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)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Lessons from Ireland - key principles

I have long opined that the process of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland provides certain lessons which can be applied to other conflict situations elsewhere in the world - nonetheless taking into account the simple truth that each situation is unique and specific. There are many facets of the Irish peace process that I could highlight but, for now, I'll focus on the basic principles that must exist, according to US Senator George Mitchell, for any settlement to work.

Mitchell, the former Democrat Senator for Maine and House Majority Leader, was nominated in 1999 for the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of his work in Northern Ireland. Appointed in 1996 by the British and Irish governments as an impartial referee, Senator Mitchell chaired multi-party talks and set a deadline for 9 April 1998 for reaching an agreement. At the start of the final session, he said that they would not be leaving the room before without an agreement. Although the talks over-ran by 17 hours, the negotiations were successful and the Good Friday Agreement came into being in April 1998.

Senator Mitchell has stated that while all societies and all conflicts, like all humans, are distinct and that there is no magic formula for conflict resolution, certain principles arise from the story of Northern Ireland.

1/ All conflicts are created and sustained by human beings and thus all conflicts can be ended by human beings.

2/ There must be a clear and determined policy not to yield to violence. Specifically, there must not be a pre-condition that negotiations will end if violence flares up, as this simply invites men of violence to wreck attempts at a peaceful resolution.

3/ There must be a genuine willingness to understand opposing points of view and enter into principled compromise.

4/ It must be acknowledged that implementing an agreement is as hard as, if not harder than, reaching an agreement (as subsequent developments in Northern Ireland demonstrated all too plainly) and that this must be accepted, prepared for and dealt with accordingly.

It would be interesting to examine to what extent these principles hold true in other conflict situations, notably in the Middle East, where the same George Mitchell is currently the US President's Special Representative, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan where reconciliation and reintegration are currently high on the west's agenda.

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