“The next generation of successful political leaders in Northern Ireland will play to their best hopes, instead of their worst fears.” These words stood out to me during a recent lecture given by Lord Alderdice and The Right Honourable Jeffrey Donaldson MP on their experiences working to establish sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. As a master’s degree student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, I had the opportunity to learn firsthand about the work of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building (CDPB), and their role promoting peace, stability, and reconciliation both in Northern Ireland and throughout the world. Reflecting on the discussion, several critical themes emerged.
Creating a Space for Negotiations to Succeed
The Northern Ireland experience embodies the importance of creating a political and social environment in which negotiations have the chance to be successful. For negotiations to succeed, significant backchannel work cultivating support within one’s party is needed, which requires strong transformational leadership, as well as the ability to communicate effectively with the opposing party. A negotiator must navigate the difficult balance of first and foremost representing the interests of its party, while at the same time, cultivating a relationship of trust with other negotiators and trying to understand their party’s needs, so that the negotiation becomes an atmosphere where mutual gains are possible, instead of a zero-sum process. Lord Alderdice and Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson MP repeatedly emphasized the importance of cultivating strong relationships throughout negotiations, as well as paying careful attention to language used during the process, which should aspire to transcend issues and create an atmosphere of respect.
Preparing for Implementation of the Agreement
The negotiation process is a means to an end; it is crucial to remember that negotiations are only successful if the implementation of their outcomes is adequately planned. In the case of Northern Ireland, it took nine years to establish stable political institutions following the Good Friday Agreement. Lord Alderdice and Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson MP discussed the need to create a space through which realistic societal change could take place, which means allocating appropriate time for implementation of the agreement. This can be extremely challenging in post-conflict societies where citizens and political parties alike are demanding immediate change, yet taking the time to ensure institutions are ready to implement peace deserves serious attention, and should not be rushed. Having this time is also critical to begin the lengthy process of working toward cultural change and gaining acceptance for peace within a society.
Looking Ahead to Sustainable Peace
Northern Ireland is still facing some legacies of its past, including the need to establish a collective identity through the memorialization process. This process, which according to Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson MP, may take up to another 10 years to complete, would be completed over twenty years after the Belfast Agreement was initially signed. That this process may be as long as the duration of the twenty-five year conflict itself is a testament to the complexity of peace processes, and the need for a long-term approach to achieving reconciliation.
While the Northern Ireland experience is contextually unique, the lessons learned from its process have valuable implications for conflicts around the world today. Lord Alderdice and Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson MP closed their remarks by noting that reconciliation in Northern Ireland was extremely difficult, and that conflict-ridden societies with more economic disparity and ethnic diversity than Northern Ireland face even greater challenges. This makes the work of CDPB and its efforts to share the Northern Ireland experience with the world even more critical.
By Kristin Bushby, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University