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Speeches, 4/11/2008

Speech by Harri Holkeri at a seminar on Northern Ireland

Speech by Mr. Harri Holkeri KBE at the seminar "Lessons Learned in the Northern Ireland Peace Process" on Wednesday 9th of April at the Government Banquet Hall Smolna, Helsinki.

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"A Finnish Perspective on the Northern Ireland Peace Process"

In my mind, the partition of the island of Ireland, and the whole historical process behind it, is and has been primarily a political question with social and economical factors. I am not a specialist in the overall matters of Ireland. For almost two and half years I was involved in the peace process spending about half of that time on the island. During that time, I learned some aspects of Irish history, some features of its rich culture and modern development. I saw its flourishing economy and the friendliness of the people both in the south and the north of the island. This, however, does not qualify me to be an expert on Irish questions.

I am here today mainly to share with you my experiences of the Northern Ireland peace process. My presentation covers that part of negotiation period in Northern Ireland Peace Process which ten years ago led to the so called Good Friday Agreement. Since then very many things have changed. The political scenery is new. Many open questions have been solved, for instance police force issue is no longer the problem it used to be and the start of decommissioning has daylight and so on. Nevertheless the Good Friday agreement is still valid and new elements of its implementation appears.

Now I try to focus your attention to some general considerations in stead of going into any of the immeasurable details.

Nevertheless, what I have learned about negotiations from my years in political life and with the peace process in Northern Ireland can probably be summed up as a sort of – if I may say so - ”ten commandments” for negotiators. Perhaps these following ten rules will help you crystallize your own views of the negotiation processes at peace talks in general.

Commandment One: "Re-establish trust." In a centuries-long conflict, you eventually reach a point where the parties on both sides completely lose all perspective of each other's intentions. Yet, no peace process can succeed unless some degree of trust is restored. Given the time and efforts the parties may have spent destroying trust, rebuilding trust is necessarily slow. Small steps in the right direction give encouragement to each side.

Often it starts with the venue. The parties of the conflict merely agree to sit in the same room together. They don't have to talk to each other directly, but rather they may use a third-party mediator. In most cases, this eventually results in dialogue. In the best cases, there is quick realisation by both parties, that despite their differences, they also share common interests.

Brinkmanship is a nice art in circus but it has no place in constructive negotiations. All parties need to understand this from the start: negotiations are not zero-sum games like chess. One cunning adversary is not seeking to use the negotiations to take advantage of an opponent. Negotiations are held to give participants the opportunity to explore possible futures that serve their respective interests.

Negotiations have to be based on what in today’s management jargon is called a"win-win" principle, whereby acceptance of a democratic process creates added value that benefits all parties concerned.

Commandment Two: "Both sides need to understand the other side's needs." It is not possible to reach agreement merely by pursuing one's own interests. Lasting results are only possible if the needs of both sides are respected. The law of reconciliation says that one side cannot achieve its own objectives until the needs of the other party have been understood.

Three: "Arbitrators shall remain absolutely unbiased at all times." Any outside parties involved in the negotiations must consistently refrain from taking sides to assure they have the confidence and trust of all parties in the negotiations.

Four: "The parties authorised to negotiate must be able to deliver anything they agree to." Parties to negotiations must have more than formal credentials. For the process to succeed, those with the power to implement what has been agreed must be represented. The credibility of each side depends on this. Normally, it is expected that the current government or leadership of each side commit themselves fully to the process before proceeding forward.

Five: "A negotiator shall have infinite patience." In 1903, the German poet Rainer Rilke wrote, "Allow your judgements their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation, then birthing."

In other words, it may take far longer than anyone imagined to reach agreement because the parties must ultimately come to that agreement on their own. The critical role of the negotiator, therefore, is to stay calm and keep things moving forward. There is always something to discuss. We must see ourselves not as enforcers, but as midwives to the birth of peace.

Six: "No brandishing of weapons at the negotiating table ? ever." It almost goes without saying that any peace talks must be prefaced by an unconditional cease-fire. That's why they are called peace talks.

Seven: "Violence breeds further violence." Ultimately, arguments over which side shot first are irrelevant, because somebody also shot back. All modern societies have police forces and other institutions to secure the peace. Their goal is minimising the use of force.

Eight: "Pursue decommissioning rather than disarmament." If groups pursuing their interests through armed violence do not themselves seek a political solution to a conflict, there is little chance that violence will stop. In other words, forced disarmaments seldom last. Decommissioning ? A new term in the peace negotiator's vocabulary? was introduced because it carries the notions of choice and free will. To be precise here, what the negotiator seeks is a decommissioning of mindsets.

Nine: "No political solution is final or permanent." The weight of the past in most conflicts is already enough for most people to bear. Therefore, it is futile to attempt to factor future violence into a settlement. What we know for sure is what we know today. And that's that.

Ten: "Be human." Tears and laughter are what distinguish the human animal from all others. There is no rule that emotion or wit should be excluded from the negotiating situation. In a classic negotiator anecdote, the negotiator proposes that one party "Walk a mile in the other man's shoes." The party agrees gladly, and says, "This is great. Not only do I get new shoes out of this deal, but I'll be a mile away by the time the other guy figures out what happened."

So that is my list of simple rules for the negotiators. Somebody else might have a different kind of list. Now I would like to go more into detail on how these rules apply in a real life peace process.

During the negotiation process in Belfast I sometimes had to explain why somebody from the frozen north would be brought in to help resolve a conflict in another country. After all, we are only about five million Finns. That in itself is nothing special; we're pretty much like people anywhere. Rather, our history has given us experience on how to come to terms with the challenges of peaceful coexistence.

The area that is now Finland has been disputed and inhabited by different cultures for many centuries. Much of our history involves wars conducted on Finnish soil by larger powers.

Our nation's recent past was characterised by deep ideological divisions. Only nine decades ago, Finns were killing each other in a bitter civil war that ensued right after Finland had gained independence.

Finns had to learn to reconcile their differences through political means simply to survive as a nation. We learned this the hard way.

We also have two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. We have managed to overcome much of our earlier language differences by learning to appreciate this difference as a cultural treasure.

Finland has two official religions, the Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church.

Finns learned to overcome tribal and sectarian identities in favour of a common identity to preserve Finnish society generally. Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this was after the Second World War, when Finland ceded 11% of its land area to the Soviet Union. We made room for the displaced refugees from Karelia, about 10 % of our total population that time, giving them farmland and housing to make a new start. In many ways, their initial fate resembled that of the Palestinians. Yet, the nation as a whole came together to acknowledge the needs of these displaced people. The Palestinians, by contrast, were herded into refugee camps, and to a large extent, their fate is still unsettled more than a half-century later.

I have always in this connection mentioned the Treaty of Aland Islands. It is unique in international law. What is important is that we not only respect the rights of the political majority, but at the same time the need to protect minority rights. Ultimately, our deliberate political decisions to protect diversity have to be proven correct, strengthening our identities as individuals and as a nation.

On the international stage, our efforts at reconciliation have earned Finns a reputation as defenders of democratic principles and citizens' rights.

These, perhaps, were some of the reasons a Finn was chosen to participate for instance in my case in the Northern Ireland negotiations.

I was called to join the peace process in November 1995. However the peace process had started earlier. The British and Irish governments had made strong and serious attempts during the previous years. Over the years they had agreed upon a basic framework and declared their will through many joint documents. After long bilateral negotiations, the governments had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. It included the recognition of the "principle of consent," which meant that there could not be any change into the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people in the province.

In August 1994, the IRA announced its cease-fire, or in their words,”a complete cessation of military operations." This was followed by a similar announcement by the loyalist paramilitary organisation on the other side. Actual peace talks, however, did not begin. If we look at the Commandment Six “No brandishing of weapons at the negotiating table”, we still had the problem of armed groups, and the threat that terrorist organisations might seek to bomb their way to the negotiation table.

In November 1995, president of the United Sates Bill Clinton visited both parts of the island of Ireland to push the peace process forward. The then heads of the British and Irish governments, Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach John Bruton took the initiative and invited former Senator George Mitchell of the United States to be a chairman, general John de Chastelain, Canada's former Chief of Defence Staff and myself as members of a commission with a remit to report to both governments on the decommissioning of illegal weapons. Our commission or "International Body" as we were called, was asked to give views on two specific issues: one the willingness of those with weapons to engage in decommissioning, and two the methods how this could be carried out.

We realised soon that our actual goal was "decommissioning of mindsets." That is why we decided to go outside the scope of our original task. Our conclusions recommended that the parties of the talks adopt six principles of democracy and non-violence. Furthermore we suggested that some decommissioning of weapons during negotiations would enhance progress and move the process forward.

These six principles have since come to be known simply as the Mitchell principles. Because of their importance to the Northern Ireland peace talks, I will quote them in full.

"Parties to the negotiation shall affirm their total and absolute commitment:

a) To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;

b) To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations;

c) To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to an independent commission;

d) To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or outcome of all-party negotiations;

e) To agree to abide by terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with they may disagree: and

f) To urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions."

All parties participating in the Northern Ireland peace talks signed these principles.

When the peace talks began in June 1996, we “the three members of the International Body” were invited to chair certain central parts of the negotiations. I won't go into the details, but had to do with the sovereignty of the parties I will say that we were not involved in those parts of the talks that United Kingdom or relations between the two governments.

The negotiations themselves were structured into three "strands." Strand One of the negotiations covered the relationships within United Kingdom. Strand Two involved the relationships within the island of Ireland. Strand Three concerned the relationships between the British and Irish Governments.

We three independent chairmen had no ready-made solution for a settlement. But because the main problem in Northern Ireland was the lack of trust between the parties involved, it was hoped outsiders might help to build at least some trust. We often said publicly that there were only two things we could bring to the process: impartiality and unlimited patience.

In preparation for all-party talks, special Northern Ireland Elections were held in May 1996. 110 delegates were elected to the Northern Ireland Forum. The election system was somewhat complicated, but it guaranteed that every important party, ten parties in all including those with links to the paramilitary organisation, were given seats in a new temporary institution designed to play a consultative role.

Representative parties were subsequently required to nominate negotiators for all-party talks. Each team of negotiators had a maximum of three delegates and three support persons.

The IRA broke the cease-fire in February 1996 and failed to restore it by 10 June that year. As a result, Sinn Fein was excluded from the opening session of the negotiations, and the process became multi-party instead of all-party.

More than a year later, on 20 July 1997, the IRA announced the restoration of its cease-fire. When the talks resumed in September, Sinn Fein took its seat at the negotiation table. Sinn Fein's presence led to a walk-out by the unionist parties DUP and UKUP.

As in all other crises in the modern world, the main issue in Northern Ireland has been how to eliminate the violence. In other words, Northern Ireland needed to find a political solution, a settlement, which provided peace, stability and reconciliation.

However an agreement was reached in those negotiations. One way or another all those "Ten Commandments" which I mentioned earlier were fulfilled. What I want to underline was the decisive role of the two governments and the two Prime Ministers, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish colleague Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. When the new labour government of Tony Blair took office in United Kingdom the status of Scotland was arranged anew. The widening of Scottish autonomy gave indirectly new impetus to the negotiations on Northern Ireland.

The ten years old agreement in Belfast is officially called the Belfast Agreement, but it is better and more symbolically known in public as the Good Friday agreement.

We also know that the result was overwhelmingly accepted in referenda in both the north and south of the isle of Ireland.

The result in the Republic of Ireland was almost unanimous support for the agreement. 94% of the southern Irish vote was in favour of the outcome of negotiations, which included dropping their territorial claims to the North from their country's constitution.

Even in Northern Ireland, the result was encouraging. 71.1% of the voters said Yes to reconciliation. Nevertheless, while public polls indicated broad-based support for the agreement, many questions remain unanswered.

The political agreement is always just a beginning. The next stage is the implementation of the various difficult details. Good Friday agreement left open many crucial issues and tension among the parties continued. The peace process needed new efforts.

Since 1969, the year when what the Irish refer to as "the troubles" began; the international mass media has followed all the violent events of Northern Ireland quite closely and intensively. The stereotypes of the conflict are well known. “The Protestants and the Catholics are against each other.” Murders and bombings were broadcasted almost live.

My observations are probably different from those of an ordinary citizen who follows the mass media reports. We are all too some extent taken in by the old rule of journalism that "Bad news is good news," as well as its corollary "Good news is no news." (“No news is good news” was not valid)

In other words, the news we see, hear and read does not represent the whole truth. Most people of Northern Ireland have never been involved in violent actions. Quite the opposite, the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the province have constantly supported peaceful resolution to the conflict. Seen in this light, the role of religion has been an outcome rather than a reason for the conflicts.

Social and economic costs of the violence to the society have been high. The greatest cost from nearly 30 years of terrorist violence has been the tragic loss of life and the misery suffered by the communities involved. According to the statistics, from 1969 to Good Friday ten years ago, the security situation had claimed a total of more than 3,200 lives and resulted in over 38,300 injuries. A whole generation in Northern Ireland was grown up knowing nothing but "the troubles."

In economic terms, the price of the violence of the past 30 years is almost impossible to quantify.

The exercise of power almost inevitably involves coercion or violence at some point. When it does, those on the receiving end usually have little option beyond submission or fighting back with more violence? And violence begets violence. If a group of people choose to achieve their interests through violence, others will resent them and view any of their actions thereafter with deep suspicion. Evidently, it is easier for individuals to forgive and forget bad acts done to them than it is for a group of people to do so. Collective memory, apparently, neither forgets nor forgives. It only seeks to make sure that wrongs done to a previous generation are remembered, and hopefully avenged, by the next generation.

Thus, it is extremely difficult to cultivate the principles of equality and democracy in such suspicious soil. Certainly, many well-meaning people have tried. It is a classic double-bind problem: The social contract that Northern Ireland needs can only evolve out of long-term peaceful coexistence; but such peace has been close to impossible given the almost complete lack of trust on the part of both parties. In theory, extended cease-fires are possible, but in the long run, people must accept that concern for the welfare of those on the other side is also in their own interest. It is only then that we can build a lasting peace. This problem is not specific to any culture or part of the world.

Moreover, we should not close our eyes from the fact that uncertainty and conflict breed in environments that support great social and economic disparities. Economically advantaged people may envy or resent their equally well off neighbours, but they do not wage war on them, and most certainly not because of differences in religious beliefs or social traditions. But if you live in an area with 60% unemployment, as has been in certain pockets of Northern Ireland, it is not hard for desperate people to see the well-off as exploiters or as the enemy. Nor does it prevent one from considering extreme measures to rectify the situation.

Before I conclude, I would like to say that the role of religion in political and social conflicts could be significant.

Religious feelings can also gain ground and rise from social conditions. People who see that their living conditions are hopeless compared to those of their neighbours can seek justification from religion to deeds that have nothing to do with the basic message of the Christianity.

But the people make these kinds of solutions themselves. In the case of Northern Ireland, the churches as institutions have not been involved.

I regret that I do not have time to detail the contents of the ten year-old Good Friday agreement. Rather I'll return to my midwife metaphor. What matters about the agreement is that it is a complete living document. True, its gestation and birth were fraught with complications at every juncture. But now, like any new child, it represents a society's hopes for the future.

Good Friday agreement gave a springboard to the implementing political forces. We wish them all the best and pray for the continuation of peace and stability in former troubled corner of Europe.

In closing, I'm probably obliged to tell how our reconciliation efforts served the long-range interests of the average Irish person? north or south. In negotiations, we tried to get unionist supporters to focus on the fact that nowhere in any previous document or decision with the UK was it ever written in stone, as it is now in the Belfast Accord, that majority rule would prevail in their own country. Finally, a basis for self-rule in Northern Ireland has been laid. I remind them that their overriding political goal has been achieved. Taking a quick breath, we then turn to the nationalists and point out that that never before have the groups on this politically divided island ever shared so much in common as in the Belfast Agreement. They, together with the citizens of the Irish Republic, constitute the clear majority of the island's inhabitants, and now this is recognised. Their rights were and we ended by reminding both parties that by accepting the responsibilities of peace, the people in Northern Ireland could finally get building a better future.

Both sides won in this deal, and they have the treaty to prove it.

 

 

 

This document

Updated 4/11/2008

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