Twenty years on from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, Alison Baily, Security and Stability analyst at the British Council, looks at the role of civil society in building trust and reconciliation, and the lessons for peace processes around the world.

Keep fighting for peace

“Keep fighting for peace” was the main message to Northern Ireland last week from one of the people who helped bring about an end to the conflict there in 1998, former US Special Envoy Senator George J Mitchell. Twenty years on from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the reflections of Mitchell and other key figures in the process were a timely reminder of just how hard-won the peace was – and how life in Northern Ireland has changed as a result. Speaking at the opening of the British Council’s ‘Peace and Beyond’ conference, he and other mediators recalled that in the years preceding the agreement the main parties had been locked in angry exchanges for 700 days, with no progress made. The situation seemed hopeless, but, the parties persevered, and the talks that followed led to the historic peace agreement. Belfast today is a transformed city - evidence of the peace dividend is everywhere – from the splendid new Titanic Belfast conference centre in the regenerated Titanic Quarter, to the bustling city centre where people move freely without the road blocks and heavy police presence that were commonplace twenty years ago. The cranes that dominate the skyline indicate the growing confidence in Northern Ireland, as it positions itself as a new hub for the knowledge economy, including the FinTech, cyber security and film industries.

Northern Ireland has also provided a beacon of hope for peace processes around the world, and, has, in return, drawn support from other regions seeking to move on from conflict. So it was fitting that, as part of Northern Ireland’s official Good Friday/Belfast Agreement anniversary events, the conference provided an opportunity for international reflection on what this and other conflicts tell us about how to move towards sustainable peace. Over three days, policymakers and peace practitioners from around the world took part in discussions, workshops and visits to local community projects in Belfast. The conference provided an unparalleled opportunity for exchanging lessons between Northern Ireland and different countries, with 28 represented, including the Philippines, Lebanon, South Africa, Libya and Colombia. So what lessons did the conference have for those looking to support peace and post-conflict transitions around the world? 

‘A long, slow, difficult road’

The first lesson was that a peace deal is only the start of a long, slow and often difficult road towards achieving real peace. One of the signatories of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, Lord Alderdice, commented that the implementation of peace processes are as difficult as getting the agreement in the first place. Indeed, the decision to sit round a table and agree to stop the killing is just the start, another speaker said. Real peace is only ever achieved when communities which currently live apart learn to live together peacefully. This point resonated with many delegates, including those from Northern Ireland. Despite twenty years of peace and substantial progress on social cohesion, many communities still largely live apart – for example, integrated education still only represents a small percentage of schools with the majority of Catholic and Protestant children still studying separately - many of the underlying socio-economic causes of the conflict also remain. The fences or ‘peace lines’ which keep divided communities apart from each are still very much present in some parts of Belfast and are a visible reminder of the potential for a return to violence. 

The implementation of peace processes are as difficult as getting the agreement in the first place. Indeed, the decision to sit round a table and agree to stop the killing is just the start

The second lesson was about how societies just emerging from conflict can begin to build long-lasting peace. Philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill said that building peace centres on convincing others with whom one has been in profound disagreement to trust you - but trustworthiness is needed before this can happen. Forgiveness was another crucial element raised frequently throughout the conference. The young South African forgiveness advocate Candice Mama was one of a number of delegates who gave inspiring and profound speeches about their experiences as victims of conflict. Mama told her own journey of forgiveness, which led her to meet her father’s murderer and ultimately campaign for his release. Mama was adamant that the process of forgiveness and reconciliation is essential if a society is to move from a peace deal to a wider communal peace. Delegates from Colombia echoed this point, noting the important role of victims in mobilising support for the peace deal with the FARC rebel group. As the Archbishop of Canterbury movingly summed it up at the end of the conference: ‘Forgiveness is progressive liberation of the human spirit; people in Northern Ireland need to know that the capacity to “disagree well” is alive and well here and that will give hope to the rest of the world’.

Peace processes are owned by civil society

A third take-away from the conference was that peace needs to involve all levels of society. A peace deal is unlikely to hold if it only has buy-in at senior political levels, and its implementation only focuses on political processes or institutional reform. As one speaker put it, ‘peace processes are owned by civil society’. The more inclusive they are the greater chance of success. The significant role of women’s groups in both the Northern Ireland peace deal and Colombia’s talks with the FARC in Havana was noted. Moreover, once the deal has been achieved, the community has an essential part to play in the transition from conflict to the rule of law. As examples from South Africa, Northern Ireland and Kosovo showed, the state cannot establish rule of law by itself, but needs to establish a ‘culture of lawfulness’ by working together with the community on issues such as policing and transitional justice.

A final lesson was that, for peace processes to succeed it’s not simply good enough for people to see the results – they need to feel them, too. In South Africa, Professor John Brewer, a leading expert on peace and conflict, said that communities define peace not simply as the absence of violence, but also the provision of jobs, education, and public services. Others agreed, observing that peace requires a strong response to the feelings which commonly drive conflict, whether fear, unfairness, humiliation or deprivation. 

This is where culture and community work comes in – since they can engage people’s emotions and provide a powerful counterpoint to the negative feelings that drive conflict in a way that political or institutional aspects of a peace deal simply cannot. In a special recorded message to the conference, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos praised the role of education and culture in strengthening peace. On the final day of the conference, delegates visited a number of local community projects to see Northern Ireland’s own experience of using education, culture and sport to underpin every day peace making. Belfast Metropolitan College provides education and training tailored specifically to the job market and economic growth priorities of Northern Ireland. Delegates visited its state of the art E3 campus, built in the heart of one of Belfast’s most deprived and divided areas, in order to drive economic regeneration and social cohesion. At the Ulster Museum, delegates heard how cultural organisations in Northern Ireland seek to bridge the cultural divide between communities, each with their own cultural identities and opposing narratives of the conflict. Language campaigner Linda Ervine described the impact of setting up Irish language lessons in a Protestant Unionist area of Belfast, where Irish was seen as belonging solely to the Catholic nationalist community. Her project helped to demonstrate how the Irish language was in fact something that was part of the heritage of both communities. The lessons she organised became popular, despite opposition from some quarters, and helped bring people from both sides together in the classroom. 

One of the highlights of the three days was a visit to Northern Ireland’s National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. In a conference room overlooking the pitch where the national team play, young people spoke about how getting involved in basketball, football and other sports schemes had helped them build a sense of aspiration, learn leadership and teamwork skills, and make friends with other people from other communities. As one speaker put it, children that can learn to play together can learn to live together. 

This was perhaps one of the most important lessons that peace activists took away from the conference - the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement may not have solved all Northern Ireland’s underlying problems, but it has created space for a new generation to grow up with a new outlook that is not dominated by the violence and inter-communal hostilities of previous ones. Here and in other post-conflict areas around the world, it is this new generation which provides the best opportunity for creating a new future, and for ensuring that peace lasts. As Senator George Mitchell observed: “the most important part of conflict resolution is what’s in the hearts and minds of people, especially young people”. Political leaders may be the ones with the power to agree peace deals, but it’s the young people who have the ultimate power to implement it, by working towards a long-term social peace, both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere around the world.