The example of Northern Ireland shows there is no quick fix when it comes to re-building peaceful societies. A quarter of a century on, sectarian tensions endure, and initiatives to address the legacies of past violence have yet to be prioritised. Brexit, too, now threatens the delicate ecosystem established between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Despite these challenges, Northern Ireland now is unrecognisable from the violence seen at the height of ‘The Troubles’.
The Good Friday Agreement established a power-sharing government, and paved the way for paramilitary groups to lay down their weapons and pursue their aims through a political process. In the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia and on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, former armed groups have been undertaking the same transition to political parties after decades of violent conflict, and Conciliation Resources has been providing advice and technical expertise to the processes. Part of this programme of support, has been to arrange for key figures in these processes to travel to Northern Ireland and meet with politicians, academics and former members of armed groups.
Topics under discussion on these trips included how former armed groups can transition to become political parties, disarmament, reconciliation and transitional justice and how to ensure women and minority communities are included in the transition to peace.
Clem McCartney, a Conciliation Resources Associate from Northern Ireland, has been involved in organising many of these visits. He says that the visits are not only useful for visitors but for the people they meet:
“The visitors’ questions often lead the informants to reflect upon their own assumptions and interpretations of events and rethink the validity and utility of the positions they have adopted, both prior to the Agreement and in the post-Agreement period.”
He also offers some advice for hosting comparative learning trips such as these:
“It is important that local informants are well prepared by the organisers in order to present the situation in Northern Ireland in a way which is most useful for the visitors. Sometimes, visitors come in order to reinforce their existing preconceptions, and to see and hear what they want to hear. It is a reminder that visits should be part of an ongoing relationship which allows follow up to continue exploring what lessons can be drawn from another country.”
The power of these learning trips isn't just in the exchanges with those from Northern Ireland. Perhaps even more important, are the exchanges among the participants themselves. The trips bring senior people involved in the peace process, often with conflicting views and agendas, to learn together. It’s an opportunity to take time to reflect and discuss a shared vision of a future for their regions, in a neutral space.
Nur Ainee Tan Lim is Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Social Services and Development in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, on the island of Mindanao. In March 2014, the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a peace agreement, which is intended to end four decades of conflict and envisioned the establishment of a new self-governing region in Muslim-dominated areas of Western Mindanao, called the Bangsamoro. Nur Ainee joined a delegation from the Bangsamoro visiting Northern Ireland in February this year:
“Being physically away from the Bangsamoro homeland, that was such a beautiful tactic because we enjoyed different sceneries and what could be for the Bangsamoro people if development and peace come hand in hand.
“It allowed us to get out of our comfort zone, open our minds and hearts and be open to new insights and possible strategic improvement in the way that we deal with our constituencies. How we engage with our communities, and most especially to put politics aside even in political situations because the interests and the needs of the people come first.”
For peace processes to be sustainable, all those with a stake in lasting peace should have opportunities to shape it. Inclusion is key, which is why our learning trips have not just focused on political elites, but include those working for peace from civil society organisations, indigenous communities, and those often excluded, such as women and young people.
The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition put women’s participation in peace on the political map, and much of the progress made on reconciliation and dealing with the past has been driven by community-based organisations, striving to build bridges between Northern Ireland’s divided communities.
In the last decade, journalists, activists and peacebuilders from across Jammu and Kashmir have visited Northern Ireland with Conciliation Resources. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the region, which is divided by the Line of Control (LoC). Over the many years of violent conflict, the diverse populations of Jammu and Kashmir have become disconnected and mistrustful of each other. Visits to Northern Ireland have focused on connecting Kashmiris with professionals in their own fields, to understand the unique roles they can play in bridging divides.
Irfan Dar is a filmmaker from the Kashmir Valley in Indian-administered Kashmir.
“Meeting individuals who have spent years working as artists and civil society, building and then sustaining peace, was inspiring. In The Playhouse Theatre of Witness, for example they bring two non-actors together, people who are otherwise enemies in conflict. Over time they break down the boundaries caused by lack of communication, miscommunication and entrenched views, and show how you can tell a joint human narrative. I witnessed a former policeman sitting down with a former lRA member.”
One young person who visited Northern Ireland with delegates from the South Caucasus, a region where several conflicts remain unresolved decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, concluded:
“Politicians made the ground for peace by the Good Friday Agreement; and civil society started to put this agreement into practice. Neither only politicians nor only civil society can do anything alone.”