Building Peace – Twenty Years On

The recent visit by Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, to Belfast served to highlight the status that the Northern Ireland peace process has among those working to end conflicts around the world, while the narrow rejection of the Colombian peace agreement in the referendum on October 2 evidenced the difficulties in bringing a sustained violent conflict to an end. The Colombian President cited the ‘perseverance and tenacity’ of those involved in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland in ending a long, persistent conflict.

Those of us who live and work in Northern Ireland are often ready to focus on the imperfections of the local process, but it is also important to acknowledge those areas where considerable progress has been made.

One of these is the virtual ending of paramilitary violence. It is true that a small number of people are still committed to ‘armed struggle’ and paramilitary groups remain firmly embedded in many working class communities. But the scale of paramilitary violence has been significantly reduced and paramilitary attacks on members of the ‘other’ community rarely if ever take place.

A second sign of progress is the presence of a relatively stable power sharing executive, which since May this year has moved into being an effective DUP-Sinn Fein coalition government plus a growing diversity of opposition parties. A third key aspect has been the transformation of policing from a heavily militarised, security oriented police force to a more publicly accountable and representative police service, and which has a high degree of public legitimacy.

The fourth element of the transformation process has been the positive work by a wide range of civil society organisations to build the peace from the bottom up, and who have continued to do this during many periods of political stalemate. A report published last week with a series of recommendations on conflict prevention for the next American president highlighted the importance of such grass roots peacebuilding work.

We should not take such achievements lightly. Peacebuilding is always challenging, slow, uneven and expensive. But while there has been significant progress, there is still much to be done. Paramilitary violence has been reduced, but the various organisational structures remain, and while some members of such groups are working positively for change, others remain involved in intimidation, harassment and crime.

Reaching agreement on dealing with the legacy of the past remains a challenge, but the recent resolution of the dispute over the Orange parade along the Crumlin Road has hopefully addressed the last major parading issue in Belfast. However, other significant issues such as reducing residential segregation and developing a more integrated education system remain as indicators of the persistence of sectarian divisions.

And although we are now twenty years into the peace process the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report noted that that it can take at least two generations, or forty years, for countries to recover from serious violent conflict.

Many of these issues will be explored in the Third Annual Winter School on Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation, which is being run by the Mitchell Institute at Queens University between 23 and 27 January 2017. The Winter School will bring together a mixture of speakers, including Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, PUP leader Billy Hutchinson, Victims’ Commissioner Judith Thompson, and activists such as Tommy McKearney and Bernadette McAliskey, to reflect on the process of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, to draw out lessons from the progress made to date as well as highlighting the challenges that are still to be addressed.

Twenty years ago people from Northern Ireland looked to South Africa for lessons to be learned from conflict transformation, it is important that we, in turn, are willing to share our experiences with those who seek to address conflicts in other countries.

Neil Jarman is a research fellow at the Mitchell Institute at Queens.

  • nilehenri

    november 1995 and the peelers had stopped obliging the crowds to pass through the metal detector arc that had been installed don royal avenue because of the sheer pressure of our numbers. in typical northern style we assured the ruc and american security services that we weren’t going to assassinate the president of the united states or his wife, nor indeed, anyone else up on that stage that night because this was our moment, we had fought hard for it and we weren’t going to screw it up. the mayor of belfast would do that for us later, spouting some right wing pseudo-religious babble so off the scale that a howl of boos was stirring, thankfully word ran through the crowd, “wise up! this is on international tv, you’re making a mouth out of us. and so the booing stopped. but the mayor’s message didn’t sink, it was out night not his. it was clinton, blair and the sf kids up there in the limelight that had made all this stop. them and us. working together.

    how did we get to that point? they, for the first time, actually asked us, and paid attention to our opinion. a generation that had had the misfortune to be born into the worst years of the troubles. something that was not of our doing and which we didn’t understand, we had our moment, the ball was ours, and we weren’t about to lose it back in the days when referendum wasn’t a dirty word.

    fast forward twenty years and here we have mrs clinton again. how things have changed for them. here we have mrs foster and her abuse of the petition of concern. our hope was that the politicians of her muster would re-educate and integrate their respective communities in the spirit of the agreement, but not with the frankenstein that is the dup, with their ‘no to everything’, their pride at being the eternal fly in the ointment. the gay cake might be stomach-able were it not for the pre-historic libel laws which this modernising party hasn’t lifted a finger to reform for example.

    third world public transport with prices that far outstrip those of the leading cities of a world. small dirty roads that lead into the catholic areas. if they were obtuse with the objective to preserve and of being conservative one might call it noble, but to stall and confuse for the mere sake of spite is illness. their job is precisely not to kick the political football down the street and infuriate the nationalist parties (and tarring anyone who dare to dissent with the same cynical inference) into a brain drain.

    there are no street signs in our beautiful national script, to delight and inform the tourists, a viable business opportunity. no peace park, instead we permit horrors to sprout up on every gable and street corner, some even funded buy the housing executive. no admissions of culpability whatsoever on the part of the english, indeed nowadays they don’t even pretend, yet make no official overtures to admit to the reality that the union (as we know it) is dead, but rater than remove it’s bloated corpse the powers that be leave it to poison whatever comes after. would that david and mo had lived and perhaps we’d be living in a very different north.

    stormont isn’t what we expected. the sinners fear was realised, we were gifted with a super council, when a pathway to a new governance was a necessary. how are we to address the past otherwise? under current situation, much to the relief of england’s international reputation it is impossible. in the psni we seem to have a right wing police force, boot camping it up in co antrim. why, back in the day, were the ruc allowed re-entry, yet An Garda Síochána weren’t asked in?

    coherent strategies for the future, reconciliation, a rational re-evaluation of the national question, a recognition and celebration of our history pre-1922, as we trudge forward these are some of the issues that we could focus on.

    and apologies for so (politically) hijacking your post, in a monet of retrospective madness i felt it important that the dissenter’s voice be heard.