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Seeing Colombia's struggle to end 50-year conflict makes me realise how far we've come since dark days

By Denis Rooney

I have recently returned after spending a very interesting week in Colombia, sharing experiences about the peace process. One aspect of this trip which most surprised me was the realisation of just how far we have come in our own post-conflict journey.

I was invited to Colombia by the Irish government and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who were hosting the week's events. We met mainly with senior business leaders and politicians in Colombia's main cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali.

Although the Colombian conflict is different to our Troubles, particularly in scale, there are also many parallels and it became increasingly apparent during the week that Colombia can learn much from our peace process.

The Colombian conflict has been going on for more than 50 years, having begun in earnest with the formation of the FARC and ELN guerrilla armies in 1964. To date, an estimated 40,000 combatants and 177,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict and 25,000 are missing.

Several attempted peace deals have failed over the years, but the current talks in Havana, led by President Santos, are progressing well and are predicted to conclude in the near future with the outcome being put to the Colombian people in a referendum - just like the Good Friday Agreement was put to the people of Ireland.

The Colombians we met and spoke with had the same fears and concerns which I remember we had around the time of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

They are sceptical about the true intentions of the FARC and ELN, as well as about their own government's ability to deliver a viable peace process.

They are so conditioned by 50-plus years of conflict and false dawns that they are understandably cynical, but many of them can also see the prize which peace and stability could bring - particularly in economic terms.

The more we explained the nature of our journey and offered them encouragement, the more I began to appreciate just how much progress we have made in the last 18 years since the signing of our agreement.

It brought me back to the time around the Good Friday negotiations when we had similar feelings to those being experienced in Colombia at present. I was asked often if Northern Ireland was different 18 years on from our peace deal and when articulating the improvements in security atmosphere, levels of anxiety, economic opportunity and tourism that perhaps we have been underestimating our achievement. Our Colombian friends certainly praised our progress.

One of our key messages was how important it was to get the peace agreement across the line as, once you have secured an agreement and it has been endorsed by the majority of the people, then you have something tangible to defend against threats. The Good Friday Agreement, despite its imperfections, has endured against many threats.

We also cautioned patience, because, as we now well know, an agreement is the beginning of a new journey and there will inevitably be challenges and crises as the complex issues of delivering lasting peace unfold.

Just look how long it took us to achieve functioning local political institutions.

A vital aspect of our process is that, while we stalled, sometimes for dangerously long periods, we did not, however, step backwards and the original agreement has held firm long enough for us to value our new normality.

I remain impatient about the unresolved issues, such as marching, victims, peace walls and educational segregation and we mustn't weaken in our efforts to resolve them.

I realise now that it is time we gave ourselves a well-earned pat on the back for what we have achieved against all odds, which other conflict areas would love to emulate.

I think that the Colombians have a chance to learn from both our successes and mistakes and I will watch their journey with great interest.

  • Denis Rooney is a former chairman of the International Fund for Ireland and the Institute of Directors

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