Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Conference September 2012



I want to thank the Chairman of the High Peace Council and his colleagues for inviting me to speak at this conference on International Peace Day in order that we might briefly share our experience of the peace process in Northern Ireland.  At the beginning of my remarks, I would like to make clear that we have not come to Afghanistan to tell you what you should do and how you should do it.  We do not offer a solution to the unique challenges that you face nor do we suggest that there is a template for peace in Afghanistan that has ‘Made in Northern Ireland’ stamped upon it.  Our journey to peace continues and although it has faltered at times, the process has been successful in taking us to places we never imagined possible.  Therefore, we do believe there are key lessons that can be drawn from our experience of peace building that may be of benefit to you as you continue your journey in the search for lasting peace and stability in this troubled land.

Ultimately, it is for the people of Afghanistan and their leaders to determine the future of this country.  We are here to support you in your quest for peace.  We do so with the benefit of having undertaken a similar journey; a journey marked by bloodshed and pain, but also with some healing and reconciliation.  Our approach to peace building is not based on textbooks or theories; it is built on the solid foundations of our own experience.  Sadly, my personal experience includes the loss of family members and comrades murdered by the IRA in the course of our conflict.  In some ways it might have been easier to live with the bitterness and hatred that I felt towards those who committed these crimes.  Yet, I came to a point in my life where I realised that bitterness and hatred destroys your own soul.  The quest for revenge does not bring peace, either inwardly or with others.   In order to make peace with yourself, you must also make peace with your enemy.

Negotiating your future with an enemy is perhaps the greatest challenge any political leader can face.  There is little or no trust on which to rely.  There is the pain of loss that can cloud the judgement.  Above all there is uncertainty.  Can your opponent deliver on his side?  Will your own people endorse what you have agreed?  It is about risk and vulnerability but above all it is about having the will to succeed and the determination to lead your people to a better place.  Where there is no vision, the people perish.  To survive, the people need leaders with a vision.

So what are the lessons that might be drawn from the Northern Ireland peace process?  There are many, but let me here summarise a few:

1.  Building peace is a process not an event.  Agreements can provide a breakthrough and are important landmarks in that process but they are often only the beginning rather than the end of peace building.

2.  There are no purely military solutions to armed conflicts or insurgencies that will guarantee peace and stability.  Security is only half the battle – there has to be a realisation on both sides that a military victory does not in itself bring a lasting peace.  The other half of the battle is in the arena of ideas – winning hearts and minds and countering the narrative that extremists use.  You have to provide ‘ a way out’ for the insurgent.  This is the most effective means of bringing hard line elements to the table.

3.  Inclusive dialogue that involves the representatives of armed groups is essential if peace is to be secured.  To achieve this, a clear set of ground rules for dialogue need to be agreed.  In Northern Ireland, we adopted the ‘Principles of democracy and non-violence’ as the foundation for dialogue and for the peace process.

4.  Political leadership is vital in building peace.  It requires courage in making necessary compromises, whilst balancing this with the capacity to bring your own people with you.  Few peace processes fail because the people lack a desire for peace; many fail because of a lack of leadership.

5.  There is a role for the International Community in facilitating and encouraging dialogue.  However, there is a fine line between facilitation and interference.  The indigenous parties to a conflict must be empowered to take ownership of the process.  Without this, there is a high risk of failure.

6.  Both sides in a negotiation have to ‘win’ to some extent.  The zero sum game of winners and losers rarely results in lasting stability.  The art of strong negotiation requires a negotiator to understand what his opponent needs from the process in order to carry their people with them every bit as much as what he requires for his own people.

7.  Perhaps the greatest challenge facing a leader is the negotiation that he must undertake with his own people.  This requires good communication and carefully managing expectations.   An effective communications plan is as important in winning peace as a strong negotiating strategy.

8.  There is no conflict in the world, however long lasting, however bloody, however entrenched, that cannot be resolved where there is the will and the leadership to resolve it.  With over 300 hundred years of a contested history and 30 years of intensive conflict, Northern Ireland is evidence of this.

I am sometimes asked ‘why did you negotiate our future with men who did terrible things to our people?’  My response is simple.  I did it for our children that they might live in peace and pursue their hopes and dreams free from the yoke of violence and sectarian hatred.  Because of what we have done, our children no longer look over their shoulder.  Their eyes are fixed on what lies ahead.   That does not mean we forget the dark past or the suffering that it brought to so many; however we do not live in the past but instead we are helping our young people to create a brighter future.

Leaders of Afghanistan, you carry the hopes and dreams of your children.  You do not walk alone.  We who have travelled our own difficult and painful journeys are willing to walk with you as you strive to reach that place where there is peace and where reconciliation becomes possible.  I pray the blessing of God upon your endeavours.


Remarks of Denis Haughey Former Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Former Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. Former Member of the European Union Committee of the Regions to the Peace Conference of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan Serena Hotel, Kabul, Saturday 22nd September 2012.

 Observations on the Irish Peace Process.”

Political uncertainty creates an opening for those who would argue that politics is a farce.  There are always those who will whisper in the ears of our young people that we cannot afford to wait for the cumbersome processes of democracy to bring about reform.  There are always those who will argue that physical force is the shortcut, and that a resolute armed assault on the citadels of power will produce the desired outcome.  That is what happened in Northern Ireland, and after three decades of grotesque violence, a major lesson that we all learned is that violence is no answer to political problems.  Indeed it makes those problems more complex and difficult to resolve, and brings a whole raft of new problems in its train.  It is vital that those who have the power to do so, should act to bring about peaceful accommodation, before situations deteriorate to this extent.

Thankfully, those in my country who espoused violence, and pushed us into violent conflict, eventually (and very belatedly,) reached the conclusion themselves, that their war was futile.  But for years they couldn’t be told — and they wouldn’t be told — that their entire bloody and murderous enterprise would end in tragic failure, leaving a trail of bloodshed and heartbreak, broken families and broken lives in its wake.  The violence which racked Northern Ireland for three decades left 3500 people dead, tens of thousands injured and scores of thousands bereaved.  Bear in mind that Northern Ireland has a population little more than half that of the city of Kabul. Untold numbers suffered loss of one kind or another,   and the long years of violence cost the whole of Ireland something close to £30 billion, simply in terms of economic damage.  No one should want to bring such an appalling outcome upon themselves and their country.  In fact we should all be motivated to do everything humanly possible to avoid the disintegration of political and social order, and the awful suffering which that entails.  Peace is priceless.  But that is not to say that they must have peace “at any price”.  There are certain basic principles of human rights, social justice and democracy which are so fundamental that they cannot be conceded in order to bring violence to an end.  If those basic principles are abandoned or surrendered, it will make further violence in the future inevitable.

In a settled society, with a well-functioning democratic structure, political representatives and political parties most often act as advocates or spokespersons for particular groups, or interests, or as proponents of causes and ideologies.  This need not be disruptive, where there is a generally accepted inclusive process, or framework, for producing democratic decisions.  Indeed, in such settled societies, consideration of the general good, commonly underpins much of the thinking of politicians and their parties.

In an unsettled society, where political structures do not work satisfactorily, and political processes do not command widespread and general agreement and respect, then a much greater burden of responsibility rests upon the shoulders of political representatives and political parties.  Of necessity they must raise their eyes above the level of party or sectional interests, and think above all in terms of the general good of the whole of society.  They must start to think outside the normal frameworks of partisan interests, and even to think the unthinkable.  And they must lead their supporters to do the same.  The major tasks facing politicians and political parties in these circumstances are:

(a) to analyse the nature and the causes of discontent or unrest in society;

(b) to devise political frameworks of accommodation and inclusion;

(c) to negotiate agreements on such frameworks, with other representatives and parties in a spirit of reconciliation, and compromise;

(d) to rally popular support for any agreements arrived at after negotiations.

There is also a vital role for civil society in the task of bringing about agreement on political processes and structures.  The universities, the trade unions, the business federations, and all the various social movements and organisations have a responsibility to create a climate of opinion which requires their political representatives to undertake this work as a matter of urgency.  This demands initiative, courage, enterprise and inventiveness.  It requires commitment on the part of the leaders, and indeed the ordinary members of civil society, for we are all citizens, and therefore we are all politicians with responsibilities to our community.  Above all, it requires patience and perseverance; peace processes are notoriously fraught with continuous setbacks and stalemates.  Those who commit themselves to the work of peace must overcome continuous disappointments and reverses, but continue to believe that peace is possible, and that there is no obstacle which cannot be overcome.

In Northern Ireland, civil and political society descended into violent chaos in the late Sixties.  My party, the SDLP, was founded in 1970 with the principal purpose of resolving the problems which had given rise to the disorder.  From the beginning we took the view that, in a divided society, where majorities and minorities are determined by non-political considerations such as ethnicity, religion, language or skin-colour, special arrangements needed to be made, to create an inclusive partnership of all the major elements of society in the process of government.  Furthermore, we roundly denounced violence and physical force as a means of bringing about change.  Over the decades we stood nose to nose with the advocates of violence — in the streets, in the polling stations, and in every social and political gathering — and we denounced their activities.  We called repeatedly upon them to end the killing and to accept the will of the people, who had made clear in election after election that they wanted no truck with violence.  We suffered grievously for our stand.  Many of my colleagues were murdered and many were seriously injured.  Many of us suffered grievous loss of one kind or another, physical assaults upon ourselves and our families, attacks on our property and threats to our friends and relatives.

However, we persisted in the knowledge that the vast majority of our citizens wanted peace and agreement, and that we had a responsibility to work for that outcome, regardless of danger or threat.  Eventually our persistence brought its reward.

In troubled societies, sometimes there comes a moment when opposing parties begin to rethink their positions at about the same time.  In South Africa for instance, the white minority government began to realise, in the late 1980s, that they could only hold on to power by destroying their country.  Simultaneously, the ANC were also coming to the conclusion that they could only gain power by destroying their country.   Thankfully the leaders on both sides recognised the importance of that moment, and negotiations began.

That moment came also for us, in Northern Ireland, in the late 1980s.  On the one hand the various paramilitary organisations were beginning to realise that the violence they were engaged in was not producing the desired political outcomes.  On the other hand, the British and Irish security forces and political establishments were coming to the conclusion that the “war” was stalemated, and that the complete eradication of violence by force was probably impossible, because it would involve unacceptable collateral damage to the general community.

We in the SDLP were quick to recognise at that time, that a window of opportunity existed which might not come again.  We opened a dialogue with the leadership of the IRA, and their political wing Sinn Fein, in 1988.  At the same time we began to develop contacts with the leadership of the other political parties and paramilitary groupings of the British/Unionist side of the community.  There followed a protracted period of “back-channel” and “second-track” diplomacy and negotiations, much of which was facilitated by friendly academics from a variety of “conflict studies” departments and institutes, in Irish, British and American universities.  Eventually, in the early Nineties, a formal process of talks began under the joint auspices of the British and Irish governments.

In those early days of talks and negotiations, we reached a number of general agreements which were crucial to the successful outcome of the peace process, and which may have some resonance for those who are working for peace in Afghanistan.

1.  We accepted that, in Northern Ireland circumstances, the British and Irish communities (and other smaller groups) had equal worth, and were entitled to equal esteem and respect.  In other words, we accepted that in any society difference is inevitable, and should be respected, and even cherished.

2.  Therefore we accepted that every significant party had to be involved in the peace negotiations, if we were to win general acceptance of any agreements made.  You don’t make peace with your friends — you don’t have to.  You make peace with your enemies — because you do have to.  You cannot make peace with your enemies if they are not at the table

3.  In the negotiations, everything had to be on the table.  We could not accept that any party, or group of parties, had the right to exclude any subject for discussion, otherwise partisan competition to shape the agenda by exclusions would lead to break down.

4.  We insisted that all parties to the negotiations had to abjure violence or threats of violence as a means of getting their own way. There had to be “no guns on the table, under the table or behind the door”.

5.  We determined that nothing was to be agreed until everything was agreed.  We accepted that there could be no partial solutions — that no party or group of parties could leave the table as soon as agreement was reached on the issues important to them, and seek to have those limited agreements implemented, before the issues important to other parties were resolved.  We agreed that no party, or parties, should be put in a position where they might be inhibited from compromising in pursuit of agreement, in case the other parties would seize upon those compromises as “ground gained”, and then refuse to compromise themselves.

6.  Finally we agreed that any agreement reached in the interparty talks would have to be put to the voters in a referendum for endorsement.  (In the circumstances of Afghanistan, where an efficient electoral system with a comprehensive and accurate national register of voters has not yet been fully established, very careful consideration will need to be given to the means of establishing the democratic legitimacy of any agreement reached, and any institutions established under it.)

I believe that these six basic understandings were crucial to the successful outcome of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.  Every country and every society is different and has different needs and requirements, but I would recommend these propositions to all who genuinely wish to create agreement and harmony in situations of political discord and social unrest.

That is not to say that these six understandings are easy to accept or to implement.  In the case of my party — the SDLP — it required that we shake hands, and sit down to negotiate, with people who had murdered party colleagues, and friends, and in some cases attacked and harmed ourselves and our families. Yet at the end of the negotiations we had formed friendships with many of these people.  Moreover, in the campaign to win support for the agreement we had negotiated, in the face of considerable opposition, those of us who had formerly been bitter opponents and even deadly enemies, had begun to think of ourselves as “we”, rather than “us and them”. It bore out the old truth — already stated — that you don’t make peace with your friends — you don’t have to;  you make peace with your enemies, because you do have to.

In the case of those parties of the British tradition in Northern Ireland, it required them to accept that majorities cannot simply impose their will upon society at large, but must seek the consent and agreement of minorities.  It required them to accept that “majority rule” is not, of itself, democracy, but simply a device for taking decisions.  In a thoroughly cohesive and settled society, “majority rule” is an acceptable democratic practice, because majorities shift and change; any citizen may find himself part of the majority on one issue, and part of the minority on another issue.  He or she may, therefore, be a winner on some matters, and a loser on others.  But in a society where majorities and minorities are stable, or unchanging, or where they are defined by non-political criteria, such as ethnicity, religion, language or skin-colour,  then “majority rule” means that the majority takes all decisions — frequently by majority decision within the “majority”, which may be a minority of society as a whole!  In such circumstances, majorities can become insensitive to, and even unaware of, the feelings and needs of minority groups.  This is not good for social and political cohesion, and will inevitably lead to conflict.

In this regard my party, in common with other Irish and British parties, learned a great deal from the experience of being part of the European Union.  The major countries in Europe accepted, from the formation of the European Common Market in 1956, that they could not impose their will upon the smaller countries, and that consensus was going to be needed for all major decisions.  As a consequence, a different kind of politics has developed within the framework of the European Union — the kind of politics where it is taken for granted that every effort must be made to find formulations that will win general consent.  I had personal experience of this approach in 1979, when I sat down in the Town Hall in Luxembourg, with representatives of all the other socialist parties in the European Union to draft a common manifesto for the direct elections to the European Parliament.  I represented one of the smallest parties in the Confederation of European Socialist Parties, yet when I indicated that this or that formulation was not acceptable to my party, it was immediately accepted by all the other parties — great and small — that it had to be changed.  This kind of consensus politics is hard work, and very time-consuming; and frequently it leads to slightly vague statements and policy fudges.  But it has the advantage of bringing all parties along, and making the strong and the powerful work ever harder to accommodate the small and weak.

Perhaps the most important lesson that we learned from all the long years of negotiation is that victories are not solutions.  It is sometimes possible for powerful groups and sectors of society to prevail, and impose their will upon the rest.  However, such outcomes seldom last, and often lead to social and political upheaval, or even worse.  The unfair peace imposed by the Allies upon Germany after the First World War, made the Second World War inevitable.  It is even more important, in situations of conflict, to win the peace, than it was to win the war.  Without reconciliation and agreement conflict will recur, and the and cost is often appalling.

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