Lessons from Northern Ireland’s Peace

Twenty-five years ago, together with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, US President Bill Clinton and the leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main political parties, I put forward what became known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). That agreement ended a conflict that had spanned decades, perhaps centuries, resulting in thousands of deaths and untold misery and destruction.

The peace, like the political institutions the GFA gave rise to, was imperfect and weak, and remains so today. But compare Northern Ireland today with what it was a quarter of a century ago and you can really talk about a change. Peace has been maintained, the economy has doubled and Belfast, once covered in barbed wire and covered by military patrols, is now a booming European city with a booming tech sector and vibrant nightlife.

So there is reason to celebrate this anniversary with caution. It is difficult to think of another truly successful peace process in recent history.

Each conflict is unique

I am often asked if there are lessons to be learned from the GFA for conflict resolution elsewhere in the world. The reality is that every conflict is unique, differing in cause, duration, external support and many other factors. Still, there are some lessons to be learned.

First, peace cannot take root without an agreed framework that is ideologically held by both sides. For Northern Ireland, central to the GFA was the so-called principle of consent: if you wanted a united Ireland, you had to accept that the north would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority wanted it. Be. This was a major concession to Northern Irish Unionists.

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In response, the Unionists adopted a policy of equal and fair treatment of the nationalist predominantly Roman Catholic community, supported by new institutions in sectors such as the police and the judiciary, and recognized through the cooperation of the nationalist Republic of Ireland. Ireland’s desire for unity.

The frame alone is not enough

But the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian peace process, based on the so-called two-state solution, shows that a framework alone is not enough. Second, a peace process requires constant attention from those involved. The Agreed Framework is just the beginning. It’s a roadmap, not a destination.

Achieving peace takes time, patience, creativity and determination. Peace processes are a process, not an event. So, we have been working on implementation for years – nine in total – with many crises, setbacks and deadlocks. Any of these activities could have stopped if we had not continued.

External help

Third, negotiators should not be afraid to seek outside help. “Nobody understands our controversy like we do,” they say. That’s right, but sometimes not understanding the dispute as they do is the key to resolving it. Interventions by Clinton and US Senator George Mitchell and subsequent visit to Northern Ireland and President George W. Bush’s support for the process came at critical moments in securing financial and political support structures. The EU is also always looking for ways to help, and the EU’s flexibility in the recent Brexit-related turmoil in Northern Ireland is another good example of external help to overcome internal tensions. So don’t be afraid of outsiders; Take advantage of it.

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Of course, that requires a fourth component: exemplary leadership. Without it, peace would never have been achieved in Northern Ireland. Leaders must be willing to tell their followers uncomfortable truths, accept criticism, and endure cries of betrayal. Throughout the process, there were times when the easy course of action contradicted the right course of action. Fortunately, we had leaders—often at great personal cost—to choose the right path, not the easy way out.

to believe

Fifth, a successful process is possible if those involved trust each other. I always tell students that politics is personal; It’s a people thing. Because there are so many difficult issues to resolve, and each person’s politics can point in different, opposite directions, you need to have open, honest, and strategic conversations.

Is your partner having trouble with the process? See it from his point of view. Discuss it. Find a solution together. Friendship can be very difficult to achieve, but partnership is not.
Sixth, all parties must recognize that the conflict has led to deep mistrust. Creating a contract is not the same as developing trust. The first is formal. The latter is emotional. So recognize it. Finding ways to build trust is a very rewarding investment.

Never give up

Finally, never give up. People are very cynical about politics, mostly because they see little change in their daily lives. But back up for a moment. The spread of history is like an Impressionist painting: what appears faint near reveals itself at a distance.
In a span of 25 years, we can see that GFA has brought about real, profound changes. Many people living today are its beneficiaries. It doesn’t matter if they know it or think it. All that matters is that it’s over.

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Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is the Executive Director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

Ferdinand Woolridge

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