Nobel questions

I hesitate just a moment before applauding the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the international negotiator Martti Ahtisaari. He flitted across our screens for trying to jump start decommissioning before going on to greater things. Nothing personal or ideological, just that as the headline says: “ Got conflict? Mr. Ahtisaari is your man.” He’s a professional negotiator and as such, he’s above the fray. If you’re not involved in the conflict, it’s pretty easy to transcend it. David Trimble’s comment on being awoken at 6 a.m. with the news of joint award with John Hume was a typical grump: “I hope this honour doesn’t prove to be premature.” But the risk of being premature is part of the point of the award, to encourage the recipients to keep going and to heighten the profile of the peace process concerned. That’s a risk the Nobel committee itself shares with the laureates; but it was one which in 1998 they managed to avoid:

“Mr. Adams was almost certainly on the list of 139 nominees, the most ever, because the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee today implied strongly that it had considered him for the prize but decided to limit it to Mr. Hume and Mr. Trimble.”
The Nobel committee is often accused of naivety and too much establishment thinking. Most winners fall into two main categories – big international groups doing good works, like the International Atomic Energy Authority and politicians on either side of conflict, Mandela and de Klerk, Arafat, and Rabin and Peres; Kissinger and the North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho. Not all of the prizes stand the test of time like Arafat and Kissinger. Among the most heartfelt were our other Nobel winners, the Peace People Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan. I followed them from that very moment of the movement’s genesis in 1976 when I inadvertently broke the news to Mairead that her little nephew had died. Here is a visionary account which captures some of the atmosphere of the time. The Community of the Peace People began in tragedy and launched in a great emotional surge. Huge public demonstrations were the biggest between the civil rights movement and the hunger strike. For a moment they had a real cross community character about them. But the movement petered out in sad anti-climax, because the it never did and never could acquire a convincing political ideology to surmount sectarianism and continuing conflict. A purely “peace” ideology was and remains too bland. The “ordinary people” concerned were buried under the weight of the Prize itself. It became more of a curse than a blessing. The politicians picked on the bones; some of them were still doing it a few years ago. “Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, reflecting on republican attitudes to the Peace People, said their good intentions were hijacked by the British government intent on an anti-republican peace.” Sinn Fein were no exception, they all did it.

Perhaps on reflection, the Nobel Prize is best left to professionals – even though without grass roots nominees, it’s much less well founded in public affection and esteem.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London