Recipe for peace


The Hindu Sunday Magazine ~~ June 17 2007

Northern Ireland is an example of how ordinary women and men can make a difference to changing entrenched prejudices.

Starting anew: The first sitting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly
at Stormont Parliament Building in Belfast on May 8, 2007.

WAR always makes it to the front pages of newspapers. Peace also does,
when there is a political agreement and warring groups come together.
But once the fact of peace is established, the story is over, at least
for the media. Unless, of course, the peace breaks down. But what
preceded the peace and what is needed to sustain it, is not the stuff
of which headlines, or even lead stories are made.

Amazing turnaround
On May 8, 2007, newspapers around the world carried an amazing
photograph, that of two men who led the decades old conflict between
Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland sitting together and
smiling. Leaders of the Sinn Fein and the Unionists Party are now in
government, together. This has happened less than a decade after the
Good Friday agreement of 1998 for power sharing that went through many hiccups and often appeared on the verge of breaking down. Yet, a
political solution for the virtually intractable problem of Northern
Ireland has been found. It is the result not just of political
negotiations at the top but because of pressure from below, a demand
for peace from civil society groups on both sides of the sectarian
divide led by very ordinary women. The agreement, and the run-up to
it, sets out an encouraging precedent and example for dozens of other
such conflicts around the world, not least on our subcontinent.

In 2003, on a brief visit to Northern Ireland I saw first-hand how the
memory of history works against efforts to build peace. In Belfast,
high walls, ironically called “peace” lines, still separate Catholics
and Protestants. During “the Troubles”, as the years of bloody
sectarian wars are called, these walls were a challenge to youth on
either side to hurl fire bombs at their “enemy”. Yet even as the first
tentative steps towards peace were being taken, these walls remained,
as did the suspicion and hatred nurtured over decades of conflict. It
will take some time before real “peace” lines substitute these brick
and mortar walls. But an important step has been taken in that direction.

This build up leading to the May 8 agreement in Northern Ireland was
one of the subjects discussed at a remarkable gathering at Galway in
the Republic of Ireland from May 29-31. The conference was organised
by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of women who have received
the Nobel Peace Prize, women like Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Wangari
Mathai from Kenya and Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire from
Northern Ireland. Over 80 women from all over the world met to share
experiences of peace building and to explore what more could be done
in a world where war remains an abiding motif for conflict settlement.

Coalition of women
One of the women from Northern Ireland who has been instrumental in
the peace-building process is Anne Carr. As a Protestant teenager
growing up in the deeply divided Northern Ireland capital of Belfast
in the 1970s, she did the unthinkable by marrying a Catholic. If you
married into the “other side”, you were virtually an outcaste. But she
and other women, part of a larger coalition of peace builders called
Women Together, worked to create mixed educational institutions and
provided many opportunities for dialogue between ordinary people from
the two warring sides. Around five years ago, several of these women
formed a Women’s Coalition and contested the elections. They were
successful in attracting the vote of thousands of men and women who
did not want to vote “tribally”, as a member of the Coalition told me
in Northern Ireland in 2003. They were able to provide an alternative
agenda centred on human rights. Anne Carr was one of those elected.

Emotional speech
Speaking at the conference, Ms. Carr spoke about peace in Northern
Ireland. She said:

“On May 8, 2007 our Northern Ireland devolved assembly met, inclusive
of all our elected representatives, from the Democratic Unionist Party
to Sinn Féin, to inaugurate a new political era. The 108 assembly
members elected on March 8 sat down together, agreeing to share power
and to work together for the good of all our people.

“And I for one had to pinch myself to see if I was really witnessing
this with my own eyes.

“This was because what I was witnessing was not begrudging,
dismissive, demonising behaviour and body language from previous
arch-enemies in the staunch Unionist and Republican camps, but eye
contact, smiles, laughter and good-humoured banter.

“For me the for-so-long-impossible had happened ­ and tears trickled
down my cheeks.

“After the death of over 3,600 people and injuries to tens of
thousands more, after all the pain and all the false dawns ­ something
new and special was emerging. A seemingly unsolvable centuries-old
conflict in Ireland was coming to an end and an acknowledgement that
whatever our different and just aspirations, politics rather than
violence was the way forward and compromises had to be made. Even the reporters present admitted that this ‘good news story’ left them
almost unable to believe their eyes.”

Important lessons
Northern Ireland holds out several important lessons for conflict
resolution. The principal one is the importance of building a
constituency of peace. After the Good Friday agreement, despite the
problems of arriving at a final settlement, it is this constituency
that pushed for a lasting peace. Second, it illustrates how very
ordinary people, without special qualifications, can play a crucial
role in nurturing this constituency of peace. The women who were part
of Women Together, including the two Nobel laureates, exemplified
this. And thirdly, that the political establishment must be willing to
demonstrate innovation and flexibility in face of such grassroots
demands for peace. It is a combination of these elements that makes
for an endurable recipe for peace.