By Patrick Markey
Northern Ireland is setting a new trend — in peace making.
The term Good Friday agreement has even entered into the negotiating lexicon of Colombian president Andres Pastrana.
Before Pastrana made his recent unprecedented flight into the jungle to meet with Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas, local newspapers reported that his new administration had mulled over Northern Ireland’s peace agreement. Could it perhaps provide some clues to solving that nation’s own bloody civil war?
Pastrana, it seems, is not alone. Experts in conflict resolution say that Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Spain’s Basque Country are among the regions now watching the unfolding of Northern Ireland’s peace process with a keen eye on what they might learn about their own internal problems.
Although the Good Friday agreement’s path has been strewn with obstacles, experts say within the text of its multiple deadlines and the secret talks, which brought two seemingly incompatible sides to the negotiating table, lie possible blueprints for solutions to other areas of civil strife.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
“Everyone is looking at the Good Friday agreement as a model and some people are actively trying to sell it as that,” said Roger MacGinty, a research officer at Ulster University’s Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity.
“But there is no such thing as a model for a peace process, just the constituent parts,” he said.
MacGinty and John Darby, also at INCORE, have just completed a study of comparative peace processes. The study, “Coming Out of Violence,” which will be published later this year, analyzes the “cascade effect” from the South African peace process into Northern Ireland’s negotiations and then onto other more recently brokered peace agreements.
The INCORE study examines 38 peace processes and illustrates a shift over the last ten years from international brokered peace deals toward internal settlements brokered by the parties themselves, they said.
“The very idea of a peace process has been influential. A number of regimes or governments are seeing a critical mass of peace processes and they are seeing it work elsewhere,” MacGinty said.
Colombia’s examination of Northern Ireland is just one example of how the Good Friday document has found its way into international conflict resolution.
The Andean nation’s ten-year conflict involves the government, two left-wing guerrilla groups — FARC and ELN — and a number of right-wing paramilitary factions. That conflict has left more than 30,000 dead and an additional one million people displaced. Recently those talks have faltered as the government struggles to negotiate a cease-fire.
While experts acknowledge each conflict is different, they say there is a trend now toward shared experience. And Northern Ireland is being seen as the most recent example of tentative success, especially as way to move beyond violence.
Taken in its constituent parts the Good Friday document can offer several lessons. It’s external commissions on policing and the justice system can help take contentious issues out of the political framework, allowing participants to focus on the negotiations.
It’s specific wording offers more guidance.
“We have redefined the conflict and allowed the two sides to sit down. All the main parties have changed unsustainable approaches to more sustainable ones,” MacGinty said.
“Whole terms and phrases have been taken from the Good Friday agreement, allowing negotiators to get around contentious issues. The phrase decommissioning did not come into being until 1995, and the terms ‘building a civil society’ and a ‘third way’ are now incorporated into the Basque process.”
In Spain, the separatist guerrillas ETA have been fighting for Basque independence for 30 years. That conflict has left nearly 1,000 dead. ETA declared a truce in September and it’s political wing have come under more pressure recently to press for a definitive end to violence. The Basques have long maintained strong contact with Sinn FTin.
“The Basques seem obsessed with the Irish model. They know everything about it and almost seem to reject anything else,” MacGinty said.
“The Basque nationalist parties – Herri Batisuna, who are linked with ETA, and the ruling PNV have tried to replicate the Hume-Adams dialogue and the construction of a pan-nationalist front. The idea is that if Basques present a united front to the Madrid government then their negotiating position will be strengthened,” he said.
Imposition of deadlines was also critical in Northern Ireland, as George Mitchell said recently. Deadlines concentrated negotiators minds, MacGinty said.
“That is why the window of opportunity created in the Basque negotiations has given way to pessimism because there has been no strict imposition of deadlines,” he said.
Behind the scenes
But it is perhaps the behind-the-scenes work and secret preparatory talks that others see as the important lessons of Northern Ireland.
Keith Fitzgerald, a researcher for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, was involved with George Mitchell in wording the text of the Good Friday Agreement. Fitzgerald formulated some of the sections relating to Northern Ireland’s policing.
“One of the things we do is design informal processes, or structure a parallel process. It takes away the commitment in what is kind of a facilitated joint brainstorming session.
“It’s form of non-negotiation. It allows both sides to see the possibilities that are out there and generate ideas that have potential and that could be implemented at a later stage,” Fitzgerald said.
Richard Rubenstein agrees.
A researcher at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in George Mason University in Virginia, Rubenstein said that base work was done ten years ago.
“In Northern Ireland, there were efforts by conflict resolution experts to bring the parties together to start discussion dating back to the 1970s and early 1980s. Some of the people who ended up in peace talks were veterans of those workshops,” he said.
The conflict resolution workshops in America were heavily analytical helping participants understand the underlying reasons for the conflict. Importantly, the Northern Ireland talks were inclusive.
“Nobody was excluded, the idea was not just to get the moderates on board who would vote for the agreement. Some people excluded themselves. In the early talks the IRA were not there but they were invited and even those who weren’t there were kept well informed,” he said.
During Northern Ireland talks, mediators didn’t come to the table with a peace plan in their pockets. They were willing to let both sides explain the situation to them and allow a solution to grow out of the discussion.
“This model works best where places have not already gone up in flames. Sri Lanka, Cyprus and other areas. Once total war has broken out, then they are harder to implement. Moldova and Macedonia are areas where such preventative work can be done. This is a major model for a whole new field in conflict resolution,” he said.
That process is yet to blossom in Sri Lanka, where both sides still view violence as a viable option. Since the early 1980s, the mainly Hindu minority have been battling through the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for a independence in the island’s north and away from Sri Lanka’s majority Sihanlese.
More than 57,000 have died in that conflict and recently the nation’s religious leaders offered to act as third party intermediaries to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, according to news reports.
“Once they move to the negotiating rules, the Mitchell principles could be very instructive,” INCORE’s Darby said.
As part of that process, one element that is not often mentioned is the role of the business community.
When a group of Sri Lankan negotiators arrived in Northern Ireland to study the peace process, MacGinty told them of the unofficial “G7” or the major business players in Northern Ireland who had pushed the politicians to stabilize the situation for the sake of area jobs and business. Now the Sri Lankans have involved their local chambers of commerce in the process, he said.
Despite positive signs, others are more skeptical that lessons learned in Belfast can be applied elsewhere.
Alex Schmid, a historian who teaches conflict resolution in Eurazamus University in Amsterdam is not as optimistic that the Northern Ireland example can be replicated in Sri Lanka or in the Middle East.
“All have their own features,” says Schmid, who is also with the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Washington.
In Northern Ireland, there was the so-called “ripeness of conflict,” the timing of the discussions and the change in government which could not be replicated elsewhere, he said.