Podium: Peace will be found in Ulster

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The Independent Culture
George Mitchell

The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, given by the former chairman of the Northern Ireland

peace talks

IN THE past few months, I've often been asked what lessons Northern Ireland holds for other conflicts. I'll try to answer that question now.

I begin with caution. Each human being is unique, as is each society. It follows logically, then, that no two conflicts are the same. Much as we would like it, there is no magic formula which, once discovered, can be used to end all conflicts.

But there are certain principles which arise out of my experience in Northern Ireland that I believe are universal.

First, I believe there's no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. They're created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.

When I arrived in Northern Ireland I found, to my dismay, a widespread feeling of pessimism among the public and the political leaders. It's a small, well informed society, where I quickly became well known. Every day people would stop me on the street, in the airport, in a restaurant. They always began with kind words: "Thank you, Senator." "God bless you." "We appreciate what you're trying to do." But they always ended in despair. "You're wasting your time." "This conflict can't be ended." "We've been killing each other for centuries and we're doomed to go on killing each other for ever."

As best I could, I worked to reverse such attitudes. This is the special responsibility of political leaders, from whom many in the public take their cue. Leaders must lead. And one way is to create an attitude of success; the belief that problems can be solved, that things can be better. Not in a foolish or unrealistic way, but in a way that creates hope and confidence among the people.

A second need is for a clear and determined policy not to yield to the men of violence. Over and over, they tried to destroy the peace process in Northern Ireland; at times they nearly succeeded.

Seeking an end to conflict is not for the timid or the tentative. It takes courage, perseverance and steady nerves in the face of violence. I believe it a mistake to say in advance that if acts of violence occur, the negotiations will stop. That's an invitation to those who use violence to destroy the peace process, and it transfers control of the agenda from the peaceful majority to the violent minority.

A third need is a willingness to compromise. Peace and political stability cannot be achieved in sharply divided societies unless there is a genuine willingness to understand the other point of view and to enter into principled compromise. That is easy to say, but very hard to do, because it requires of political leaders that they take risks for peace.

I know it can be done, because I saw it at first hand in Northern Ireland. Men and women, some of whom had never before met, never before spoken, who had spent their entire lives in conflict, came together in an agreement for peace. Admittedly, it was long and difficult. But it did happen.

A fourth principle is to recognise that the implementation of agreements is as difficult, and as important, as reaching them. That should be self- evident. But often, just getting an agreement is so difficult that the natural tendency is to celebrate, then go home and relax. But, as we are now seeing in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, in the Balkans, getting it done is often harder than agreeing to do it.

Once again, patience and perseverance are necessary. It is especially important that our citizens, British and American, both busy at home and all across the world, not be distracted, or be made complacent by the good feeling created by a highly publicised agreement. If a conflict is important enough to get involved in, it must be seen through, all the way to a fair and successful conclusion.

There is uneasiness among some about the continuing release of prisoners. There will be further controversy when reports are received from the independent commission on policing and the criminal justice system. Policing is especially sensitive. Chris Patten and his colleagues on that commission have an important and difficult task.

It will take extraordinary determination and commitment to get safely through all of these problems. But I believe it can be done, and will be done. It would be an immense tragedy were the process to fail now. The people of Northern Ireland are sick of war. They're sick of so many funerals, especially those involving the small white coffins of children, prematurely laid into the rolling green fields of their beautiful countryside.

They want peace, and I hope they can keep it.