Some useful lessons from the Northern Ireland process

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Today, we all can feel good about Northern Ireland. Protestants and Catholics–Unionists and Republicans in local parlance–are about to jointly run their government. Belfast, for decades the scene of urban terrorism and the deaths of so many innocents, has become a city of peace and possibility. We participated in this process as envoys for the Clinton and Bush administrations respectively. The lessons of Northern Ireland are worth noting, for while each situation and negotiation is unique, successful diplomatic interventions have much in common. Those who would shoot or bomb their way to power must be prevented from doing so if they are ever to turn from violence to politics. At the same time, making sure that people realize that violence will not succeed is not enough. They must also come to believe that a true political path exists, one that will allow them to realize enough of their agenda to persuade their followers to turn away from violence. Negotiations are essential. Peace never just happens; it is made, issue by issue, point by point. In order to get negotiations launched, preconditions ought to be kept to an absolute minimum. In the case of Northern Ireland, it was right to make a ceasefire a prerequisite. Killing and talking do not go hand in hand. But it was also right not to require that parties give up their arms or join the police force before the talks began. Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed. Parties should be allowed to hold onto their dreams. No one demanded of Northern Ireland’s Catholics that they let go of their hope for a united Ireland; no one required of local Protestants that they let go of their insistence that they remain a part of the United Kingdom. They still have those goals, but they have agreed to pursue them exclusively through peaceful and democratic means. That is what matters. Including in the political process those previously associated with violent groups can actually help. Sometimes it is hard to stop a war if you do not talk with those who are involved in it. To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step backwards in order to take several forward. This is precisely what happened several years ago when Northern Ireland’s hard-line parties eclipsed more traditional, moderate elements. Bringing them in slowed the pace of diplomacy–but increased the odds that a power-sharing agreement, once reached, would have widespread support and staying power. Some aspects of a negotiation must be conducted in private. This is the way compromises are explored and forged. But it is no less important to make sure that a context is created in which leaders can survive their compromises. This requires reaching out to civil society and preparing the public for what can and cannot be achieved so that it comes to accept that even partial success is preferable to continued armed struggle. Political leaders are more likely to do the right thing if they sense they also will benefit. People want and expect to see improvement in their lives. Peace processes cannot thrive in a vacuum. They do best when associated with increased prosperity. Sanctions should be introduced when there is backsliding. In the case of Northern Ireland, it meant public criticism, stopping diplomatic contacts, the suspension of local institutions. There must be a clear price to be paid for unacceptable actions. Those who seek to mediate or otherwise assist a negotiation need to coordinate. One reason there is now peace in Northern Ireland is that British, Irish and American policymakers were consistent in what they required and in what they promised. They did not allow themselves to be played off one against the other. Their unity also reinforced the message that there was no alternative to giving up violence and starting to negotiate. Finally, diplomacy cannot be unrealistically rushed. The Northern Ireland negotiations succeeded nine years after the Good Friday Accord was signed–and the Good Friday Accord itself only came about after years of intense negotiations and decades of violent “troubles. Leaders take time to accept that they must give up armed struggle and to sign on to compromise. It also takes time for their supporters to follow. The good news is that enduring peace is worth the wait.Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was the US envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process. George J. Mitchell, chairman of the law firm of DLA Piper, was the majority leader of the US Senate and led the Northern Ireland negotiations from 1996 to 1998. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.

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