who has met with Libyans keen to learn how grassroots reconciliation efforts were begun and continue in Northern Ireland today. I recall a mediator in another conflict in the Middle East telling me wistfully: "We are still looking for our own John Hume, Gerry Adams and David Trimble."

Exporting the lessons learned in Northern Ireland has featured in Department of Foreign Affairs strategy; a conflict resolution unit was established within Iveagh House in 2007, beginning with a project in Timor-Leste. Key players in the peace process have supported similar efforts in other areas of conflict including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of those, Fr Alec Reid, went on to mediate in the Basque conflict, helping to broker ETA's 2006 ceasefire.

Two years ago, then US president Barack Obama paid tribute to the Northern Ireland peace process and the lessons it offered the world.

"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. Having empathy and a sense of connection with people who are not like you," he said.

"This is a challenging time to do that because there is so much uncertainty in the world right now, 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 have to fight against, whether you're talking about Africa, or the Middle East, or Northern Ireland, or Burma."

Irish Independent

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