In 1991, as the conflict in Northern Ireland raged, I was part of a small group of what might be called 'intellectuals' with various positions in civil society (organised labour, NGO sector, academia, journalism) who met to agonise over the eternal question: "What is to be done?" We hit upon the idea of inviting a commission of outsiders to come and hear from ordinary people about life in Northern Ireland and to make recommendations on new ways of tackling what seemed to be an intractable problem. We had a strong economic and social agenda, not entirely divorced from the constitutional question about our Irishness and/or Britishness. Initiative 92, as the project became known, gave birth to the first halting steps of a new form of civil society engagement with what became known as the Northern Ireland peace process.
We approached Torkel Opsahl, a Norwegian human rights lawyer, to chair the commission and invited others to serve alongside him. The same group managed the organisational framework, the fundraising and the promotional aspects of the commission's work. This involved taking the initiative into the lanes, streets and by-ways of Northern Ireland to hear what local people felt and to nudge hitherto recalcitrant political blocs to engage in some sort of process beyond violence. The initiative culminated in the compilation of a report that was published, launched and disseminated among the political parties and the wider public.
We all agreed that we must not stop with the publication of a book and therefore arranged for a one-year extension to the project to disseminate and animate the results through an extensive follow-up programme. Of course the first IRA ceasefire of 31 August 1994 was not a direct consequence of the process we initiated. But with the benefit of hindsight, many observers pinpointed our contribution to creating an atmosphere of greater participation in debate, easing the situation and softening the edges of the conflict.
I remember feeling alienated as a civil society practitioner when the talks process chaired by Senator George Mitchell began; the talks were taking place behind closed doors (however understandably), but I wanted to help the process along by assisting with explanation, communication and elaboration of the key principles of any accommodation then being negotiated. Another role soon opened up. The UK government of John Major had promised a 'triple lock' before any negotiated agreement could take effect: the parties to the negotiation must agree, the two supervising governments (the UK and Ireland) must agree and then the people must agree through a referendum held simultaneously on both sides of the Irish border. The referendum created the opportunity for civil society players to organise a "YES" Campaign. So we did and thereby contributed to the 81 per cent turnout – massive by UK and Irish standards – and the 71.2 per cent vote in favour of the agreement.
Yet the resoundingly endorsed Belfast Agreement, signed on Good Friday 1998, was not the end of the story. Again blessed by hindsight, we can see that it was only the end of the beginning. Its implementation was – and remains – critically contested, again requiring the engagement of players other than elected political representatives to help 'oil the wheels' of the process. And so we are still involved as observers, commentators, activists, trade unionists, business people and NGOs.
This personal vignette shows three distinct phases in my modest contribution to recent events in Northern Ireland: preparation for peace, the formal negotiations and implementation/consolidation. In Northern Ireland, the drive toward negotiations came principally from internal actors. Simultaneously, however, external pressures from the United States – sometimes stimulated by the influential Irish diaspora – and the European Union added urgency to the dynamic. The principal political parties, as selected by the electorate, were responsible for negotiating an agreement. Civil society's role was to help prepare society for change.
This process reveals some elements in the developmental sequencing of political participation by the public in a wider peace process that I would like to explore in more detail, drawing on experiences in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Hindsight often makes it possible to chart a linear progression between these phases. At the time, however, it may often feel more like a zig-zag, as initiatives break down, interested parties position themselves in a way that offends others, fears and apprehensions increase the contested territory – and often spark violence – and a curious, if not confused, electorate express their apprehension or alienation from the process.