Lessons of Northern Irish Settlement

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A quarter of a century ago, it was proved that despite all the fears and risks, it is possible to peacefully end thirty years of internal conflict. How could it be achieved? Sergey CHEBAN, RTA: 25 years ago, in April 1998, the so-called Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It effectively put an end to years of clashes between Catholic nationalists seeking the unification of Ireland and Protestant unionists who were in favor of keeping the northern part of the island as part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast Agreement was the result of a series of consultations at the highest level and painstaking work of politicians and diplomats. It was presented by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, US President Bill Clinton and leaders of the four main political parties in Northern Ireland. This was a key document to end one of the bloodiest conflicts of our time, which claimed the lives of thousands of people and caused suffering to people of a relatively small region for several decades. On this anniversary occasion, Joe Biden, who is explicit of his Irish Catholic origin, personally arrived in the UK. The three-day tour paid by the White House Head to the island began with a visit to Belfast, where he met with the British Prime Minister and Northern Irish politicians. For Washington now, more than ever, it is important to recall the successful pages in the history of American diplomacy, which at that time had a serious potential for resolving long-term protracted conflicts both in the British Isles and in the Balkans. Despite the obvious desire to play the role of a “unifier”, judging by the reaction of the local press, Joe Biden did not succeed. The fact is that the current situation in Northern Ireland leaves much to be desired. Due to Brexit, this part of the United Kingdom, which did not support leaving the EU, was effectively cut off from the UK. To alleviate the situation, London even had to introduce customs control between the region and the rest of the country. In addition, last year’s parliamentary elections showed the majority of the Northern Ireland’s Catholics, bringing Sinn Féin (which advocates for a united Ireland) to the top for the first time in history. Protestants saw this as a dangerous trend towards the unification of the island, against which terrorist activity resumed. Nevertheless, despite the growing tension, the conflict is still considered resolved, since it relies on an effective system of balances that extinguishes sharp contradictions. This, in fact, is of interest both to specialists and to countries with frozen conflicts that have something to learn from the Irish. The main thing that the experience of Northern Ireland has shown is that the peace process does not simply start right away with negotiations, it must be carefully prepared. For example, today the prospect of discussing a final settlement in the case of Moldova and Transnistria seems vague and even risky. Maybe that is why, in addition to voicing empty statements, none of the parties dared to go beyond the comfort zone. Nevertheless, twenty-five years ago it was proved that despite all the fears and risks, it is possible to end the thirty-year internal conflict peacefully. How was this achieved? The architecture of the Northern Ireland settlement is based on several key principles, which opened the way to the final and satisfactory solution. The main condition for the strength of the post-conflict structure was the sincere disposition of both sides for peace. In addition, international players managed to find a realistic plan that allowed everyone to maximum secure their interests and save blushes. It is also important that not only the parties to the conflict, but also all external participants should come to an agreement. In Northern Ireland, the United States (Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell) played the main role of international mediators, as well as the British and Irish governments, which developed the domestic legal framework. In our case, the initiative must also come from an impartial and mutually acceptable mediator. In this regard, the existing 5+2 Format, where both the West and the East are represented, can theoretically serve as a kind of “collective player”. It is clear that the events in Ukraine strongly and not for the better affected the capabilities of this format, not only to perform some tasks, but also to operate in general. On the other hand, there are low chances as for now that a separate world power alone could solve everything. It is curious that back in 2012, the Irish OSCE Chairmanship actively tried to offer Moldova its experience in resolving a protracted conflict, both as a general model and in relation to individual sectoral issues. Nothing particular happened, although by a funny coincidence, 2012 became the year of defrosting and a qualitatively new stage in relations between the two banks of the Dniester. By the way, three years later, a Moldovan delegation consisting of the Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration and the Prosecutor General traveled to the UK to participate in a two-day seminar on the so-called transitional justice in post-conflict regions using the example of Northern Ireland. Our authorities became interested in studying the experience of the legislative solution of criminal cases instigated in the context of an unresolved conflict. It seems that at that time we were seriously considering the option of adapting the Northern Irish practice to Moldovan legislation in order to settle certain disputed issues with Tiraspol. Again, in reality, everything remained the same, probably due to the rapidly changing domestic political situation. And such serious moments just require a significant concentration of time and effort, combined with an internal consensus among all participants in the political process (which did not exist and still does not exist in relation to the Transnistrian issue). The main lesson of the “Northern Irish portfolio” is that all, even the most bloody conflicts in Europe, one way or another, end at the negotiating table. But the “happy-end” has a high chance of success only if the agreement reflects the main interests of all parties, covered with a dome of reliable and long-term international guarantees. Judging by some indications, the government and the reintegration office have already started the preparations for the final settlement. However, despite the promise to public at least some outcomes, nothing is really known about this work so far. That is, it can come down in reality to the usual information noise, as happened several times in previous years. This means that the idea of a “geopolitical solution” may again prevail in the minds of our officials, when senior development partners, preferably from the West, will do everything instead of us. I do not think it’s worth saying that this is a very bad plan. When you completely outsource the settlement of one of the country’s most important issues, you also lose the opportunity to influence its final model – and it may not be as profitable as expected.