Faith & Reason: A proper role at the negotiating table

Churches in Northern Ireland have for too long confined themselves to condemnations of violence and comforting its victims. As the peace process in Northern Ireland wavers, Ian Linden suggests that the churches ought to look beyond Stormont for insights into how the peace process might be supported.

The Churches in Ireland "found it very difficult to adjust to the peace process", Archbishop Robert Eames was recently quoted as saying. Understandable enough - and commendably honest - given the symbolic role played by religion in the Anglo-Irish conflict fought out between Republicanism and Ulster Unionism. The recent re-emergence of "sectarian" killings is only the latest reminder of this.

The traditional response to this of both the Catholic and Protestant churches has been to condemn the violence and then largely to confine themselves to pastoral work within their respective communities, particularly in consoling the bereaved. This is admirable, but is it adequate? Such an inward focus binds churches to their communities, but makes it difficult for them to reach across the sectarian divide.

Yet churches or their leaders have played a key role both pastorally and as national mediators in peace processes around the world in which they have not been seen as totally neutral. So why are the Stormont negotiations talked about as if they were a unique example of dialogue taking place with a shooting war uneasily in abeyance?

The Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) is making a comparative study of peace processes in Colombia, Guatemala, Angola, East Timor and South Africa. Each, of course, has its own unique dynamics but there are certain commonalities. Each process has identifiable stages: facilitating dialogue towards ending armed conflict, negotiations themselves, peacekeeping and monitoring agreements, and finally removing the causes of the war, implementing socio-economic and political changes. The peace process in Northern Ireland is somewhere between the first and second of these difficult stages, which is why extensive consultations with all groups, including paramilitaries, has become necessary. Mo Mowlam has understood this, and has grasped the nettle with her visit to the Maze prison yesterday.

The example of other countries which are moving along the process is instructive. In the case of East Timor, the United Nations convened the first round of an All-inclusive Intra-East Timorese Dialogue in 1995 and an important unofficial mediator in this process has been the head of the Catholic Church in East Timor, the Nobel prizewinner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Bell. The Indonesians view him as a dangerous nationalist but he has been a major bridge-builder.

Studied neutrality has been no option in South Africa. The churches there played a significant role in the peacekeeping and monitoring phase, during 1992-4, in a local and international ecumenical monitoring programme. The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu became the chair of the controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the leading peace-building structure of the next phase, which attracted a number of church personnel.

In Guatemala talks between the government and the guerrillas who opposed it resulted in January 1994 in an agreement setting out the framework for negotiations and the establishment of an "Assembly of Civil Society". Although not represented at the negotiating table, the assembly was officially mandated to present the views of civic groups to the parties in the peace talks. Boycotted by the powerful business associations, it none the less received the backing of many in the Catholic Church as well as the United Nations. Through the assembly the organisations of the indigenous Mayan people put forward their demands which resulted, in 1995, in an Accord on the Rights and Identity of Indigenous Peoples. The assembly was initially chaired by Monsignor Quezada Toruno, a highly respected church leader.

A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. Churches and church leaders seeking to intervene in peace processes face the same constraints as any civil or non-governmental organisation. Certain phases are more open to intervention than others. In the final stages of a dirty war, for example, the interests of both sides usually coincide when it comes to setting up provisions for amnesty laws and immunity from prosecution for those who have been involved in violations of human rights; churches find it difficult to obtain redress for the victims in the face of the military power of the governments or their opponents.

But at other stages - such as when negotiations are in their infancy - churches can intervene effectively and play a key role in the powerful coalitions of civic groups, as in Guatemala and South Africa, to influence outcomes and exert useful pressure to bring back or keep parties at the negotiating table. The special quality of the churches is that their structures enable vital links to be made between local, national and international initiatives for peace. This is important because deals made in smoke-filled rooms in the absence of local peace-making and peace- building are likely to fall apart. And conversely local initiatives that do not dovetail into the national dialogue can simply be crushed, as they have been in Colombia.

The churches in Ireland, therefore, need do more than "adjust" to the peace process. They need to become part of it.