Achieving peace: Lessons shared from Northern Ireland to Colombia

The rejection of the peace deal between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in October 2016 cast doubt on the future of the peace process, but now gives the opportunity for legislators and the parliament to play a central role ensuring any agreement represents all sectors of society.

The experience in Northern Ireland shows that setbacks on the path to peace are expected but divisions can eventually be healed and peace achieved. Through WFD’s Multi-Party Office (MPO), lessons from politicians and other key figures involved in the Northern Ireland peace process were shared with their Colombian counterparts in a series of roundtable discussions which took place in early February.

On 14 February, the first workshop looked at the role that the Church and other community leaders can play in peace-building. During a series of preliminary meetings in early February, Rev. Harold Good, a minister in the Methodist church and former Director of the internationally acclaimed Corrymeela Community Centre of Reconciliation, and Father Michael Kelleher, who encountered the peace-making work of Father Alec Reid who played such a vital role in the Northern Irish peace process through his work as a youth minister in Clonard Monastery, met various key stakeholders involved in the peace process in Colombia.

“Churches have a huge role to play. We need to bring healing. We need to get the people who caused the hurt to engage with the people who were hurt” explained Rev. Harold Good. This theme was explored with over 50 representatives from the Colombian Congress to provide insights into how similar initiatives can work in Colombia.

Inclusion of different groups is key for the success of any peace agreement, especially to ensure effective cooperation between governments and legislatures in achieving a deal that represents justice for all citizens. Drawing on lessons from Northern Ireland, the second session explored the role the British Government played and efforts that were made to integrate and include ex-combatants in the process.

(Above: Rev. Harold Good and Father Michael Kelleher meet with key groups involved in the Colombian peace process ahead of the workshops with Congress this week)

Monica McWilliams, signatory to the Good Friday Agreement and a delegate to the multi-party peace negotiations from 1996-1998 for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a political party which she co-founded, explained how crucial effective power-sharing was to securing a deal in Northern Ireland. This approach to governance was painful for some communities in Northern Ireland but “a peace agreement means sharing power – especially with your enemies” she said.

“The concept of changing your enemy into your opponent was very important” Michael Culbert, formerly of the IRA and representing Coiste Na n-Iarchimí, the national organisation of the Republican ex-prisoner network throughout Ireland, explained. Following the peace agreement in Northern Ireland the number of Sinn Fein representatives in the legislature grew to almost half.

Chris Maccabe, shared his wealth of experience from a range of roles in the UK Government’s Northern Ireland Office. Chris noted the significant constitutional and legislative changes that were needed to deliver a successful peace agreement. “The British Government”, he explained, “recognised the need to get as many people round the negotiating table as possible” and by holding elections in which the top ten parties could be part of the negotiations an inclusive process was ensured.

The final session of the week looked at implementation of peace agreements and how each stakeholder, whether ex-combatant, civil society representative or politician, can contribute to ensuring a long-lasting peace.

“So many people gave so much to us – that’s why we’re here today” said Monica in the final session where she reflected on the role President Clinton played enabling Gerry Adams to attend the peace talks in the US, or President Mandela’s inspirational visit and offer of support. “You won’t take all our ideas but you might find some useful” she added.

As the experience in Northern Ireland demonstrates bringing together divided communities will encounter challenges, but ensuring you learn from the experience is key. This is what WFD, through the Multi-Party Office, is trying to achieve with the Congress of Colombia. “In Northern Ireland we had many setbacks on the road to peace” explained Rev. Harold Good “but we learned from each of them – just as you have in Colombia. It’s a powerful example for the world to learn from”.

(Top: Key stakeholders from Northern Ireland participate in round-table discussions with the Colombian Congress, Middle: First workshop on 14 February explored the vital role of the church and community leaders in peace-building with Colombian Congress)

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