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.