From Horror to Hope: Can Peacemaking in Northern Ireland

Glucksman Ireland House, New York, 5th June 2008

Observing Northern Ireland today, it’s hard to recognize what was just a decade or so ago the theatre for such horror and barbarity, hate and bigotry.    For fourteen months now, old enemies have worked together – and even smiled at each other – when they had never exchanged a courtesy before.  Ian Paisley has talked of his ‘good friend’ Bertie Ahern – when for generations he had refused to meet any Taoiseach.  You’d think they were old buddies, such was the warmth on display at their meetings.

Ian Paisley’s first meeting with Gerry Adams at Stormont on March 26th last year – the photographs reverberating around the globe –  was one of those ‘it will never happen’ moments.   There have been many such since, as the coalition government has settled down.

Despite tensions and disputes (one very current) it is now unthinkable that Northern Ireland could go back to its hideous past.   I was privileged to serve as British Secretary of State for the two crucial years that led to the political settlement of last year and the devolved government which ended British direct rule – for ever, I believe.

I was at the sharp end of the negotiations, the arguments, the hostilities and histrionics, the breakdowns, the ultimatums, eventually the progress, and finally the deal.   Many others had worked hard on the process and, of course, to Tony Blair must go the credit for seeing it through from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and all the subsequent crises to the triumphant end most were deeply sceptical would ever, ever occur.

I want to thank all the Irish Americans for playing such a key role during these last few years especially.  Loretta and Tom Moran of course.  Bill Flynn and John Connorton too – and so many others, including on Capitol Hill, where Ted Kennedy has long been  outstanding.  Presidents Clinton and Bush have been hugely supportive.  So have White House Special envoys Richard Haass, Mitchell Reiss and Paula Dobriansky.   George Mitchell’s patient diplomacy was so important.

And Loretta, thank you for what you and your late husband, the legendary Lew Glucksman, have done to further understanding of Ireland, north and south.  Not least through providing this fine house to New YorkUniversity.

So the question is:  can lessons from ending the horror that was Northern   Ireland now offer hope to other areas of the world locked in bitter conflict, violence and terrorism?   Can lessons be applied from bringing together in a political settlement people who were not simply political opposites but sworn enemies?

Of course no one would suggest that there is a ‘one size fits all’ model for conflict resolution coming out of Northern   Ireland.  But I believe there are some fundamental principles that emerge from this ‘worked example’ that reward a closer look.

We should never forget that the conflict of which the most recent and bloody manifestation – known, with characteristic understatement in Northern Ireland, as the “Troubles” – goes back well beyond the founding of these United States.

Indeed had Columbus – or Americo Vespucci or Admiral Cheng Ho – access to a fifteenth century equivalent of CNN or Reuters, he would have been wearily familiar with the ‘…wars of Ireland’.

You will be relieved to know that I don’t intend to take us through 800 years of Anglo-Irish history – though more than once there were those engaged in the political talks who didn’t feel able to do anything less, as Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern would no doubt recall.  In fact at one stage during political talks I toyed with the idea of introducing a ‘History Tax’ to be levied: the further back you went, the more you paid.

But there is a serious point here.

The deep fault lines in Northern Ireland society were created many centuries ago and sharpened by violent conflict.

This makes the achievement of the political settlement so remarkable.

And talking about ‘conflict resolution’ means recognising that it is an ongoing process which will take some time – perhaps generations – to complete, just as the joy of a non-racial democracy in South Africa since 1994 has not by any means abolished the awful legacy of apartheid.

Tony Blair had decided from his first day in office that Northern Ireland would be more of a priority than it was for any of his predecessors.

There was a personal attachment from family connections and schoolboy holidays in Ireland.  But, more importantly, he had an absolutely unshakable belief that not only could it be resolved: it would be, indeed, had to be resolved.

That belief never wavered.

Three objectives guided his approach for over ten years.

They were: the necessity to create a space without violence during which politics could begin to flourish; the identification of individuals with the courage and intention to lead their communities; and the search for a political framework which could accommodate the needs, aspirations and scope for compromise by all involved.

In the years after 1997 the Labour Government, in which I was a Minister for eleven years, very consciously took risks to achieve and maintain the IRA ceasefire, because the absence of conflict was an absolute prerequisite to progress.

What is so destructive in terrorism is not just the wrecking of lives but the impact on the psychology of a community.  With 3,000 murders and about 35,000 serious injuries in a Northern Ireland population of 1.7 million – just a little larger than Manhattan – it’s not hard to see that almost every family felt the horror of ‘The Troubles’.

Above all terrorism obscures the natural desire of the majority for peace by entrenching bitterness and creating an entirely understandable hysteria in which voices of moderation can no longer be heard.

It is desperately hard for people to focus on politics when they are under attack: when, in the case of Republicans, their communities have felt under assault or siege by agencies of the state, and in the case of Unionists, many friends and relatives have been murdered or maimed under the constant shadow of IRA terrorism.

This for our Government meant making concessions that went deeply against the grain, not only for unionists, but also for much mainstream British opinion.

An example was the controversial and painful republican and loyalist prisoner releases at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, including individuals who had committed unspeakable atrocities.

But it was essential to show paramilitary groups that a commitment to peace brought gains which could not be achieved by violence.

Thereafter, continuously moving forward with small steps was to some extent an end in itself because time was critical: the longer the cessation of violence, the stronger the desire for peace could grow, and the more difficult the return to conflict could become.

To ‘keep the bicycle upright and moving’ was a key objective and required constant intervention and even more constant attention of a forensic nature from the very top.

The transition to peace had to be completed.   But this could only be achieved through relationships of some trust with leading Republicans who had themselves been party to terrorist attacks, including in Britain.

One of Tony Blair’s core beliefs was that people and personalities matter in politics, and that building relationships of trust, even where deep differences remain, is vital.

This may seem very obvious.  But it is surprisingly often relegated to a place well below ‘issues’ in resolving conflict.   It is also notable how political enmities can block the way to even tentative contact – just look at virtually all the main conflicts across the world today.

The key challenge for the Government was to identify the positive elements within the opposing communities and to encourage and sustain them.

That meant establishing a relationship of trust with the individual leaders and understanding the pressures on them from within their own movement or party, as well as from outside.

Ultimately this meant making judgments about the extent to which those pressures were real or tactical.

But judgments about the good faith and courage of individuals ultimately have to be political and personal, based on instinct, and at crucial junctures, the product of private conversations between the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and individual leaders.

The consequences of those judgments about individuals have been far-reaching: most of the decisions taken by the British Government since 1998 have been coloured by the need to build or maintain confidence in one community or another, or to allow one leader or another space to manage their constituencies.

It is obviously important to identify individual figures with the courage and strength to give leadership, sometimes to reluctant followers.  I think of John Hulme and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists, especially in the lead up to and beyond the Good Friday Agreement.   They were unable to deliver the final settlement, but they were mid-wives to it.

Judgments about key leaders within Northern Ireland were complemented by the alignment of international interest.

A British Prime Minister, like Tony Blair, prepared to devote unprecedented time and energy to solving the problem as a real priority, came into power to find a strong, confident Irish Government, led by Bertie Ahern, and a US President in Bill Clinton who felt a strong personal attachment to Ireland and who was influenced by the large and politically significant Irish American community and open to providing positive intervention or support.

Crucially, all three were prepared to work to a shared strategy, all were prepared to be bold.

As other parts of the world have discovered, these alignments of leadership and circumstances do not come along often: failure to seize the opportunity can mean condemning another generation to conflict.

It is one thing to feel that a dispute – whether in Northern Ireland or the Middle East – will eventually be resolved, but another to grip it in such a way that resolution does not wait for generations, with all the intervening violence and turmoil.

There is no inevitability about the timescale of a conflict, however ancient, however bitter, however intransigent.   Northern Ireland was emphatically all three.

The internationalisation of parts of the process – for example the management of IRA weapons decommissioning by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning under Canadian General John de Chastelain, Andy Sens from the USA and Tauno Niemenen of Finland – made an important contribution.

Along with the international element to the Independent Monitoring Commission (which included Dick Kerr, a former CIA Deputy Director), it has reassured key constituencies at critical moments, injecting trust which the British and Irish Governments could not on their own provide.

It is also worth noting that those with experience and credibility from other conflicts played an encouraging role.

The advice and reassurance of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, including the active involvement of its former General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, was particularly helpful to the republican movement.   ANC figures (some previously involved in armed struggle) helped Gerry Adams to persuade grass roots republicans to pursue the peace strategy.

With space and momentum created by the absence of violence and the regular energetic intervention of Tony Blair, the challenge was to find a political framework which could allow opposing political leaders to govern together without compromising the basic principles of their constitutional identities.

The strength of the Good Friday Agreement and other negotiations culminating in the St Andrews Agreement of October 2006 was its attempt to be comprehensive.

It did not simply address the constitutional framework, but looked at the broader political hurdles: policing, human rights, victims, ending discrimination against Catholics and promoting equality.

All these emotive issues – especially policing, prisoner releases, decommissioning of weapons – touched the daily lives of so many individuals.  It was these ‘bread and butter’ issues, rather than ancient hostilities over the constitutional framework itself, which threatened the process on so many occasions.   Dealing with them helped create a better climate for political leaders to be more flexible.   I always noted that it was no coincidence that under Tony Blair’s government ending mass unemployment (especially amongst Catholic communities) created more positive circumstances for peace to take hold.

Equally, however, there comes a point when the process needs to be brought to a head.

This was one of the key issues I faced as British Secretary of State during my time from May 2005, and I decided that real deadlines had to be set in 2006.

I determined, with the backing of both Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, that the Government had to take the risk of the process collapsing in order to force the parties to resolve their differences.

Furthermore, that the costs of failure to the parties would be serious where previously they had not.

This was, first, in terms of loss of salaries and allowances for Assembly Members together with very substantial public funding of their party organisations which they had enjoyed for years.

And, second, the wrath of voters opposed to some of my domestic reforms, notably the introduction of charges for water supply from which Northern Ireland alone in the United Kingdom was exempt.

Water charges proved to be the dominant issue of the election campaign in February/March 2007, the age old hostilities and divisions paling by comparison, as the voters told the parties to get the Secretary of State out by getting in to power themselves and sorting it!   Who would have imagined water as an incendiary incentive to peace?

At the heart of this process – and arguably as its ultimate objective – has been the necessity for dialogue at every level.

It is worth reflecting on this for a moment, because I know that the risks and compromises involved in establishing dialogue often dominate, and frequently destroy, the chance of progress almost before it begins.

That much is certainly a feature of the Middle East peace process, where, from time to time, both sides have imposed pre-conditions which effectively have blocked any dialogue from beginning.

Pre-conditions can (and do) strangle the process at birth.

It is true that entering into dialogue – especially secret dialogue – with paramilitary groups carries risks.

The real risk may not be just one of political embarrassment, but also the danger of encouraging an armed group in the belief that its campaign is working.

Yet, if one of the keys to resolving conflict is identifying positive elements and encouraging those leaders who are prepared to contemplate an end to violence, then dialogue is the only way one can make that judgement.

And my view is, that in order to achieve results, it is worth erring on the side of being exposed for trying to talk – even to those seen as ‘the enemy’, and maybe still engaged in paramilitary or illegal activity, and therefore ‘outside’ a process.

That was attempted with Republicans from the early 1970s when they were bombing and shooting.  And, despite public criticism, I  engaged in 2006-7 with loyalists linked (and in the case of some individuals directly) to the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association whose terrible record of violence and criminality has been much more current.  But the outcome was more positive than it would otherwise have been.

Dialogue brings in those elements of the ‘extremes’ in a conflict or process that are capable of delivering the most obdurate constituencies.

Indeed, as we saw recently in Northern Ireland (and nearly two decades ago in South Africa) bringing the most polarised parties to the point of agreement can be absolutely critical to ensuring that any deal sticks.

The agreement in Northern Ireland has so far stuck, and I believe will stick, precisely because it was brokered between the two most politically polarised positions held by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein.

That cannot be achieved without dialogue, even dialogue through a third party – in the case of Northern   Ireland with the British Government acting as a conduit between DUP and Sinn Fein.

Democratic Governments should have the self-confidence in their own values to be able to take risks for peace in cases where it is much more difficult for those locked in ethnic or communal struggle to engage with each other.

Of course in Northern   Ireland there are still several key issues outstanding: completing the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers, enabling victims to be recognized, and addressing the legacy issues of the horrendous past.

But today I want to conclude by drawing together some of the threads which I hope are already visible.

Over the past ten years, a number of key principles have guided the British Government’s handling of Northern Ireland:

  • the need to create space and time, free from violence, in which political capacity can develop;
  • the need to identify key individuals and constructive forces;
  • the importance of inclusive dialogue at every level, wherever there is a negotiable objective;
  • the taking of risks to sustain that dialogue and to underpin political progress;
  • the alignment of national and international forces;
  • the need to avoid or resolve pre-conditions to dialogue;
  • perhaps above all the need to grip and micro-manage a conflict at a high political level, refusing to accept the inevitability of it.
  • And to do so, not intermittently but continuously, whatever breakdowns, crises and anger get in the way.

Even a quick glance at this checklist of key principles throws up some obvious points.

In the Middle East, the conflict has not been gripped at a sufficiently high level, over a sufficiently sustained period.  Efforts and initiatives have come and gone, and violence has returned to fill the vacuum. International forces have not been aligned and dialogue has been stunted. Periodic engagement has led to false starts and dashed hopes.  Preconditions have been, and now are, a bulwark against progress.  The inescapable truth, however, is that, despite the depth and intensity of bitterness and hatred between Hamas and Israel, neither can militarily defeat the other; they will each have to be party to a negotiated solution which satisfies Palestinian aspirations for a viable state and Israel’s need for security.

Just as legitimate grievances in Northern Ireland fuelled republican sympathies, Palestinian grievances provide fertile territory for extremists.  Addressing people’s grievances – from security to jobs and housing – as we did in Northern Ireland, can undercut the extremists who seek to inflame and exploit them, so creating more fertile ground for a political process to complement engagement.

However, the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda is fundamentally different from the terrorist threat that existed in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’. It is not rooted in political objectives capable of negotiation, but rather in a reactionary totalitarian ideology that is completely opposed to democracy, freedom and human rights. Negotiation with Al Qaeda and its foreign Jihadists is therefore politically and morally out of the question. Yet offering individuals attracted to AQ a non-violent, political avenue to address their concerns and frustrations, could conceivably help produce change in years to come.  Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, only last week told the LondonGuardian, that discussions with Al Qaeda “wouldn’t be unthinkable, the question will be one of timing”.

In the early years of the IRA’s bloody armed campaign over 30 years ago, nobody in the British Government could stomach talking with Republican Leaders, except in surrender terms, since they were regarded as completely beyond the pale after terrorist attacks on London and Birmingham, let alone within Northern Ireland; yet in the middle of all this bloodshed and mayhem, contact was initiated which much later on came to fruition.

Similar issues arise over the Taliban in Afghanistan, although the complexities of War Lords attached to the Taliban more for tactical reasons on the one hand, and the presence Al Qaeda leaders in the area on the other, make the whole process even more hazardous and complex.

In Sri Lanka, where I became involved and visited as Foreign Office Minister in 2000, there have been attempts by the Sri Lankan, British and Norwegian Governments to broker a new way forward. Impasse was followed by progress then impasse and violence again. But, just as both the British and the IRA came to understand, there cannot be a military solution for either side in Sri Lanka – so there is no choice but to focus upon improving the environment and exploring a political solution in the hope that negotiations could subsequently resume.  One important point to note is the absence there of sustained bi-partisanship between the two main political parties which has been a consistent obstacle in developing viable forms of devolution to suit the particular history of Sri Lanka, reconciling bitterly competing Singhalese and Tamil interests.

In Kashmir, supporting efforts to take forward negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad is the imperative.  Here, perhaps the lessons are also that a seemingly irreconcilable constitutional conflict can be addressed with ingenuity.  The extent of cross border structures (and the planned devolution of policing and justice) was crucial to Republicans agreeing to share power in what remains still a devolved part of the British state they disown.  If India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris themselves can agree to an entity with soft borders and greater autonomy for Kashmiris on both sides of the line of control, then maybe progress could be made whilst preserving the interests and longer term objectives of each.

I hope also that resolving the conflict in the Basque region of Spain will make progress toward a final resolution, because the lessons certainly apply there too. Once again those on all sides in Northern Ireland have played and continue to play a useful role.

The inescapable lesson is that such conflicts will never be solved militarily.  Either side may have temporary advances.  But the solution has in the end to be political, and the mechanism has to be negotiation.

The global threat from international terrorism and the turmoil in the Middle East present the world with an opportunity to address long-running conflicts, to address their root causes and to drive forward their solutions.

We urgently need to match our commitment to global security with a commitment to global justice and global conflict resolution. The Northern Ireland experience, bitter as it was, points to a re-balancing of Western foreign policy in these directions.


What happened on the 8 May 2007, when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness took over the running of Northern Ireland together, was a decisive moment in which the people, through their politicians, decided to break free from history, to shape a new history.

But that is a process in itself, and no-one is under any illusions that it will be completed quickly, though the first year has gone better than anybody could possibly have imagined.

Beginning the process on the basis of politics alone is what really matters – that is the real triumph of the past few years in Northern Ireland, and I hope an inspiration to those parts of the world that cannot yet even see as far as the starting point.

Meanwhile I predict that the island of Ireland, with all its beauty, harnessing the huge talents of all its people, will increasingly find common cause, expressing the triumph of humanity in the long transition from horror to hope.