What I learned in Belfast

Of course the Northern Ireland conflict was unique. That doesn't mean it holds no lessons for other trouble spots
May 23, 2008
Click here to discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog

The tenth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement has produced plenty of self-congratulation about peace in Northern Ireland (NI), but it has also smoked out a critical analysis of the deal by people like Charles Moore, Dean Godson, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips and Max Hastings.

This right-wing critique, lightly caricatured, is that the Blair government sacrificed the moderate centre of NI politics and gave in to the demands of terrorists rather than defeating them militarily. The compromises necessary to make peace gave power to the two extremes. We would be better off with the moral clarity of the Troubles. Above all, they argue, the peace process in NI should not be seen as a model for peace talks elsewhere in the world.

This analysis is historically wrong. The Blair government, like all its predecessors, tried to build peace in NI from the centre with the moderate unionist party (the UUP) and the moderate nationalist party (the SDLP). But we were stymied by the refusal of the SDLP to move ahead without Sinn Féin (SF). John Hume had sold that pass in the late 1980s when he began his brave dialogue with Gerry Adams. From that moment on, it was likely the SDLP would go the way of the Redmondite nationalists in Ireland after 1916. When we repeatedly urged Hume and, later, Seamus Mallon to move ahead with the UUP and without SF, they simply could not do it.

It is also untrue to suggest we sacrificed David Trimble and the UUP to achieve peace. Blair backed Trimble long after the Northern Ireland office, most of Trimble's own party and the people of Northern Ireland had given up on him. When urged to sacrifice him—for example at the time of Stormont suspension in 2000—he refused.

Nor is it correct to suggest that the IRA got what it wanted by force. It wanted a united Ireland. What it has got is the ability to pursue that goal by political means. What the unionists got was the continued union; the removal of the Irish claim to the territory of NI; the acceptance by all parties, including SF, of the principle of consent, which means there can be no change in the status of NI without majority consent; and a devolved assembly—not to mention peace and prosperity. Any peace process must involve talking to those with guns. How else are you going to stop the killing if you don't think there is a purely military solution? As for suggesting that in some way we would be better off with the Troubles, it is all very well to say that from London; try telling that to the people of NI.

article body image

The right-wing critique does, however, raise two questions. Was it inevitable that an agreement in NI would involve the extremes? And are there any lessons to be derived from the process for other conflicts in the world?

On the first point, it is certainly not inevitable that the extremes win. True, it is easier to make compromises if you know you cannot be outflanked. The DUP found it easier to do the eventual deal than did Trimble, who was leading a divided party and under constant attack from the DUP. (Zapatero's PSOE has found it harder to deal with Eta than Aznar's Partido Popular partly because the PP constantly attacked the PSOE on the matter.) But the fact that the more extreme parties dominate their respective sides now does not mean they always will. Ian Paisley's departure from politics probably heralds a reconfiguration of unionism, and Trimble used to argue, persuasively, that sectarian parties in NI would eventually be replaced by more conventional conservative and social democratic groupings.

What about the wider lessons from NI? Of course the conflict in NI, like all conflicts, was sui generis: it was a struggle between two traditions for recognition and influence in a western country affecting only a few hundred thousand people. But the main lesson is a simple one: the past intractability of a conflict is no guide to the future. You have to keep trying.

The NI peace settlement was the result of long-term political and economic changes combined with the vital role of some key individuals. As the Celtic tiger emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, the priest-ridden, impoverished Eire that had served the unionists as a bogeyman for 50 years disappeared. Ireland no longer defined itself by reference to Britain but was comfortable in its new role in Europe. And there was a generational change in the IRA leadership. By the late 1980s, Adams and Martin McGuinness were well past fighting age. They saw another wave of young people being arrested and killed as part of a campaign that neither side could win, and they wanted a political way out. Fortunately, NI was well supplied with brave and able politicians on both sides, and in Ireland and Britain both Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair belonged to a generation less weighed down by the past.

But success was never inevitable. The process could have collapsed as late as March 2007. When Ian Paisley called me at half past midnight on 24th March demanding a two-month delay before establishing a devolved government, it seemed likely that SF and Dublin would reject the idea. In the end, by persuading them to agree to a televised meeting between Adams and Paisley, we managed to deliver an image so powerful for republicans that they swallowed the delay and the process was saved. There were hundreds of moments like that over ten years.

There are other, more specific lessons. You cannot reach peace unless the key actors accept that a military victory is impossible. In NI, the British army, after a disastrous start with Bloody Sunday and internment, soon realised that while it would not lose, it could not win. All it could do was contain the violence. And the IRA, after trying the short, sharp shock, the long campaign and the dual strategy of the Armalite and the ballot box, eventually came to realise it would not achieve Irish unity by violence. But in Sri Lanka, for example, both the government and the Tamil Tigers now believe they can win by military means. The danger in such circumstances is that the cycle of blood has to turn another full revolution before another generation grasps the futility of violence.

Peace is not an event but a process. You can achieve a breakthrough deal like the Good Friday agreement, but that counts for little if the parties do not apply themselves to implementing it. The ceasefire between Eta and the Spanish government in 2006, the agreement in Sri Lanka in 2002 and the Oslo accords for the middle east all looked promising, but in each case not enough people realised that it was just the start. The Israeli government made no effort to sell Oslo to its people, and the Palestinians soon lost faith. Shimon Peres was right about the conflict when he said: "the good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel." The problem in the middle east is not the outline of a final deal—that has been clear since Taba—but that there is no process allowing the two sides to get there and no trust allowing them to build such a process.

You have to keep the process moving. Once the violence starts again, as in Spain with Eta after the Madrid airport bomb in 2006, it is hard to get back on track. Blair has been much criticised for his messianic zeal in other areas of policy, but without his insistence that we keep the process going in NI, however bleak it looked—after the Omagh bomb in 1998, for instance, or the 2004 bank robbery—there would have been no chance of agreement. Sometimes it required the ability to absorb real political pain. The Conservatives pretended to maintain the bipartisanship we had offered in opposition, but actually tried to make our life and that of the UUP as difficult as possible. The concessions we made on the release of terrorist prisoners or the treatment of terrorists on the run outside Britain were painful, but necessary to keep the process going.

Of course, it is not just a matter of process. The legitimate grievances that had motivated the civil rights movement in NI had to be answered, and they were—thereby reducing the base of support for the IRA, if not removing it completely. And a process can become discredited if you are seen to pursue it whatever happens. The Good Friday agreement was necessarily based on ambiguity. The two sides were too far apart to get agreement on decommissioning, so it had to be phrased in such a way that both sides could project their desired interpretation on the text. The ambiguity that had been initially constructive became destructive over time. As the transition dragged on and the low-level violence and organised criminality continued, the agreement lost support among unionists. So we had to force the issue by driving the ambiguity out of the agreement. Blair made it clear in 2003 that republicans had to give up the dual strategy for good and opt for a purely political strategy. It was high-risk, and we could have lost them at that point, but ultimately it provided the catalyst for entering the endgame. (Most of the ten years of the NI negotiations were spent trying to overcome the blockage caused by the demand that the IRA decommission its weapons. Yet the issue would have been better left to the end of the peace process. After all, getting rid of gives no real assurance that terrorist activity will cease. The terrorists can easily acquire new weapons if they decide to go back to fighting.)

The NI process also benefited from having a strong facilitator in the shape of the British government. Of course the government was also a player in the game, but it had long since made clear that it had "no selfish strategic or economic interest" in NI. It just wanted an outcome that all sides could live with. And although neither unionists nor republicans and nationalists ever fully accepted it, its role from then on was neutral. But it ruled NI day to day, and the security forces and economy were under its control. It therefore had things to offer each side and the means to make things happen. There are few other such strong facilitators in the world (although the US government could put itself in that position in the middle east if it chose to do so). Sometimes it is useful to bring in an international facilitator. Some countries, such as India over Kashmir, expend huge effort in keeping outside influences away. But we welcomed international involvement in NI. The international component can offer one or both sides a reassurance that the approach is truly neutral.

A facilitator has not just to carry messages from one side to the other but to explain what they mean and suggest ways in which they can be interpreted or pushed further to meet the needs of the side receiving the message. Both sides will lose faith in the messenger if it becomes clear he has been freelancing or even lying. The role depends on trust, and the thing that most kept me awake at night was when I felt we had gone too far in making promises or could be seen as not totally straight.

The process would fall over when one side was unable to deliver what the other thought it had promised. When David Trimble was unable to deliver the UUP after the IRA act of decommissioning in late 2003, republicans gave up on him. When the IRA failed to begin decommissioning after the Mitchell agreement in 1999, the unionists pulled the house down. We too occasionally failed to deliver on our promises—over the treatment of terrorists on the run, for example—because we could not get them past the attorney general or parliament. We got away with it, but it was perceived broken promises like this that helped bring down the ceasefire understanding between the Spanish government and Eta in 2006. So, if at all possible, never promise more than you can deliver.

Deadlines can help. If we had not set the initial deadline of Easter 1998, both sides would have found it easier to keep on talking indefinitely rather than forcing their constituencies to face difficult decisions. But we began to lose credibility as we drove through more and more deadlines in 1999 and 2000 without anything happening. So if you set a deadline, you need to stick to it.

The one conclusion I have come to above all else in reading the official papers again and writing my account of the NI peace process is the importance of talking to your enemy. If we had not opened a channel to the IRA in the early 1970s, I do not know how the ceasefire could have been brought about. Although the channel was not used to negotiate anything serious from 1974 until 1993, its existence was crucial to the start of a peace process.

Of course, that does not mean you should concede to terrorists' demands in response to violence or the threat of violence. Nor is it essential that the terrorists be ready to negotiate or have coherent demands. You put a channel in place for the time when they see the futility of achieving their ends by violence. To argue that al Qaeda or the Taliban are different and that therefore you cannot talk to them is nonsense. Of course they are different, but terrorists are terrorists. What they do is evil, regardless of the cause. But you need to find a way to deal with them.

Click here to discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog