Lessons from Peace in Northern Ireland

Twenty-five years ago, along with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, US President Bill Clinton and the leaders of Northern Ireland’s four major political parties, I introduced what became known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This agreement ended a conflict that for decades, perhaps centuries, had caused thousands of deaths and untold grief and destruction.

The peace, like the political institutions out of which the agreement arose, was flawed and fragile, and it remains so to this day. But compare Northern Ireland today to what it was a quarter of a century ago, and you can really talk about a transformation. The peace has been kept, the economy has doubled in size, and Belfast, once surrounded by barbed wire and covered with military patrols, is now a European boomtown with a thriving tech sector and vibrant nightlife.

So there is reason for cautious celebration on this anniversary. It is hard to think of another truly successful peace process in recent history.

Every struggle is unique

They are often asked if there are lessons to be learned from the global agreement on conflict resolution elsewhere in the world. The truth is that every conflict is unique and varies in cause, duration, external support, and many other factors. With that said, there are some lessons worth learning.

First, peace cannot take root without an agreed framework that both sides consider conceptually fair. In the case of Northern Ireland, the core of the GFA was the so-called consent principle: if you want a united Ireland, you must accept that the north should remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority there desires it. He is. This was a major concession to the Northern Irish Unionists.

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In return, the Unionists accepted the principle of equal and fair treatment of the predominantly Roman Catholic nationalist community, supported by new institutions in areas such as the police and the judiciary, and by recognizing, through cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, the Nationalists. Looking forward to the unity of Ireland.

The frame alone is not enough

But the dying Israeli-Palestinian peace process, based on the so-called two-state solution, shows that framework alone is not enough. Secondly, the peace process thus requires constant attention from the parties involved. The agreed framework is just the beginning. It is the roadmap, not the destination.

Achieving peace takes time, patience, creativity and determination. Peace operations are just that: a process, not an event. So we’ve been working on implementation for many years – nine in all – with many crises, setbacks and obstacles along the way. Any of this would have stopped the process had it not been for our persistence.

outside help

Third, negotiators should not be afraid to seek outside help. They say “no one understands our disagreement as well as we do.” This is true, but sometimes not understanding a conflict as well as they do is the key to resolving it. The interventions of Clinton and US Senator George Mitchell, the subsequent visit to Northern Ireland and President George W. Bush’s support for the operation came at crucial moments in securing the financial and political support structures. The EU has also always been looking for ways to help, and the EU’s resilience to the recent Brexit-related turmoil in Northern Ireland is another classic example of foreign aid to overcome domestic tensions. So don’t be afraid of strangers. Take advantage of it.

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Of course, this requires a fourth component: perfect leadership. Without it, peace in Northern Ireland would never have been possible. Leaders had to be willing to tell their supporters uncomfortable truths, accept criticism and endure cries of betrayal. There were times throughout the process when the easiest course of action conflicted with the right course of action. Fortunately, we’ve had leaders who are willing—often at great personal cost—to choose the right path, not the easiest one.

so i trust

Fifth, a successful operation is more likely if the participants trust each other. I always tell students that politics is personal; It’s a people thing. Because there are so many difficult issues to solve, because everyone’s politics can point in different, if not opposite directions, you need to be able to have open, honest, and strategic conversations.

Does your partner have a problem? Look at it from his point of view. Discuss that. Find a solution together. Friendship may be hard to achieve, but partnership is not.
Sixth, all parties must recognize that the conflict has given rise to the deepest mistrust. Making an agreement is not the same as developing trust. The first is official. The latter is sentimental. So admit it. Finding ways to build trust is an investment that will pay off more.

never give up

Finally, never give up. People are very pessimistic about politics, mostly because they see little change in their daily lives. But back off for a moment. The broad scope of history is like an Impressionist painting: what appears to be a blur up close reveals itself at a distance.
With a distance of 25 years, we can see that the GFA has brought about real and profound changes. Many of those living today are the beneficiaries of it. Whether they know or think about it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is done.

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Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is CEO of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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