Saturday, January 3, 2009

War and Peace, and the path between

'Britain rejected secret IRA peace talks offer, 1978 archives reveal'. So read one headline in the Irish Times today. The other; 'Gaza braced for invasion as Israeli troops wait on border'. Thirty years after the IRA approached the British government to find a settlement, ten years after the Good Friday agreement, watching the carnage in Gaza on TV, I began thinking about war and peace, and how to get from one state to the other.

I am far from being an expert on Northern Ireland. Coming from the generation that grew up mostly in the period of peace and having only the dimmest memory of the bleak days when the first item on the news was always the latest IRA/loyalist atrocity, I have no more knowledge about the conflict than any other averagely informed Irish person. But recently, in talking to two above averagely informed compatriots about just how we managed to get from 'Never, never, never' to Ian Paisley sharing power with Martin McGuinness, some interesting lines of thought emerged.

We asked the question; what had to change for the British government, the Irish government and the two communities in the North to sign up to a peace deal? These were our tentative conclusions. For the British government, a key moment came at the end of the 1980s when the simple cost of keeping the North became clear. Apparently, strange though it may seem, there had never been a totting up of the expense to the British taxpayer of supporting Northern Unionism. When they worked it out, the scale of the drain began to change outlooks, particularly in Conservative quarters. Another crucial moment was the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996 - the financial elite made it clear to the British government that a resolution needed to be found - the City could not operate under constant threat of attack. There were undoubtedly many other pivotal moments and a slower process of incremental change that brought the British government from Thatcher's trenchant support of the Union to the more pliant attitude of Tony Blair, but the realization of the real economic costs were a crucial part. Changed perceptions of material interests changed mentalities.

For the Irish government, the shift required was in its conception of itself and its founding doctrine. Firstly, the civil rights movement and the Unionist/British repression of it called on Irish nationalism to act, and not just claim kinship with Nationalists in the North. Republicans in the South had to face the reality of what achieving a United Ireland would entail - and at that point, it would have required some form of military action against Britain. That reality called Republicans' bluff - because realistically there was no way they would rally to help northern nationalists if that entailed in any way endangering the Republic. Secondly, the IRA's decision to turn to anti-state violence forced a nationalism that had been born out of opposition to the state to reconceive itself as an establishment ideology. There are different rules and norms for states and non-state actors. Now that those who had formerly conducted guerrilla warfare against the British were in power themselves, they had to disavow the tactics they had formerly practiced. Not that the public stance of the government always reflected these shifts - they still postured in support of nationalists and were sometimes far too slow to condemn the IRA. But behind the scenes, as the government papers reveal, Irish Republicans had to re-evaluate their claim to the 32 counties and their defense of terrorist tactics to achieve it.

Finally, turning to the two communities in the North, our ideas were less clear. It is perhaps the hardest part of the jigsaw to put together because the stakes for them were highest. This was their lived reality and it is very hard, when you are outside of it as we are, to fully grasp what being in a conflict does to your ability to arrest its character and the avenues for its cessation. But some key points are clear. For the IRA to end their campaign there needed to be a real conviction that a political deal would be offered. Much as they denigrated the moral standing of their end with the means they employed, that end was a question of justice and had a concrete solution. Nationalists/Catholics had been systematically excluded from political power and disadvantaged economically. A recognition of this and a place at the table were crucial. For Unionists and Loyalists the challenge was to come to trust Republicans, that they would not again resort to violence once inside the process - a very hard thing to do when the ceasefire was broken on a number of occasions by mainstream and dissident IRA groups. A final key point was the fact that, ultimately, the key constituencies that needed to be coaxed along were those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum - the DUP and Sinn Fein. When offered real, viable political opportunities both responded positively. And though it was a long, tedious road with many setbacks along the way, it brought us to a place that was absolutely unthinkable even 15 years ago. This peace is far from perfect and it would be disastrous to become complacent but for the first time, in perhaps 800 years, we can plausibly say, our island is at peace.

It is always difficult and dangerous to try to generalize and apply 'lessons' from one conflict to another. Even though you can see Israeli flags flying in loyalist areas of the North and Palestinian ones in republican enclaves - such is the extent to which the two communities identify with what they see as their respective counterparts - there are obviously huge differences between the context and nature of the conflicts. However, if we are to find some points at which the universal emerges from the particular - and surely we must - then the conflict in the North can offer some insights. Firstly, for all actors, the material conditions are important determinants of mentalities. To understand the two sides' positions in this conflict you need to understand the physical and concrete realities that structure their reality and their perception of that reality. This is not to say that man is merely an opportunity maximizing, materialist being. But if you want to change mentalities, changing material incentives can be one of the best ways to do that. Just ask Ian Paisley, who called Catholics vermin until he was offered a chance to share power with them. Secondly, the nature of the actors matters. Israel is a state and Palestine is not and that fact to a large extent determines the modes of behaviour, as well as the symbolic and lived experiences of those involved. The fact of being a state conditioned how the Irish government responded to the conflict just as the status of being, by definition, non-state actors structured the actions of the IRA and loyalists. Bringing Sinn Fein within the state forced the party to change how it behaves, as it would the political actors in Palestine if it became a viable state. Finally, the experience of Northern Ireland suggests that where there is a legitimate grievance - as there is in Palestine - that must be addressed regardless of the tactics employed in its pursuit. Despite the clear moral imperative, there is also the simple strategic fact that a people's sense of grievance and exclusion can only ever be redressed politically, never militarily, and that this sense of grievance (whatever you think about its legitimacy) is what drives them to act. Building up the trust that breaks the situation out of a tit-for-tat game is an arduous, painstaking process but it can be done. And for it to be successful, it is crucial that those on the extremes are inside the process. At this moment, with war raging, peace seems like an impossibility. But there is a path between the two, albeit a long and difficult one.


Michael said...

In addition to the points included in this blog I would like to add the necessity for brave individuals. People willing able and determined to show exceptional courage and take risks for peace, often at great threat to their personal safety, always in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy and sometimes against their own or the organisation they represents better interest.

In Northern Ireland there have been a lot of such individuals. Fr Alex Read who was the first 'go between' the Govt and Provisional IRA; John Hume when by talking to Gerry Adams when no one else would he legitimised the political party Sinn Fein that has since over taken his own party the SDLP in popular support; former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald when he refused to ‘walk away’ when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher very publicly declared that every option the Irish Government was seeking was ‘out, out, out!! Loyalist paramilitary leader Gusty Spence who persuaded his followers to match the Provisional ceasefire; David Irvine who subsequently provided Loyalism with a credible political voice to name but a very few of the better know

In the current Middle East conflict it will be easy to judge who is taking risks for peace because so entrenched are both sides and so universal is the adherence to their respective positions in their public comments that it will be a brave person indeed who steps outside their respective ‘comfort zones’ of familiar positions and rhetoric that merely continue if not exacerbate the conflict and certainly don’t do anything to even nudge the situation towards a peaceful and lasting

Michelle D'Arcy said...

On the subject of brave individuals, I just wanted to note a quote from one of the bravest (in the context of Northern Ireland) - John Hume, who sacrificed his party for the sake of peace;

'You do not make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies. And in the end there is really no such thing as territory, there are only people'.

Michelle D'Arcy said...

This week I came across an interesting insight in an article on how social capital is created. It cited research from game theory that showed that, if all the players are rational opportunity maximizers it is almost impossible for the 'cooperate-cooperate' strategy to emerge. Now, I'm not very offey with the details of game theory and have, regardless of this ignorance, been very dismissive of it in the past but it would seem to me that this must be correct: when, structurally, the incentives are stacked up against cooperation it takes an extraordinary individual, acting outside of ordinary 'rational' motivations to change the game. They can then of course change the incentive structure so that it rewards a different kind of behaviour, but to change from one set of incentives to another, you need someone to act against their interests. Again, it would seem to me that John Hume was one such person as he effectively sacrificed the SDLP for the peace process. Jenny - I think this is both a challenge to the weight we place on socio-economic structures and an endorsement of the quest to get beyond the 'rational actor' as the basis of social science enquiry.