Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Tragedy is opportunity for conflict resolution envoys

Peacemakers: David Trimble, John Hume and Bono at a concert to promote the Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement is a cure for which there is no known illness. Nowhere in its 11,000 words does it identify the problem which it purports to solve.

Its underpinning principles remain elusive and incapable of definition. Its template cannot be applied to conflicts generally, other than as a light-minded exercise in make-believe.

This hasn't prevented delegations from the north fanning out across the world, accepting plaudits for their singular success in bringing ease to their troubled land and, in return, sharing wise secrets gleaned in the course of their struggle for peace.

Likewise, emissaries from strife-torn faraway regions trek here in search of the elixir by which ancient enmities can be magicked away and amity ushered in. There was a major gathering of this sort in Dublin the weekend before last.

Delegates from the 56-member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assembled at Dublin Castle to examine the northern peace process "as a case study of possible relevance to conflict resolution efforts elsewhere".

Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore told delegates that, "Exporting the lessons learned in Northern Ireland has been one of the themes underpinning Ireland's chairmanship [of the OSCE] this year."

As ever with exports, the creation of jobs is of prime importance. Scanning the attendance sheets from Dublin Castle, it's clear that a gratifying number of reasonably well-paid positions has already been generated in the sector.

This success, and the jobs expansion to be expected with the establishment of the ICRC, may help tug persisting paramilitaries towards peace.

I recently treated a reputed member of the Real IRA whom I'd encountered in Derry to one of my moralistic tirades on the futility of armed republicanism past and present, to which he responded, "I am in training for a job in conflict-resolution", and wandered off, sniggering.

More seriously, last Saturday's Irish Times carried interviews with a number of managers of conflict-resolution operations attending the conference. Some of what some of them had to say was insightful. Much was decently-meant, unremarkable commonsense. And we were not deprived of a few soaring flights of sheer silliness.

One former policy adviser to a now-defunct Northern Ireland party explained that "in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kosovo, I've used things from my time with the NI peace process ... 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'."

You wouldn't know where to start. The approach encapsulated in the formula 'Nothing is agreed until ...' has been the stock-in-trade of union negotiations since, well, since the formation of trades unions. Even earlier, maybe. I suspect it was the basis for talks on piece-work rates on the Pyramids project.

And, yet, there are some who manage genuinely to believe that this was a brilliant wheeze dreamt up in their presence at Stormont in the early months of 1998, which they now carry around in their knapsack as they wander the world conferring contentment on Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, everywhere. How little they once knew, but how much more than they know now. The non-transferable nature of the north's peace process is clear from comparison with the conflict to which it is most commonly likened.

The problem in South Africa was white minority rule. The solution was black majority rule.

There might have been great difficulty and fractious disagreement about how to make the transition. It can be argued that, even now, the transition has not been satisfactorily made.

But nobody doubts that this was what the lengthy, messy, negotiations were about - how to make this transition. Here, apparently, the conflict wasn't about anything other than itself. But the conflict here did have specific features which help explain its resolution.

A solid, settled majority of the Catholic working class were against continuing a war for a united Ireland, particularly when the war seemed certain to involve violent conflict with their Protestant neighbours.

Meanwhile, a solid, settled majority of the Protestant working class had no stomach for a war to keep Catholics from sharing power. This isn't the whole story. But it's a vital element in the story, a distinctive feature which sheds light on the nature of our society and the meaning of our history. On the other hand, it doesn't make our story any the more exportable and is, therefore, largely ignored by the professional peace processors, who see blood erupting a continent away not as a tragedy unfolding, but as a career opportunity opening up for Northern Ireland conflict graduates like themselves.

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