Exporting the lessons learned from the Northern Ireland Peace Process

The journalist Mary Fitzgerald, writing in the Irish Times on 5th May 2012, asked the question ‘Could the Northern Ireland peace process help resolve divisions elsewhere?’.

She solicited views from a number of key players in conflict resolution on the transferability of the lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Here is an excerpt from her article:

Last week delegates from across the region covered by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gathered at Dublin Castle to examine the Northern Ireland peace process as a case study of possible relevance to conflict resolution efforts elsewhere.

“Ireland’s story is one of the impossible made possible; I hope it is one that will inspire those striving for peace beyond this island, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, told the conference.

Exporting the lessons learned in Northern Ireland has been one of the themes underpinning Ireland’s chairmanship of the OSCE this year. It has also featured in Department of Foreign Affairs strategy; a conflict resolution unit was established within the department in 2007.

In Northern Ireland, where key players in the peace process have supported similar efforts in other areas of conflict including the Basque country, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and the Middle East, the EU has allocated funding of almost €25 million towards the building of an international conflict resolution centre at the site of the former Maze prison.

The Irish Times asked five people with expertise relating to other regions experiencing or emerging from conflict what lessons, if any, can be transferred from the Northern Ireland example.

Prof Rory Miller, Director of Middle East and Mediterranean studies, King’s College London

As a specialist in external, including Irish, intervention in the Middle East, I have witnessed or participated in various discussions on the value of the Northern Ireland model across the region. Such discussions predate the Good Friday years. Since the 1920s the Irish precedent has been examined as a model for conflict resolution from Iraq to Palestine.

One can date the beginning of the “Talking to Terrorists” debate back to the late 1930s when the British government investigated whether there were any Palestinian Arab leaders with the “dynamic qualities” of Michael Collins and, if so, whether it should follow the Irish example and pursue a peace between “cabinet ministers and murderers”.

Historical curiosities aside, my experience tells me that the real lesson of the Northern Ireland model for the Middle East is that regional and external actors have an important role to play as intermediaries and guarantors but only if they are willing to abandon self-interested motives and harness their resources and political capital in the interests of peace.

The contemporary Middle East is much farther from this reality than Northern Ireland since the late 1990s and this makes it harder for the local parties to draw on constructive outside support.

Wilhelm Verwoerd, Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation

As a South African who has worked for more than 10 years at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Wicklow, I have mixed feelings about the sharing of lessons between conflict areas. I have seen the real comparative value of bringing survivors and former combatants from, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or South Africa to Ireland and especially Northern Ireland (and vice versa).

At a human level there is clearly lots of mutual learning potential – for example, around creative and destructive ways of dealing with the human impact of violent political conflict. However, these types of interactions require time, careful facilitation and humility.

As a former researcher within the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I have become very careful about how I share “TRC lessons”, especially in Northern Ireland. I’ve seen how easily a high-profile “success story” can be interpreted as a prescriptive model rather than a respectful mirror, as a “recipe” that invites resistance rather than helping people to see their own unique challenges more clearly and provide encouragement on their specific journey.

Looking at a rather ragged South African reconciliation process from the Wicklow hills, the one lesson that stands out for me is the importance of an extensive commitment to ongoing peace work at a community level.

Kate Fearon, Head of the International Civilian Office in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, and former policy adviser for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition

I’ve worked in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kosovo. In each place I’ve used things that I’ve learned from my time with the Northern Ireland peace process. Values such as equality and inclusion. Phrases such as “if you are part of the problem, you’re part of the solution” and “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Concepts such as “sufficient consensus” and “prepare your constituency for change”.

There’s no one-size-fits-all peace agreement. Mitrovica, where I work now, is a divided town, similar in that aspect to Derry. There is a total absence of rule of law, unemployment is at around 30 per cent and there is deep mistrust between Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs who live there.

One Mitrovica resident who went on a recent study visit to Belfast said: “It was an eye-opener. I could see how, on a practical level, you really could have two attitudes to the state accommodated on one level of functionality.”

Not everything is applicable all of the time, but most of it is, much of the time. The key is building relationships with the local community until they reach a point where they will take risks for peace, and trust in the bits of our story that make sense for them.

Michael Semple, Regional specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan, formerly with both the UN and EU. Fellow at the Carr centre for human rights at Harvard University’s Kennedy school of government

I remember the 1994 ceasefire vividly. I was in central Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war. It was also the start of the satellite TV era. I gathered the Afghans I was working with around footage of Hume and Adams talking about the ceasefire. I struggled to convince them that the Afghan conflict was no more complex and they might yet see a ceasefire.

Eighteen years later I work on understanding conflict and promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan. I find myself drawing on Irish parallels daily. For me the key insight from Irish peacemaking is the importance of political developments within the movements running the armed campaign. I often discuss the logic of violence with members of the Taliban movement. They are so convinced of the uniqueness of their cause that their eyes might glaze over if I tried to explain what happened in Ireland.

But I am convinced that insights into the Irish experience provide me with a useful guide on how to deal with conflict actors on the other side of the world.

Nuala O’Loan, Former Northern Ireland police ombudsman; Ireland’s former roving ambassador for conflict resolution and special envoy to Timor-Leste

Many initiatives developed during the course of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations are relevant to conflict elsewhere: the Mitchell principles, and processes for verification of decommissioning, are being used in Spain in attempts to resolve the ETA situation.

The Patten Report on policing, devised to enable the development of a police service that would win the confidence of all the people in Northern Ireland, was used by the UN mission to Timor-Leste when I was working there as special envoy for the Irish government, to help develop a modern police service with the popular support to take over from the UN policing units.

Principles of police accountability developed in Northern Ireland factored in attempts to encourage community support, and are of interest to other conflict zones. There were processes to bring ex-combatants into the labour market, and to care for security-force widows and orphans. Funding was provided for gender advisers to ensure equality measures in policy development. A major project involved women from Northern Ireland, Ireland, Liberia and Timor-Leste sharing experiences such as preventing violence by communicating across the peace walls, provision for victims of the conflict, and involving women as community workers and politicians to help rebuild the country.

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