“People who love peace should never watch peace be made.” This is one of my favourite quotes. I heard it at a peace building conference in the early 2000’s and it really made me reflect on the reality it describes, particularly after growing up in Northern Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s.
Last week, we went home to Ireland and my kids asked me why that time was called The Troubles.
Where to begin? Communities were ripped apart and 20,000 troops a year were stationed in a tiny part of Ireland made up of only about 1.5 million people. Walking to school as a child meant passing three armed checkpoints or observation points in less than a mile. The news every night was beset with who had been killed, who had been arrested, and where had the latest bomb been set off.
As a community, we were completely divided. I went to a segregated school and if it wasn’t for sports and extracurricular activities, I may not have ever gotten to know people from the other community; people who just lived down the road.
The Troubles went on for thirty years. But 25 years ago this week, something amazing happened.
Everything came to a head and politicians, people, and citizens decided that things had become too much; that the fighting had to stop; that we had to choose an alternative. Decades of negotiations culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.
The peace deal was signed off in a referendum in 1998 and it was the first time I ever voted. I was just 18 and was presented with this remarkable document, which set out how we would be identified, what nationality we could choose, and how community redress mechanisms would work. It established an equal opportunities commission and it covered border controls and demilitarisation. It also included the requirement to release prisoners – people who had done bad things on both sides of the debate.
Put starkly, the vote asked: do you want to choose hope, or do you want to keep negotiating, keep fighting, keep refining the deal? 71% of the population of Northern Ireland and a much larger percentage of the population of the Republic chose hope. They accepted that the agreement was in some ways a messy, imperfect compromise, but it was enough to move forward – to give peace a go.
Twenty-five years on, there are still unresolved tensions in the agreement and small subsets of the community are walking away from peace. But for the majority, we’ve never looked back. I don't think there's any coming back once a group of people have made that brave decision to move forward with peace, particularly when you see the transformative impact that peace can have.
After the agreement was signed and demilitarisation began, I remember a real change in the environment. Suddenly, going out didn’t require going through checkpoints or soldiers, and police returned to their usual cars. The news was normal (it had human interest stories!) but more than that, we started to see a change in our economy and our society. It was a change that created optimism and hope, and which ultimately transformed the economy of Northern Ireland.
The town I grew up in had one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK in the early 70’s, but it's now a bustling, booming, and wealthy region – a true example of a peace dividend.
It was this peace dividend that inspired me to leave and get involved in other people’s conflicts, and in doing so, have learned a couple of things:
1. Peace building is messy. It requires bravery and that you speak to and interact with people who have done bad things, since it’s usually only they that can make a change. Accepting that people can change—that former combatants can become peacemakers—is hard for many people to accept, but it’s often the most critical precondition for peace talks.
2. Whilst those perpetrating the conflict may have to make the first steps, their licence to operate is provided by the silent majority. In too many conflicts—through fear of reprisals, of punishment, of attracting attention—people choose not to confront perpetrators and in doing so, provide them with the space to operate. This was perhaps one of the most difficult things I remember realising. Were we all somehow complicit in what happened? I think this collective realisation helps cement peace when it comes – realising everyone’s collective responsibility to protect the peace and never provide that space again.
3. The peace dividend has to come fast. People need to feel the benefits of their bravery early, be that through improved personal freedoms or improved economic prospects. Every peace process is a battle for the undecided / the waverers. There will always be people who will not accept peace and those that will protect it at any cost, ensuring the peace dividend comes fast ensures that those agitating for continued fighting lose their support.
4. Peace deals are never perfect. They’re riddled with a concept that pervades the Good Friday Agreement – constructive ambiguity. Specifically, the ability for each side to see enough to move forward, enough to choose hope.
5. Hardest of all, peace doesn’t happen. It’s not an “event” or a “destination”. Sustaining peace takes as much effort as making peace.
Perhaps the most moving articulation of peace for me is the final episode of “Derry Girls”, a sitcom that takes place in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. In it, an 18-year-old girl is grappling with the decision to support the Good Friday Agreement, particularly around prisoner release. “What if we vote yes, and it doesn’t even work?” she asks. Her grandpa responds: “And what if it does? What if no-one else has to die? What if this becomes a ghost story you’ll tell your wains [kids] one day? A ghost story they’ll hardly believe?”
When I moved to London, I couldn't understand why the police didn’t carry guns, why they didn't wear body armour, or why they don’t look like soldiers. This is not the reality my children or my nieces and nephews are living, and I’m grateful for the opportunity through my work to help families across the globe create the same peace for themselves in the hope that they’ll too tell their kids ghost stories they’ll hardly believe.
Sinead Magill is Palladium Managing Partner based in London, UK. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.