Prof. Jennifer Todd, the Director of IBIS, presented some initial results from an ongoing research project at a seminar titled, ‘Patterns of Conflict Resolution: How to Learn Lessons from Northern Ireland,’ on Wed. 27 October 2010 at the Institute for Transitional Justice at the University of Ulster in Belfast.
The one-year project, ‘Patterns of Conflict Resolution: Mechanisms and Sequences of Peace-Making and Peace-Building: How to Draw Lessons from Northern Ireland,’ is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Conflict Resolution Unit of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
Academic experts in conflict resolution from around the world are contributing to the project, which compares the Northern Irish peace process with other attempted peace processes in Mindanao, Zanzibar, Macedonia, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Great Lakes region of Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Todd opened her presentation by saying that perhaps there are not that many lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland. She said the Northern Irish context was unusual because it:
- took place within a strong, democratic, stable state,
- it received exceptionally effective interventions from international actors such as the US and EU,
- the socio-economic inequalities between conflicting parties had been narrowed considerably over time, and
- the peace process came in a late phase of a very long running conflict.
Todd then shared results from the research on Mindanao, the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Zanzibar and Rwanda. Like Northern Ireland, these places had a series of peace settlements, negotiated by elites, which initially failed to ‘stick.’
She said that some of the reasons for their failures were:
- the inability of states and/or the international community to support and ‘sell’ the agreements to ‘spoilers,’ people who might see themselves as ‘losing out’ under the terms of the agreements,
- a failure to address socio-economic inequalities (thus mitigating a major contributing factor to conflict), and
- a failure to implement institutional reforms, such as reforming police and security structures
For me, what these results reveal is a consistent and a striking failure on the part of policy-makers and implementers to really tackle the underlying causes of conflict.
Do would-be conflict resolvers pour resources into, for instance, international mediators and negotiators at the expense of reform measures that would really ‘bed-down’ the peace?
Is the main lesson from Northern Ireland that peace of a sort came because Western wealth opened the way for people to work for economic equality and better relationships on-the-ground?
Todd seemed to be getting at this when she warned against what she called a ‘synchronic’ approach to conflict resolution, which takes a relatively short-term view of peace processes and focuses nearly exclusively on political agreements, security dilemmas and strong international interventions.
Rather, she advocated a ‘diachronic’ approach. This approach, while not discounting the importance of establishing power-sharing political structures, also devotes attention to what’s happening outside of the ‘high politics’ of negotiation and mediation.
This means addressing the issues that potential ‘spoilers’ might use to mobilise opposition to peace agreements, such as high inequalities and discriminatory educational and hiring practices. This may involve recognising that the state itself bears responsibility for the way in which its own institutions produce inequalities, so that state reform may also be necessary.
In short, peace agreements aren’t worth the paper they are written on unless they are supported by meaningful reforms that address the causes of conflict.
She added that outside of Northern Ireland, there have been few examples in which meaningful institutional reforms have taken place (as in the case of the Police Service of Northern Ireland), or in which civil society peace activists have received the level of support and funding that has been available through the EU and the British and Irish governments.
I too think that Northern Ireland is exceptional in this regard, although I fear that this is often overlooked in comparative international research that is enamoured with the minutiae of consociationalism.
I am not sure if simply advocating a ‘diachronic’ approach will do enough to draw attention to the fundamental role that institutional reform and civil society must play in peace processes.
Todd and her team are still collating the results from the country case studies, and while some general themes are emerging, it is clear that the research will not result in some ‘check list’ of steps that must be taken to have a ‘successful’ peace process.
Rather, Todd stressed the importance of context. She said that it is most helpful to compare the various elements that come together in each context to create processes both of conflict and of peace, and that these processes have their own dynamics.
Thinking about peace and conflict as dynamic processes requires a certain flexibility of mind and a willingness to take a holistic approach.
For me this highlights the importance of getting policy makers to think beyond the letter of political settlements and to attempt reforms that mitigate inequality and support processes of change, forgiveness and reconciliation among people on the ground.