Finding the way forward

My experience of the Northern Ireland peace process suggests that conversations have been just as important as negotiations in finding a way forward at critical junctures and on vital issues.

Conversations often afforded an opportunity to discuss issues at length and to gain a better insight into the thinking of others, away from the pressures of the negotiating table.

Civil society played a central role in facilitating those conversations and without them, I doubt we would be where we are today. Seminars, workshops even conferences were regularly the medium in which more open discussions with a wider input enabled politicians to gain ideas and find new ways of breaking down some of the more intractable issues.

That was during the direct rule era and before the days when the Northern Ireland parties ran our government. People had a bit more time to focus on those issues without the distraction of trying to turn around an economy or transform the health service or education system. Since 2007, finding that time has been much more difficult. Ironically, there are probably more conversations now than then but they are about the stuff of government rather than necessities of peace-building. This is not to decry initiatives like the shared future strategy or indeed the Haass talks but the current impasse over issues like parades, flags and dealing with the legacy of our troubled past suggests that there is a need for conversation and the generation of new ideas.

That is why, in my opinion, the establishment of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building (CDPB) is important. The concept is to create a space where people can conduct those conversations and to encourage the development of ideas to assist our political leaders in resolving the outstanding issues that stand in the way of building the united community that will cement the peace process and strengthen its foundations. This is not about undermining or diminishing the role of the political leadership. Indeed, the Centre will be there to support the leaders in finding solutions. It will be open to everyone and offer a place where politicians, academics and civil society leaders can converse and share their thinking.

The Centre will also support the work of those who have been sharing the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process with others in or emerging from conflict. We do not pretend that our peace process is perfect by any means and indeed the value of the lessons from Northern Ireland are as much to be found in the flaws of our process as in the elements that have been successful. We too can learn from the experience of other peace processes and the CDPB will seek to assess and evaluate those experiences as we continue to grapple with the outstanding issues here in Northern Ireland, such as dealing with the legacy of our troubled past.