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An Irish lesson for Gaza?

Ray Bassett is a former Irish diplomat. He was intimately involved in preparing the groundwork for negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

Never be afraid to engage, peace is made with your enemies, not your friends.

In early 1993, and against the continued conflict in Northern Ireland, a series of clandestine meetings took place in a private house in Derry, the region’s second city. These encounters involved representatives of the British Security Services (MI5 /MI6) and senior figures in the IRA. At those face-to-face meetings, organised by three local individuals, the position of each side was explored and the prospects of establishing a pathway to a settlement were
assessed, away from the glare of publicity. It was the beginning of what was to become one of the world’s most successful peace processes. They were the catalyst for the events which led to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

These meetings occurred at a time of heightened conflict and the memorable comment in Parliament by Prime Minister John Major that “it would turn his stomach” to speak with the IRA. Yet when this back channel was exposed in the media, the reaction was very different than what could be expected. The British Cabinet Minister responsible, Patrick Mayhew, offered his resignation but it was soon realised that his sanctioning these meetings received widespread approval and even some plaudits from the Opposition benches. The general public strongly supported and appreciated his efforts at securing peace. The obvious lesson is that peace can only come when political figures are prepared to take risks and that the public will often understand. Is there anything here which could be read across to the current Gaza/Israeli conflict?

It is very difficult for democratic Governments to admit that they are in dialogue with groups which mainstream society would classify as terrorists. However, there is also an onus on Government to understand the forces that are motivating such movements and also to ascertain what will bring their activities to an end. Unless there is some form of communication there is no pathway towards a settlement. Hence there is a dilemma and Governments usually opt for deniable interactions involving non State intermediaries and/or their own intelligence services. The current hostilities in Gaza are following that pattern.

What are the experiences gained in the Northern Ireland peace process and can any of them be used in resolving other conflicts, including Gaza. The first lesson is that all conflicts are different, each has its own origins, its own complications and will need its own unique resolution. However, the resolution of a long standing and apparently intractable dispute in Northern Ireland, can give hope in other areas.

The common thread in most successful peace settlements is the presence of strong political leadership. The biggest missing ingredient in most disputes is the absence of trust between the warring parties. It needs a strong leader to be able to bring the doubters on his/her own side along with the necessary compromises. As former South African President de Klerk has stated repeatedly, the toughest discussions are not with your adversary across the table but with your own side. It is in your own private room where a credible position must be arrived at but not split your own delegation. I think every party to the GFA negotiations would re-echo de Klerk’s observations.

Any agreement needs to be fair and balanced. As one of the main negotiators at the GFA put it colourfully, “You have to let the other person get up from the table with their trousers on”. Essentially, he realised that your opponent will be your valuable ally after the negotiations and they need to be able to sell any deal to their own constituents. Drive too hard a bargain and any peace settlement will not last.

A basic rule in the discussions was that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. This allowed parties to advance compromises, without the other side simply pocketing them. Also, all parties agreed that no atrocity outside the talks would be allowed derail them, provided none of the negotiating organisations were involved. We were determined not to give rejectionist elements the right to destroy the process.

A key ingredient in the Northern Ireland process was that the talks were fully inclusive and no major group with popular support was excluded. This included the political party associated with the IRA and indeed Loyalist parties, associated with pro-British paramilitaries. This was a very difficult situation for some of the other parties, but one side cannot select who should represent their opponent. Any agreement with an unrepresentative group is unlikely to persist.

The American Government played a pivotal role in the GFA and the presence of an independent Chair, who never intervened in the substance of the discussions, was an important element. It was like that of a referee, to ensure that the procedures are followed but not to make judgements. Whether an American chair would be acceptable to both sides in the current Gaza dispute is a moot point, but the lesson of the GFA shows that a neutral chairperson can be a huge asset at arriving at a settlement.

Once a talks process gets underway and delegations are meeting, not just across tables but also in restaurants, bars, corridors and even in toilets, informal conversations can take place. It is in these informal exchanges that the main elements of an agreement emerge. The final formal drafting of a text is only putting down on paper what had been decided elsewhere and is often the last element in reaching a settlement. The key message then is get the talking and meeting process underway and keep at it. Never be afraid to engage, peace is made with your enemies, not your friends.

This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald