Sustaining hope for peace: Global Conflict 2018 #GFA20
by Allan LEONARD
23 August 2018
In partnership with the University of Chicago and its Pearson Institute, Queen’s University Belfast hosted a two-day conference, “Global Conflict: The Human Impact”. This report recounts the first day’s events, which focussed on sharing learning from the peace processes in Northern Ireland and Colombia.
Professor Ian Greer, recently installed Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s, welcomed delegates with some explanatory remarks about the partnership between the two universities. This was followed complementarily by opening remarks by the President of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, who explained that conflict reflects deeply on the human condition, whether as simple abuses of power or with historical attributes of ethnicity and religion. In his view, as evidenced by this 20th anniversary and ongoing implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, “community relations remains a living and dynamic process”.
Professor Richard English said that he thought there was no better place to reflect on ending violent conflict than here in Northern Ireland. He added that the parallel 20th anniversary commemoration of the Omagh bomb reminds us that achieving peace at that time was not certain, and thus the victims of conflict need to be at the forefront of our thinking.
An unrelenting, heavy fog
The keynote speaker was Senator George Mitchell, who began his speech with reference to the US Bill of Rights’ declaration of liberty, whereby individuals shall be free from oppression of the state [a negative right], but is only meaningful, as Mitchell argued, if one is able to exercise liberty [a positive right]. How much liberty is there if you are just coping and surviving, which he related to one’s state of existence in a deeply divided society. Mitchell applied this to how he saw Northern Ireland’s conflict, which he described as “an unrelenting, heavy fog”.
Mitchell said that the real heros were the people of Northern Ireland, who supported their political leaders and endorsed their negotiation result in the 1998 referendum. After the audience applauded for a collection of some of these leaders present — David Trimble, Bertie Ahern, Monica McWilliams, Mark Durkan, Gary Donegan, Harold Good — the delegates bowed and prayed for the good health of John Hume, who Mitchell described as the architect and crucial figure in the peace process.
What lessons from his experience of the Northern Ireland peace process? Mitchell offered some basic principles.
First, there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended; they are created by humans and are ended by humans.
Second, the search for peace must go on, and never succumb to violence. This may require “an endless supply of patience and perseverance”.
Third, there needs to be a willingness to compromise. Leaders need to understand the other point of view and take risks for peace. But Mitchell acknowledged that this is a big ask, as many political leaders become so by avoiding risk.
Fourth, implementation is as important as reaching a peace deal.
Fifth, physical and psychological barriers matter. For Mitchell, Northern Ireland’s “peace wall” interfaces reminds him of those that he sees in America, South Africa, and the Middle East. He argued that where these reflect unemployment and violence, then despair becomes the “fuel for conflict”; for him, the Good Friday Agreement offers the possibility of economic prosperity.
Mitchell also referenced the Omagh bombing, with two stories of his meetings with Claire Gallagher (a 15-year-old who lost both her eyes) and Michael Monaghan (who lost his pregnant wife, mother-in-law, and an 18-month-old daughter), both survivors urging that the peace process must go on. “They represent the spirit of the people of Northern Ireland”, he said.
He added that knowing history is a good thing, “but being chained to the past is not”.
Mitchell concluded, “Northern Ireland today is unrecognisable to the Northern Ireland I came to 23 years ago. It is broadly peaceful … A large part of my heart and emotions are with the people of Northern Ireland.” The audience gave him a standing ovation.
Northern Ireland: Building peace with tea and hope
The first panel discussion was “Northern Ireland: How Peace was Built”, consisting of Bertie Ahern, Father Gary Donegan, Reverend Dr Harold Good, Professor Monica McWilliams, Lord David Trimble, and moderated by Yvette Shapiro.
Monica McWilliams described what made the peace process a success was the replacement of the politics of fear with the politics of hope. She credited the engagement of both British and Irish Governments as well as the use of diplomatic back channels. McWilliams said that the negotiation process would have benefitted from more facilitation and mediation services; for her part, she brought loyalists into her home, to learn from them.
Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, put it that a negotiation can succeed if those involved genuinely want to find a solution. As a personal example, he said, “People who were nice to me individually weren’t so when they were all together [in a negotiation room] — that’s life!”
Lord Trimble explained how the negotiation foundations laid by the two Governments were important in encouraging a greater likelihood of success, citing the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, the establishment of the Mitchell Principles (of exclusively democratic, non-violent means), and the 1996 Forum for Multi-Party Talks (establishing electoral mandates). “This process was carefully worked out … and prefigured what would be in the Good Friday Agreement,” Trimble argued.
Father Donegan applied a theme of hope, praising fellow panellists who “rose above their comfort zone. He reminded the audience of Ahern returning to the peace talks, early, from his mother’s wake, for the sake of hope:
“We want the peace here, inch by inch. We are not going to let those inches slip. We have hope.”
Reverend Good suggested that we are where we are because we realise we couldn’t exclude each other, and that we must continue to be inclusive, particularly in regards to working with victims and survivors. He explained that his work with others was to create a culture of understanding. Rather than lecturing and demanding, he applied “3 Ts” — talk, truth, and trust: “One leads to the other.” Good also added a fourth “T”: tea — “I don’t know how many gallons of tea I’ve made, but it was all important!”
Ahern warned of complacency in the current political stalemate, and the danger posed by those who are anxious to fill the vacuum.
“Implement, implement, implement!” was Good’s response. “We can implement words and paragraphs, but we need to implement the spirit of the Agreement,” he added.
McWilliams described the Good Friday Agreement as giving birth to something new, “but we dropped it almost like an orphan”, calling upon all to take that spirit of hope and move quickly.
McWilliams argued that Brexit has “unsettled all of us”, because the Agreement states that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would be consulted with the people of Northern Ireland, “and that didn’t happen”.
Here Trimble disagreed, citing the UK-wide mandate of the EU referendum and the decision being consistent with European law. But he added that the Northern Ireland Executive should be there to be part of the UK Government ministerial committees, as part of the withdrawal negotiating process.
Ahern was more blunt: the UK’s decision to withdraw form the EU is “the worst decision in UK history”. But he was calm about its effects on Northern Ireland peace: “Northern Ireland will carry on. Let’s leave Brexit aside and get back to dealing with Northern Ireland.”
Donegan was more concerned, speaking as the sole panellist who lived in a border area and recalling his experience of a mortar bomb blast near his home. He said that with the reintroduction of any border patrol/depot, “you give oxygen to the men of the shadows”.
“With Brexit, people talk economics; I talk life and death. There are perhaps 2,400 people alive today because of the Good Friday Agreement and good relations … Society has rejected the men of the shadows — they’re gangsters and you don’t give them oxygen,” Donegan implored.
Reverend Good concluded with a message of hope, describing the audience’s earlier responses (applauding statesmanship and demanding political resolution): “You’ve been speaking. We need more opportunities to speak and not be a silent people … We need to have conversations, but they’re just the start … This needs to translate to a new generation of hope. We need to excite them, because they will need to implement the Agreement.”
Colombia: Civilianising the conflict
In his introduction, Professor Jim Robinson explained how Sergio Jaramillo Caro persuaded President Álvaro Uribe that there was no pure military solution to the situation in Colombia. A policy of “national consolidation plan”, or civilianising the conflict, was implemented, as a tool for ending the conflict and changing Colombian society itself — what it is and what it can do.
The theme of Jaramillo’s speech was the relationship between peace and democracy. To him, Colombia and Northern Ireland are very different but share a common problem — both are conflicts within democracies.
He referenced the late Kofi Annan’s belief that a peace process itself can help advance democracy. But democracy itself created difficulties for peace. For example, a conflict may not be evenly distributed; those living in the centre (cities) may have difficulty appreciating what the conflict looks like in the periphery. Democracy also imposes a rule of law and accountability. Also, electoral politics can fossilise around the peace/security axis.
Jaramillo described how democratic norms challenged the Colombian peace process, in the following ways.
Democracy expects transparency, but in order to future proof trust, there were a series of secret talks just to agree six points for the roadmap of the peace process. This roadmap was then presented to the people of Colombia, so everyone would know the context and way forward.
Some elected representatives did not accept that the situation was a conflict (but just as a group committing illegal acts). This made the discussion of a post-conflict shared society very difficult. What helped was a consensus on a definition of a victim as someone who suffered under the armed conflict, regardless of by guerilla fighters, security forces, or paramilitaries. Acknowledging this meant acknowledging that there was a conflict. This, in turn, meant that the disarmament of FARC would be necessary but insufficient for conflict transformation; the aim of this peace process included aims to address root causes of the conflict and to have a longstanding peace. This included planning mechanisms to ensure post-agreement peacebuilding.
Dealing with justice and the past was another challenge. Jaramillo explained how Colombia’s adherence to various statutes assured the general public that there would be no general amnesty; neither the Government nor the Colombia people would support one anyway. “Most Colombians will know someone who has been affected by the conflict — 260,000 dead, 80,000 disappeared, 35,000 kidnapped, 6-8 million people displaced,” Jaramillo outlined.
Thus acknowledging suffering was part of the peace process directly. Jaramillo described how 60 victims (in five groups of twelve) were flown to Havana during the negotiations, where the FARC faced some of their victims for the first time.
A result was acceptance by all that the ordinary path of criminal justice would be insufficient. The peace agreement created new structures, including a reparations tribunal and truth commission, which incentivises the revelations of truth. A reason offered as to why the FARC agreed to participate in this scheme was because it applied to security forces and paramilitary groups also (but there is presently some delay on the latter).
As part of the peace process, it was agreed to hold a public referendum on the agreed deal, not to legitimise it (the plebiscite was non-binding), but to endorse it. The referendum was lost, by a slim difference, but the Government and FARC delegations returned to renegotiate. The fact that new President Uribe was not impressed with the successful renegotiation was not a surprise (as Uribe was unsupportive of the whole effort). For Jaramillo, it demonstrates the difference between the politics of peacemaking and using a peace process for “a political project”. “Post-agreement, the politics of fear won,” Jaramillo said.
Jaramillo finished by saying that the current political climate is making reconciliation more difficult, “but I still remain an optimist. Don’t forget that the peace process is bigger than all of us … Also, those [many thousands] participating in the current [post-agreement, peacebuilding] process are expecting continued peace and they won’t let the Government let them down.”
The path to peace
The second panel discussion of the day was “Colombia: The Path to Peace”, with participants Maria Teresa Ronderos and Sergio Jaramillo Caro, and Professor James Robinson as moderator.
Professor Robinson responded to Jaramillo’s speech by saying that he came to the conclusion that democracy was healthy for peace negotiations. Jaramillo agreed, but added that electoral politics can counter progress.
Ronderos remarked, “Northern Ireland gives me hope that you still have troubles after 20 years!” By this she meant that she recognised how long it takes to implement peace, including in Colombia where there have been some setbacks.
Ronderos spoke of how victims in Colombia have organised themselves well, across the divides, citing the example of the Madres de la Candelaria. She argued that it was important and useful that a psychiatrist wrote the terms of engagement with the new justice structures: “The truth has healed a lot of people,” said Ronderos, citing the 3,000-4,000 families who have found bodies of the disappeared.
Robinson asked Ronderos, author of the book, Recycled Wars, whether the Colombian conflict will be recycled. She replied that she hopes not, but this depended upon politicians solving the problems of ordinary people and not letting gangsters/bandits filling in the void. Carlos said that now there is no justification for political violence. Ronderos agreed, but warned that violence will turn political if it get rooted into the community.
This was reflecting in Professor English’s closing remarks, when he reviewed the day’s contributions, including the need to create new relations among former protagonists as well as the importance of sustaining confidence in peaceful possibilities.
Originally published at MrUlster.
I am a peace journalist, because I believe in transforming conflict-driven narratives. I am editor of Shared Future News, which reports on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. I am a co-founder and editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first fact-checking service, which works improve civic discourse. I also support the conflict resolution work of the Forum for Cities in Transition in Belfast.