In a way there is hardly a better figure than Martin McGuinness to take the lead in an extraordinary session of Iraqi peace talks which, it has just emerged, secretly took place in Helsinki.
The 16 representatives of Sunni and Shia factions who for four days, sat together in uneasy proximity, know that Mr McGuinness, now Northern Ireland's number two public figure, was an IRA commander.
So when he told them that violence should cease and that inclusive dialogue was the way ahead, they listened. In addition, they agreed a set of principles as a basis for further talks.
While it is an exaggeration to characterise this, as Mr McGuinness has, as "a tremendous breakthrough", it is surely encouraging that the round of talks did not end in bitter recriminations and angry walkouts.
At the same time, the 12 issues specified – commitment to non-violence and democracy, eventual disarmament, full participation of all in a political process and so on – demonstrate what a daunting task reaching eventual agreement will be.
Nonetheless, the fact that the conference was co-chaired by Mr McGuinness and a former South African minister, Rolf Meyer, must have driven home the powerful message that even the most apparently intractable conflicts can be brought to an end. Mr McGuinness and Mr Meyer made detailed presentations on how Northern Ireland and South Africa had reached political settlements. The Iraqis were, according to the Sinn Fein leader, "amazed and very impressed" to see him in government with the Rev Ian Paisley – "it had a massive impact on them," he related.
Once all sides had signalled they were amenable to consider these exploratory talks, a well-used international network came into play. There exist many organisations, some private, some academic, keen to facilitate such dialogue. At least two were involved in this instance.
One was the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative, an independent, non-profit organisation specialising in conflict resolution. Its founder, the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, has been involved in peacemaking in areas such as Namibia and Kosovo. In 2005 the group helped to broker a peace deal between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in Aceh after secret talks in Finland. Mr Ahtisaari, currently attempting to sort out the future of Kosovo on behalf of the UN, is also no stranger to Northern Ireland, having been involved for years in the process of arms decommissioning there.
The other group behind the Iraq initiative was a department of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, a college which has for decades sought to promote dialogue in Northern Ireland. As long ago as the mid-1970s Belfast politicians and paramilitaries were flown to Massachusetts for talks. A decade ago Boston academics helped take Northern Ireland political parties to South Africa for an exercise which, at first sight, seems to demonstrate the futility of such efforts. Both the African National Congress and the National Party invited Unionists and republicans to a conference in the veldt. Unionists insisted they should have no direct contact with the Sinn Fein delegation, refusing to travel on the same coach or even the same plane.
Because of this, Nelson Mandela ended up making separate addresses to two different – in effect segregated – audiences. The irony of this self-imposed apartheid was not lost on the hosts or those attending the talks.
Professor Padraig O'Malley, one of the organisers, said: "The South Africans didn't understand the intensity of the divisiveness and were astounded and nonplussed by it. They said, 'Wow, we thought we had problems – even in our worst days we were never like this'."
Although at the time the whole affair seemed a fiasco, some of the participants still believe it had value in increasing understanding between Unionists and more moderate nationalists.
One of the Sinn Fein delegation on that occasion was Martin McGuinness, who at that stage was learning how to make peace. His changed status is a telling indication of how far his personal journey has taken him: then he was a pupil, while today he has become an instructor.
Mr McGuinness's career as a conciliator has been relatively short but took a highly dramatic turn when earlier this year he and Ian Paisley took office together at the head of a historic new Belfast administration.
The fact that they did so was regarded as astonishing; so too was the way they found, right from the start, of working together in the most affable manner. As Mr McGuinness put it yesterday: "In the course of the last three months there hasn't been an angry word between us."
It was, of course, not always thus. For long years Mr McGuinness and other Sinn Fein and IRA leaders opposed formal talks with British governments, regarding any such advances as perfidious stratagems aimed at hoaxing the IRA into declaring ceasefires.
In those earlier times republicans were interested in international connections not as methods of facilitating dialogue but primarily as means to obtain guns and explosives.
Most of the IRA's armoury came, unofficially, from the United States and, officially and more spectacularly, from Libya, which in the mid-1980s provided large stocks of modern military hardware such as Semtex plastic explosives, flame-throwers and Sam-7 anti-aircraft missiles.
But that was then; this is now. As the years passed republicans came to place increasing emphasis on diplomacy rather than the weapons of war. In the early phase foreigners provided guns; in the latter stages foreigners, such as Martti Ahtisaari and the former ANC secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa, helped in the arms decommissioning process.
A huge irony, given the Iraq imbroglio, is the fact that it was America which helped internationalise the Northern Ireland question, thus broadening the issue in a way which significantly helped in its eventual resolution. Mr Ahtisaari was one of a group of international figures drafted into Belfast and headed by former US Senator George Mitchell, who was despatched by President Bill Clinton to provide a broader dimension.
Mr Clinton, originally reviled for giving a US visa to Gerry Adams, came to be viewed as much more even-handed, establishing relations with both republicans and Unionists as he acknowledged the complexities of the problem. Mr Mitchell himself had problems with the Rev Ian Paisley, remembering how he was shocked and made extremely uncomfortable by the noisy commotions the loyalist leader could cause. "I was accustomed to rough and tumble political debate," Mr Mitchell related. "But I'd never experienced anything like this."
Then in May Dr Paisley had a Road to Damascus-style conversion after years of attacking the peace process, and suddenly moved from opposing it to leading it. Mr McGuinness had with him in Helsinki a senior Paisleyite Westminster MP, Jeffrey Donaldson. His presence was significant in that Mr Donaldson has spent a lifetime opposing Mr McGuinness. He is also a figure with strong security force connections. Yet Mr McGuinness yesterday complimented him, saying: "We worked effectively as a team to lay before the Iraqi delegates the experiences that we had."
After years of exhaustive talks Mr Mitchell's chairmanship produced the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a breakthrough widely viewed as demonstrating the value of outside involvement.
Republicans greatly valued Mr Clinton, but relations are today much more chilly with the Bush administration, partly because while it continues to support inclusivity it applied greater pressure on republicans to give up their guns and abandon illegality.
Republicans were also against the war in Iraq, Mr McGuinness repeatedly urging Tony Blair not to invade. Whether this will increase his standing with Sunnis and Shia is not known.
One point which may, however, have an impact on Iraqis concerns the longevity of the Northern Ireland conflict. The death toll, which is under 4,000, is much lower than in Iraq. Yet the Troubles dragged on from the late 1960s, with violent deaths happening every single year, in an example of how conflict can persist through generations.
Mr McGuinness's critics say he and his associates could have helped ensure that the gunfire ended earlier than it did. Yet today even Ian Paisley accepts that the one-time man of war has become a man of peace, with lessons to teach Iraq and the rest of the world on how conflict can be resolved.
Differences greater than similarities
The divisions of Northern Ireland are simple compared to those of Iraq and sectarian animosity is tame compared to the furious hatreds leading to mass slaughter in Iraq. Some 3,000 people were killed over 30 years in Northern Ireland while the same number have died violently in a single month in Iraq.
Is there anything in the way the conflict ended in Northern Ireland that can help end the war in Iraq? The differences are greater than the similarities. In Northern Ireland there was a general recognition by all parties from the mid-1980s that there was stalemate. The IRA was not going to be defeated, but it was not going to force the British Army to withdraw by force of arms.
The US is still seeking a victory in Iraq though few politicians in Iraq believe any of the current players are going to be defeated. Neither al-Qa'ida in Iraq nor the more nationalist insurgent groups are going out of business.
The British Government brought in the government of the Irish Republic as a partner who had to be consulted over the north. But Washington has refused to engage Iran in discussions at anything except the lowest level. It berates Syria as having no business in Iraq.
How about reconciliation between communities? This has not really happened in Northern Ireland and in Iraq it is difficult to see how reconciliation can occur since 60,000 people are fleeing their homes in fear of attack every month. Sunni and Shia can no longer live in the same street in Baghdad. Arab and Kurd can no longer live together in Mosul. There were pogroms in Belfast in 1968-9 but none of the population movements we are seeing in Iraq.
President George Bush's claim this week that victory is still possible makes it impossible to take the first steps towards ending the conflict in Iraq. It is as if the British Government had devised no new policies after internment in 1971 and hoped with one more military push it could eliminate its enemies.
Patrick CockburnReuse content