You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Lord John Alderice on Peace in Northern Ireland, Interview with Prominent 1998 Good Friday Agreement Negotiator

ICE Graveyard 25/04/2016 Samuel Ramani
DEFAULT © Provided by The Huffington Post DEFAULT

Lord John Alderice is a Northern Ireland politician, who served as speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998-2004, and leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 1987-1998. He played a significant role as a negotiator in the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement and became one of the youngest life peers ever upon his election to the House of Lords in 1996. He currently chairs the Liberal Democratic Party caucus in the House of Lords, while also serving as a senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford and remaining actively involved in conflict resolution initiatives in the Middle East. Lord Alderice agreed to share his thoughts with me on his experiences as a Northern Ireland peace negotiator, after his speech at the St. Antony's International Review launch in March 2016. The transcript of that interview is below:
First of all, I would like to ask you for your thoughts on the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Specifically, what made it special and why did it succeed, where the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement had failed?Lord Alderice: The 1985 agreement was conducted between the British and Irish governments. It was an important step because it bolstered inter-governmental cooperation, while reaffirming Northern Ireland's status as part of Britain. But it also antagonized a lot of people because of the way it was brought about. It was also a bit deceitful. The British government kept reassuring the Unionists it had no real intention to forge an agreement, while it was negotiating all along. The Irish government was telling the SDLP, the main nationalist party, that there was going to be an agreement and it would involve the SDLP in discussions. That did not happen.
Dialogue between Northern Ireland and Ireland; and between different political factions was at a stand-still even after the agreement, when I began working with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on conflict resolution. I became leader of the Alliance Party after this agreement in 1987, because it was the only political party that included both Protestants and Catholics.
The Belfast Agreement involved everyone. There were no nasty surprises, despite the long period of implementation. Crucially, Belfast concluded with a referendum involving Northern Ireland and the Republic. Getting people involved every step of the way is crucial; it didn't happen in 1985 but happened in 1998.
One of your most notable diplomatic achievements was convincing policymakers skeptical of negotiating with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to include them in the peace talks. How did you manage to get the IRA included in the process? Lord Alderice: There was a lot of opposition and at the start, I was not sure including the IRA would be successful. John Hume, the main nationalist leader had already engaged with the IRA to try to persuade the IRA to have a cessation of violence. My position, personally and politically, was to engage with the IRA as soon as there was a cessation. And as soon as there was a cessation, I got involved. To be honest, I did not ask for the permission of my party to do it. I thought that the best thing to do was to show leadership and go do it. If I was unsuccessful; that would be the end of me and the effort. But if I was successful, it would be hard to argue against it. So I got involved as did John Hume, despite serious personal and political risks.
In 2001, there was a crisis surrounding the decommissioning of weapons by the IRA that was so serious that some analysts thought the Belfast order would break down and conflict would return. Did you ever feel that the peace agreement was going to break down? And second, did you ever consider asking for UN peacekeepers to assist Northern Ireland in defusing the crisis? Lord Alderice: First of all, there was external involvement, especially from the European Union and the United States. External involvement was helpful, because it occurred at a time in which great statesmen defined their success on the ability to resolve conflicts rather than prosecute wars, and public optimism surrounding the European Union implored EU leaders to push for peace.
I do not think bringing the UN would have solved the problem. Typically, the UN is brought in when everything is in a disastrous state. I was concerned at that stage that the peace could have broken down and there are points even more recently when I feared a return to conflict. There has never been a point in which I felt it was impossible for us to regress, but is it likely? It is not likely now as the emotional drivers for bitterness, anger and hurt are no longer there in the same way. It is perfectly possible for people of any community, gender or orientation to get to the most senior positions in the police, politics, academic life, economic life and so on.
Political and economic representation inequality fuelled many of the grievances behind the Northern Ireland conflict, like in other sectarian environments such as Apartheid South Africa. Therefore, how important was the devolution of parliament to the establishment of peace in Northern Ireland? And how has peace persisted despite continued economic inequalities?Lord Alderice: First of all, Northern Ireland was very different from South Africa. There were many people in the Protestant community who were poor and a significant number of Catholics who were middle class. As time went on, that trend has continued. Today, some of the most discontented people are working class Protestants. The sense of disrespect, humiliation and unfair treatment, was even more important in driving the conflict than inequality. That problem still continues, but as reforms have been made and historical legacies have been confronted, the situation has improved.
Economic development also strengthens the process. But if we had exclusively focused on economic development and did not address the other issues, the problem would never have been resolved. It is important to emphasize that there are many regions of the world poorer than ours that did not have this kind of violence and terrorism. The terrorism problem got worse again at a time when Northern Ireland's economy was performing well and Catholics were able to enter the third level of education paid for by the state.
Devolution was absolutely critical as there is no other way to get people to feel a sense of joint investment in Northern Ireland and its future. Catholics and Protestants needed to work together jointly as elected representatives of their community. Doing things from on high and at a distance does not bring communities together.
Finally, I would like to ask you about the current situation in Northern Ireland. While there has been sustained peace since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the process of integrating Catholic and Protestant communities is still far from complete, as the existence of peace lines demonstrates. What do you think needs to be done to solve this problem?Lord Alderice: As long as you still have people on both sides worried about what people on the other side are going to do to them, they do not want the wall taken down. So what you have to do is find ways to diminish the sense of threat and anxiety on each side. That's why many years after signing a peace agreement, there is still anxiety about criminality. Much of the concern relates to the activities of former paramilitaries. There is no sense of community agreement and sharing. That's what we are working on at the moment. As we speak, some of the walls are being taken down but we cannot complete the process without the agreement of people on both sides. Progress will come. The process is taking longer than hoped, but many tangible steps towards progress have been made.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, Diplomat magazine and Kyiv Post, amongst others. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon