The Democratic Unionist Party's Peter Robinson speaks to the press outside Stormont House after Ireland's Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron left talks with Northern Ireland's political parties at Stormont House in Belfast, December 12, 2014 .
(photo credit: CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS)
Ideas which helped solve the Northern Ireland and Colombia conflicts can help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ex-Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson and ex-Irish deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore told The Jerusalem Post in interviews on Wednesday.
Gilmore is the UN envoy to help solve the decades-old Colombia conflict.
Although both expressed optimism over the ability to resolve intractable conflicts, they were quick to clarify that every conflict is unique and requires approaches specifically tailored to that conflict.
During the Innovations in Conflict Resolution and Mediation Conference at Tel Aviv University, Robinson said that, “There are key ingredients for a successful talks process: First, there need to be leaders. Second, all of the parties to the conflict need to... genuinely want to resolve the issues” and “not just say it.”
“When you have those, any problem can be overcome,” he added.
Addressing the question of how people can overcome decades of pain and mistrust from killing on both sides, the former Northern Ireland prime minister said, “I don’t think they ever get over it. The best you can expect... is to come to terms with the issues.
“You make a judgment call whether reaching an agreement with your adversary stops further people from losing their lives. I would have to admit that on many occasions as first minister looking across the room at [Deputy Prime minister] Martin McGuinness and others… my mind would go back to my friends I had lost during the violence,” he said. “There is part of you that wonders if you have properly honored their memory by reaching an accommodation with those responsible for such crimes... I [thought] revenge would not honor their memory. The best way was to end the violence and show that terror didn’t win. To embrace the democratic process. It was a way forward for all of us,” he added.
Robinson relayed another message: “I come from a tradition in Northern Ireland opposed to terrorism. My entry into politics came after the murder of one of my school friends by the IRA.” He said that making sure security issues were fully addressed and that “terrorists were giving up their weapons” was part of the “essential ingredients” for overcoming enmity and anger, both at a national level and for him on a more personal level.
Robinson added that strong leadership was important since at early stages of a peace process, leaders can “lose considerable support” from the public for making concessions to longtime adversaries.
However, he added that, “As time went on, people saw that [our] judgment was right, the IRA gave up” its weapons and the conflict, and “people gave us the best electoral results.”
Gilmore expressed many similar messages.
He said that “there are a number of similarities” in most conflicts, yet stressed “that all conflicts are different.” Referring to those in Northern Ireland and Colombia, he said that “both [were] very long conflicts... where there were a series of unsuccessful earlier attempts to [reach] an agreement. This shows the importance of persistence and patience. Both had courageous political leadership.”
Gilmore added that it is important to be patient as it, “takes time to negotiate.” Both former leaders said that earlier offers by Israel, which were rejected by the PA should not discourage it from making additional ones.
Gilmore noted that the Good Friday Agreement took four years to negotiate. The roots of the conflict in Ireland could be traced back 800 years and ran into additional problems after World War I.
Furthermore, Gilmore said that, “the issue of policing was a particularly difficult issue” even after the agreement, but that “20 years later there are still issues dividing society. There is a political stalemate in Northern Ireland at the moment. But that... is being dealt with through politics [and discourse] rather than violence.”
Asked whether solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is uniquely difficult, since it may require that at least 80,000100,000 Jews be moved, he mentioned that in Colombia there were six million displaced persons, but that warring sides are still finding ways to address competing land claims.
Next, Gilmore was pressed whether negotiations would be possible with the Fatah-led West Bank Palestinians, since Hamas has only offered ceasefires and is unwilling to change its covenant which calls to eradicate the Jewish state. In response he said: “we have to deal with the reality. Gaza is the reality. If I can draw on the Colombia experience, the FARC was the biggest most organized and most extensive terrorist organization in the world at one stage. It had a fulltime army of 20,000 [soldiers]. But I was present in Colombia in July 2017 when they handed over the last of their weapons into containers brought by the UN... Many people in Colombia thought that was not possible,” he said.
One area where Robinson and Gilmore differed was regarding boycotting West Bank Jewish products. Robinson criticized the Irish Senate for passing a resolution calling to boycott such goods, which the Irish government ignored. However, Gilmore said that “we need to have a strong diplomatic relationship and have a mature and warm personal relationship” but also be able to “be critical of public policies.”
Gilmore added that while both sides have problems, “in my view... Israel does have a greater responsibility for a variety of reasons: relative strength, the exercise of power, control and presence.”
Alon Tal, who presented the conference, told the Post on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement: “As academics, we believe there is much to be learned in our own neighborhood from the Irish experience. This is also true for the innumerable Israelis and Palestinians who have become pessimistic about ever reaching an agreement that allows the two societies to move forward towards a peaceful resolution of our differences.”
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