16th March 2012 Beirut, Lebanon
Reconciliation and coexistence: five ideas for Lebanon from Northern Ireland
Yesterday, I joined an inspirational conference on reconciliation and coexistence, led by interfaith NGO Adyan. It reminded me of the great Margaret Mead line – ‘Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.’
Beirut is of course the right place for this discussion – at its best the model of coexistence amid diversity; and at its worst, a tragic reminder of conflict amid diversity. And because there is one thing on which all of Lebanon’s many religions represented at the conference could agree: love thy neighbour.
I was asked to chip in on the lessons of Northern Ireland. I suggested five:
– Everyone has a backstory, and this must be understood and given space. My Great Grandfather was a strict orangeman, a Protestant Minister in Belfast who was infuriated at what he saw as loss of Protestant jobs to Catholics after the Great War. My Great Uncle was the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, one of the toughest and most thankless tasks in policing, then as now. I married a Catholic from the Republican South of Ireland, whose ancestors had fought on the other side. And I worked as the Northern Ireland adviser to two Prime Ministers. I was with Gordon Brown through weeks of painstaking, exhausting and often infuriating negotiations between Republicans and Unionists. And I was with David Cameron as he put together his extraordinary response to the Saville Inquiry’s report on Bloody Sunday. The detail mattered, as did the ability to challenge preconceptions. Everyone has a backstory, and these stories need to be told, heard, and shared if we are to have a shared future. At some point, Lebanon will need to share its stories, however raw.
– you have to identify a common vision, and leaders who have the courage to work towards that vision. In Northern Ireland, public opinion shifted towards a rejection of violence. This was a journey not an event. I think the Lebanese, since the civil war, have made a similar journey, which is one reason why Lebanon has held together, defying logic and those who have sought division for narrow political or sectarian gain. But I think that important starting point must now be accompanied by a clearer sense of what Lebanon can and should be in the future. I’m keen to develop a conversation about Lebanon 2020, and I believe that in doing so we will find that different communities find more that unites than divides, just as we found in Northern Ireland. When this vision exists, those who try to use terror to break it will fail. The Omagh bombings, the worst terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, took place after the Good Friday agreement. They shook confidence in the process, but did not break it, because people knew there was something bigger at stake than a vicious cycle of revenge and retribution.
– you have to be prepared to sit down with your enemy. In Northern Ireland, such meetings were often excruciating and painful. They demanded great political risks, and uncomfortable compromises. It took time for bitter enemies to see the common humanity in those they had fought. We had to avoid unrealistic expectations or conditions – if we had demanded disarmament of the IRA before talks could start, we would still be at war with them today. The process takes time, creativity, patience, a thick skin. And it takes extraordinary and inspirational individuals. I recently met an Englishwoman who was working on sharing the lessons of reconciliation. I asked her how she had become involved. She said that her father had been killed in the IRA bombing in Brighton. I turned to the man next to her, with whom she had travelled and would shortly share a platform, and asked him his story. ‘I was the bomber’.
– there has to be an incentive for politics. If you want people to put down their weapons, you have to be able to show that they can better secure their legitimate aims through a political process. In this respect, while I understand the anxiety some feel, I think that it is welcome that Hizballah are becoming more involved in state politics in Lebanon. They have a constituency, and a voice. They should have a seat at the table. They, and other parties in Lebanon, should secure their political objectives through legitimate processes rather than violence or threats of violence. There is nothing like governing to realise the challenges of government, compared to the tidy comforts of opposition.
– finally, while at key points you need external support to break the logjam, the process must ultimately be owned by you. The UK would probably not have been able to sit down with Sinn Fein without pressure from the Americans, who could see that we needed to change the paradigm. The Unionists and Republicans in Northern Ireland would not have been able to work together in the way they did without concerted pressure from the Irish and British governments. Where trust is lacking, there often needs to be a sense of an impartial referee, whether verifying arms have been destroyed, thinking creatively around problems when both parties want talks to fail, or simply providing a neutral space and standing back. But ultimately we found that in Northern Ireland, the individuals involved, and the communities they represented, had to want it too. And had to own it.
Of course, every situation is different, and we should not overstate the similarities between Northern Ireland and Lebanon. But I hope that we can do more in the coming years to develop this conversation, and to share experiences and ideas, especially on practical ways to educate young people about coexistence, an investment in Lebanon’s future as a tolerant and diverse society.
You only have to stand on the rubble of nineteen civilisations in Byblos to remember to forget everything you thought you knew. But what I do know is that Lebanon is an idea worth fighting for, not fighting over. And with education, vision, leadership, patience, and people like those I met at the Adyan conference, anything is possible.