Some years ago, as fathers often do, I gave a piece of advice to my three children. In fact it was more of a plea than a piece of advice. I told them to stay close to each other because bad times were coming when the only people they could really depend upon would be family and very close friends.
You might find this strange advice from someone who has spent all his adult life working to try to bring people together to find better relationships across internecine divisions. Indeed I was very fortunate to live in the generation that was able to find a way through our historic feud in Ireland. Not only has the long-running terrorism of the late twentieth century been brought to an end in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but there is every reason to believe that we are embedding a new non-violent way of addressing our historic differences in Ireland. So why this dark warning?
Since the later years of my experience as a politician in Northern Ireland, I have continued to devote myself to understanding terrorism and politically-motivated violence – not just analysing the processes, but finding ways to address them. Like any other doctor, I am not satisfied with a diagnosis, I want to find out how to advance healing. This ‘furor sanandi’ (as some might regard it) has taken me to many parts of the world to explore how far the lessons we learned in Ireland have relevance to the human propensity for inter-communal violence in other places. We were indeed a fortunate generation. It is true that people in Northern Ireland had become weary of violence, but it was the context, history, institutions and culture of the post-war European Union that made a new set of British-Irish relationships possible. In addition, the world economy was buoyant, and at that time major geo-political figures like Gorbachov, Mandela, De Klerk and Bill Clinton, and some British and Irish politicians, especially British Prime Minister, John Major and Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, saw their role as one of resolving conflicts.
However in the years after the 1998 Agreement it became clear that while we continued to build peace in Ireland, the Middle East Peace Process, which had been an encouragement to our efforts, was running into the sand, the European Project was losing momentum and the global economy was experiencing its greatest set-back since the 1930’s.
As I involved myself in efforts to address conflicts in various parts of Europe, in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and South Asia, I began to understand more fully that we had only succeeded in Northern Ireland because the key outside stakeholders were no longer pursuing any selfish, strategic or economic interest in our affairs – instead they were trying to help us find peace, stability and reconciliation.
However in the Middle East things were getting worse. The principles we had followed in Northern Ireland were no less relevant but, in that region the key external stakeholders insisted on pursuing selfish, strategic and economic interests instead of peace. I was reminded of this yesterday when I was reading the weekend The New York Times Magazine. It was entirely devoted to a single extensive report entitled, “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart” http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/11/magazine/isis-middle-east-arab-spring-fractured-lands.html?_r=0
I was reminded how long the feeling of foreboding had been developing in me, not just through reading this moving and disturbing article but also by the publication last month of the Report of the Iraq enquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcott – a former Permanent Secretary at the UK’s Northern Ireland Office and a participant in the early talks process.
After 2003 I had refused invitations from the British Government to go to Iraq because I was opposed to the approach of Prime Minister Tony Blair since going to war there. I knew it was disastrous, and I knew that with his Northern Ireland involvement, he must have known better. However, after 2007, I engaged in a number of peace initiatives in Iraq, particularly with my friend, Padraig O’Malley, and a few other political veterans of the processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa. One of these initiatives involved us meeting near Helsinki with representatives of the various parties in Iraq and reaching an agreement committing them to 12 principles based on the Mitchell Principles that were the foundation for progress in Ireland. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/mcguinness-welcomes-baghdad-peace-agreement-1.943191
Leading members of Iraq’s rival Sunni and Shiite political parties participated in this ‘Helsinki Process’. Akram al-Hakim, Iraq’s Minister of State for National Dialogue was present, Sunni Arab politician Saleh al-Mutlaq and a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, Humam Hammoudi, Shiite chairman of the Iraqi parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the biggest Sunni political party and representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr were all participants too.
When we went to Baghdad in July 2008 for the formal signing of the agreement, the US-supported Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki tried to create problems for us, but all the parties still signed off at a major public ceremony covered on television and attended by the international community. On his return to Belfast, Martin McGuinness said of the experience, “If you want a glimpse of what World War III would be like, it’s there on the streets of Baghdad, so I think it’s of vital importance that the process, which is now beginning to move, moves speedily.”
We had briefed the US Ambassador while we were in Baghdad, and then in October some of us travelled from Northern Ireland and South Africa to Washington DC and testified before a special hearing of the relevant panel of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Democratic Congressman, William Delahunt. (You can view it in full on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KQ3CPoFBvU ) As a result I can say with confidence that the US Government were fully aware that in 2008 an initial agreement, not only could be reached, but had been reached involving all the parties in Iraq. However at the Congressional hearing I warned that ownership of the process by the Iraqis might not be satisfactory to America and her western allies. I was deeply concerned that if the US continued to force her priorities on the Iraqi people and blindly support Al-Maliki, they would wreck prospects for a way forward.
In 2009 we followed up with a further mission to Baghdad to build on the Helsinki II Agreement and address the continuing issue of Kirkuk but the concerns I had felt in Baghdad and had spoken about in Washington DC were sadly well-founded.
As with the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the revolution and elections in Egypt and the worsening situation in Syria, it was clear that our current crop of global leaders would continue to force forward their own agendas and were more concerned with prosecuting conflicts than resolving them. What my colleague Martin McGuinness had said about World War III was right on the mark and as time passed I found myself speaking increasingly in private and in public about an “impending catastrophic conflagration”.
Recently some of these comments were picked up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his Presidential Address to the Anglican Synod in November 2015 when he said – “We will not likely ever be forgiven if this Synod turns inwards at this time of crisis, thinking only of ourselves and our own preoccupations, and that if we neglect the fact that all around us is a great struggle, described recently by Lord Alderdice, who was so instrumental in the Northern Ireland peace process. He described what is happening all around us as the Third World War.”
I am increasingly referring to this as the “Third Global Conflict” to emphasise that it is not just a rerun of the disasters of the 20th century. In this the US and Europe are not only adopting a deeply flawed approach, they are directly contributing to the catastrophic dissolution into chaotic violent conflict across the globe.
This is what I was warning my children about, and it is getting worse. It was not inevitable. There are other, better ways of dealing with the situation, but just now global leaders are not prepared to put shallow, selfish, short-term, strategic and economic interests to the side in favour of global peace, stability and reconciliation. That is why I recall the line so often attributed to the Liberal British Foreign Secretary,The lamps have already gone out in the wider Middle East and North Africa.
In these fearful and dangerous times we must not forget all that we have learnt so painfully in Ireland, and dare not fail to keep the flame of hope alive.