The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Friday, 30 April 2010

Lessons from Ireland - the bicycle theory

When riding a bicycle, if you stop pedalling then the bicycle falls over. Conclusion - if you want to go somewhere you have to keep pedalling.

The same is true of a process of conflict resolution, according to Jonathan Powell, formerly Chief of Staff to Tony Blair and the latter's main adviser/negotiator on the Northern Ireland peace process.

Powell wrote a book, called 'Great Hatred, Little Room' (from a poem by W.B. Yeats), about his decade-long experience. Aside from being a highly-readable account of personalities and anecdotes, it also provides a few salient points which I would like to draw out for my third and final post on the lessons we can learn from the peace process in Northern Ireland.

- talking is not a reward to be withdrawn but a basic necessity for any peace process. Moreover, to make peace you must talk to your enemies, not just to your friends. That might seem obvious but look at other past or ongoing processes and you quickly discover that this pre-condition is far from a foregone conclusion.

- in that vein, they realised that only extremes can build peace as there is nobody left to outflank them. NB: the original intention was to build peace from the moderate parties in the centre and, while this was enough to reach a settlement, it was not enough to implement it. Only the extremes could do that.

- maintain strategic focus, do not get distracted by tactical games.

- ambiguity in negotiations is complicated and needs careful handling. Although almost always necessary at the beginning, 'constructive ambiguity' must be squeezed out (painfully and over time) as a durable peace cannot rest on an ambiguous understanding.

- widen the focus when you reach an absolute impasse.

- the stage of a breakthrough agreement is exactly the moment to redouble your efforts and try to implement (ie. sell) the agreement to both/all sides.

- dealing with criminality is not easy, as it can be a (local) cultural phenomenon. The trick is to force a divorce between those who opt for crime and those who opt for a political path.

- on hearts and minds, by investing effort/money/jobs into the water in which your enemies swim (metaphor c/o Mao Zedong) you can reduce pressure in a conflict.

Powell is careful to state very clearly that Northern Ireland was a unique, a sui generis, situation and that we should be very careful about drawing parellels with other process of conflict resolution (for example in the Middle East where George Mitchell is now the US Special Envoy just as he was previously in Northern Ireland - see my first post on this subject).

To that end, Powell highlights certain underlying factors which created the conditions for reaching - and implementing, albeit extremely slowly - a peace settlement in Ireland.

- a generational change in the leadership of i/ Irish Republicans, ii/ in London and Dublin and iii/ the 'securocrats' within the British State (military and intelligence) apparatus
- the Celtic Tiger economic boom in Ireland
- 911, which showed Irish Republicans that their brand of physical force was simply outdated
- the US factor (see previous post on the 'out of the box' theory)

Above all, he states very clearly that conflict resolution can only succeed when both/all sides have realised that they cannot win.

However, it is for those reasons that in these three posts I have been careful to consider Northern Ireland as a case study for a 'methodology' (for want of a better word) of conflict resolution, and not a blueprint. Lessons therefore refers to process and I'd be interested to see to what extent people think some of these lessons could, or should, be applied elsewhere.

"Out of Ireland have we come, great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start. I carry from my mother's womb a fanatic heart." (W.B. Yeats)


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  2. After posting this I came across something which Henry Kissinger is reported to have said on the Middle East.

    "If you're not going forward, you start to go backward."

    The same is true of pedalling uphill on a bicycle. The point is to maintain a process of conflict resolution, however imperfect, no matter what.

    Above all - keep talking. An absence of dialogue leaves a vacuum which is filled by violence. Keep talking, keep trying, keep the bicycle moving forward.