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Colombia has Good Friday Agreement moment of its own

Electorate's No to Farc peace plan echoes our own 1998 deal

By Henry McDonald

Published 05/10/2016

Columbians narrowly voted down a peace deal between the government and Farc guerillas
Columbians narrowly voted down a peace deal between the government and Farc guerillas

Just last month, this writer sat down to lunch with a Colombian journalist at the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast to discuss parallels between her country's peace process and our own. The most striking thing to come out of our chat - which also included contributions from UTV's Ken Reid and the BBC's Mark Devenport - was focused more on the differences, rather than the similarities, between the two conflicts and how they are going to end.

The two key things, we three journalists suggested, was that the best allies all sides in the Colombian conflict had were time and patience. Clearly, the Colombians are going to need plenty of the former after its electorate appeared to reject a peace deal between the present government in Bogota and the narco-terrorist Marxist guerrilla movement Farc, whom readers of this newspaper will be familiar with in terms of the 'Three Irish Amigos' caught in the Colombian jungle a few years ago.

Many on what was the "No" side of the argument in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum might draw the conclusion that the Colombians are somehow "more moral", or "more principled", than sections of the Northern Ireland electorate when it comes to morally dubious compromises with armed, illegal paramilitary organisations.

One of the main reasons why the pro-Agreement coalition - but, in particular, that segment of unionism led by David Trimble - could have lost the 1998 referendum was due to the neuralgic issue of early prisoner releases.

The prospect of unrepentant killers, bombers and kneecappers walking out early from the Maze prison and, indeed, the sight of murderers like Michael Stone, or the IRA's Balcombe Street gang, being lauded as heroes at set-piece events in the run-up to the plebiscite was too much for tens of thousands of voters.

Many voted "No" during the referendum and many more who voted "Yes" later regretted doing so, as the turnstiles continuously clicked at the Maze gates and the early-released swaggered into the car park.

Yet the picture regarding outrage over paramilitary releases in Northern Ireland - the same issue that dogged the Colombian peace process referendum - is much more morally complex than on surface level.

For a start, the pain experienced by victims of paramilitary violence was not one-sided. Those released included sectarian killers from the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. It is worth restating again and again that the Catholic community, which bore the brunt of the UVF and UDA armed campaigns, swallowed very hard during the Agreement negotiations, the referendum campaign and its aftermath.

They, too, watched, just as the unionist community did, as the killers of their loved ones walked out of prison early - sometimes after serving piteously short sentences for their crimes.

Those who put up with this pain, but voted "Yes" on May 22, 1998 are as equally moral as those who backed a "No" vote. Moreover, even within the Catholic/nationalist community there were those who voted "Yes" and yet had to observe IRA and INLA members responsible for the deaths and injuries inflicted on their relatives, family and friends walk free.

They, too, saw the bigger picture and the necessity of bringing armed groups into the light of democratic politics and out of the darkness of the armed struggle cul de sac.

The "armed struggle" of the Farc has cost infinitely more deaths compared to what all paramilitary groups were responsible for in Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is why the Colombian electorate appears (stress the word "appears", as there is now some doubt about the result) to have rejected the peace plan between the state and Farc.

Of course, the casualties in Colombia were not one-sided - especially given the ferocity and brutality of the state's response to the insurgency, combined with the atrocities committed by the Right-wing paramilitary forces opposed to Farc.

Throw into the mix the other Leftist guerrilla groups, like M-19, and the role of Pablo Escobar and the other narco gangs, and clearly no one is innocent in the Latin American multifaceted civil war.

You cannot start to compare the conflict/peace process of Colombia and our own. One of the follies of the Irish peace process over the last three decades has been the fallacy of the good example; where what has worked in Northern Ireland is always necessarily going to be grated onto other troubled parts of the world.

The uneasy, ethnically carved-up peace in the Balkans today was imposed by the threat of more F-15 and F-16 airstrikes on Bosnian Serb military targets.

Sarajevo was, in part, saved from complete destruction by that deterrent. Sadly - no, tragically - Sri Lanka's blood-soaked war ended with the victory of one side over the other - ie the triumph of the Colombo/Singhalese government over the Tamil Tigers in the north/north-east of the country.

There is relative quiet (well, at least for now) in the Basque country today, because, militarily, Eta has been severely weakened - especially by cross-border co-operation between the Spanish and French states. Other conflicts, from Israel-Palestine to the meat-grinder that is Syria, remain insoluble.

To ask if the Colombian people were more moralistic in their thinking compared to ourselves back in May 1998 is to pose the wrong question. Every conflict is caused by wholly different circumstances and their resolution often requires radically different measures.

Colombia is probably a more soluble conflict compared to the theatres of war in the Middle East at present. With time and patience, it is possible to see another peace deal pieced together from the wreckage of this one. Think of Seamus Mallon's legendary line about the Good Friday Agreement being "Sunningdale for slow learners".

Eventually, the Colombians - just like we did 24 years on from the first power-sharing arrangement - might come around to the same deal that will permanently end armed insurrection in their country.

Of course, the only trouble with all of that is that, in Colombia, you have the added factor of the so-called "war on drugs" and the ever-dominant influence of the cocoa leaf on its politics and public policy.

To cast off that shadow requires something even more radical than bringing in Farc guerrillas from the cold: it's called the decriminalisation and ultimately legalisation of drugs.

Belfast Telegraph

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