Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

We don't have the template for world peace

What worked for Northern Ireland would simply not work for all conflicts, writes Henry McDonald

There are several constants of the Ulster summer: the endless rain; the annual riot at Brompton Park, Ardoyne on the Twelfth; the exodus of sun seekers and marching-season escapees heading for the Eastern Med and the Costas, and the arrival of foreign speakers at dreary summer schools and community cultural festivals telling us how wonderful we all are because of the peace process.

The latter has become one of the cliches of discourse about Northern Ireland ever since the cease-fires and certainly since the Good Friday Accord.

Politicians, academics, historians and general do-gooders arrive to impress their hosts by telling them how this place is a light unto nations, a shining example of conflict resolution.

And the media gladly swallow this line without the application of any critical thought or sceptical inquiry.

On the surface clearly what has been achieved in Northern Ireland is both remarkable and a source of some encouragement for those in other parts of the planet still locked in conflict. One-time mortal enemies now sit in a regional power sharing administration with one and other.

The 24/7 terrorism from 1969 to 1994(7) is no more. Parties once guided by all-or-nothing ideologies have moderated their stances and made painful compromises, on either side. And the people on each side of that historic divide appear by and large to like it. A "war" that one time seemed never ending has concluded without a decisive victory for one side and a devastating defeat for the other.

Of course all is not what it seems in the Northern Irish peace process idyll. There is a small band of recalcitrant republicans who keep alive the flame of "armed struggle". Their efficacy though in terms of the grim statistics of death and destruction is unimpressive compared to what went before.

In the last decade they have killed four or five people and failed to mount any serious offensive on what they regard as "enemy territory", namely England.

Every one of their murders or maimings represents a deep tragedy for those caught up in their violence but the anti-ceasefire republicans thus far have not been able to de-stabilise Northern Ireland.

None the less they still pose a threat to normalisation. This society remains the only one on these islands for instance where police officers have to be armed and armour-laden for their own protection.

In addition among the working class especially Belfast and Derry the promised prosperity from peace and power sharing has not trickled down to certain communities. Indeed the recession has the potential to create a new army of the discontented and alienated from which groups like the latest brand of the IRA could draw a well of support and recruits.

Finally, despite the laudable efforts of David Ford and the communities his department has been engaging with, there are still the glorious misnomer of the "peace walls" - one of the few growing industries of the post-ceasefire era.

Then there is the fallacy of the "good example", the idea that what worked over here can be grafted onto conflicts such as the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine tragedy. Anyone with a rational view of the world, as the Israeli author and peace campaigner Amoz Oz has constantly pointed out, already knows what the solution is over there: a two state solution with two countries living side by side with one another.

It sounds simple but unlike Northern Ireland it is coloured by much more complex forces ranging from wider power play in the region (the growing influence of the Iranian dictatorship for instance) and the messianic religious influence on the Jewish settlers in the West Bank alongside the increasing influence of extreme Sunni Islam among Palestinians.

After the cease-fires the UDA's political wing the Ulster Democratic Party borrowed an advertising slogan from British Telecom - "It's good to talk". Although the UDP barely registered on the electoral scale the phrase sort of summed up the philosophy of the early peace process, ie the need for all sides to talk to one another.

There is no doubt that talking both in private and in secret is a useful tool in starting the process of ending conflict. The more the Israelis and Palestinians talk the better. But it depends of course who you are talking to.

At present the view amongst Israelis is that there is no point to talking to say Hamas because the latter's ideology is unchanged.

As one pro-Oslo peace processor from Tel Aviv once remarked: "What are we going to talk to Hamas about? The colour of the flowers on our grave." Conversely there are many Palestinians who take a look at the ultra nationalist members of the current Israeli cabinet and equally (understandably) despair.

In the end it will be the exercise of American hard power, the bloody battles for Aleppo, the fate of the Assad dictatorship, the playing out of the Arab Spring and the possible isolation of Iran that will change the game (for better or worse) in the most contested region on earth rather than the model of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Dialogue and compromise are preferable always to hard power politics. But we have to stop kidding ourselves as well as others outside to do the same.

Our model worked for us... just about and we got lucky too given how close this society came to the edge over 35 years. It is not necessarily a template for others.

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