Leaders' personal chemistry determines war or peace

Thu, Feb 23, 2012, 00:00

Even those with the highest intellects have to recalibrate emotions to build peace from the wreckage of conflict

AS THE old saw rightly has it, you don’t make peace with your friends, but with your enemies. However, it neglects to mention that, in respect of an intra-country conflict at least, once they decide to make peace, protagonists can’t afford to keep acting like enemies for long. In fact, if their attempts at peace-building are to be ultimately successful, it is vital that warm relationships develop between at least some of the leading players from opposing sides.

The earlier this happens the better, because the critical mass of communities and core constituencies – who must be brought along – take their mood directly from the top.

After years of being stuck behind seemingly insurmountable barriers, the South African peace process only really took off after Rolf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa (chief negotiators respectively for the National Party and the ANC) struck up a friendship following a contrived (by others) meeting during a weekend fishing trip.

In stark contrast, the Northern Ireland process appeared to travel quite a distance while relationships between the main protagonists remained arctic. However, our settlement only survived in such an atmosphere because it consisted largely of a set of impositions by powerful outside interests. Left to our own devices, we wouldn’t have got past once-removed “talks about talks”.

It should be remembered that the peace process began as a result of the personal chemistry between Albert Reynolds and John Major, and was brought to (theoretic) fruition by the equally friendly triumvirate of Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

However, putting in place the structures necessary for peace is one thing, delivering actual peace is quite another. Powerful outsiders or no, during the post-settlement period when the main local actors were barely speaking to one another, Northern Ireland lurched from crisis to crisis. If this outright hostility had continued, it would surely have been only a matter of time before one crisis too many pitched us back into conflict.

It was when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, as joint leaders, struck up a friendship that the process began to flourish. Although we enjoyed poking fun at the “Chuckle Brothers”, the undercurrent of relief at their light-hearted antics was palpable.

Thankfully, Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have been able to develop a relationship every bit as close – and perhaps even warmer – than that which existed between McGuinness and Paisley. The sight of the pair of them convulsed with laughter the other week in Derry, or sitting together a few weeks earlier at a GAA match, is all the reassurance Northern Ireland society needs that the peace process will not be derailed.

To gauge the importance of good relationships at the top, try imagining the public mood in the North, and the prospects for maintaining peace if, against the current backdrop of increased republican (and some loyalist) dissident activity, Robinson and McGuinness were fighting like ferrets in a sack up at Stormont. The difference between war and peace is personal chemistry amongst leaders, or the lack of it.

The development of friendships, mutual respect and trust amongst participants from all sides in a peace process leads naturally to their acquiring a sense of being engaged in a joint enterprise, which is essential. Consequently, to score points against the other side in a collaborative endeavour feels like a betrayal of colleagues, and makes life difficult for the joint enterprise, and therefore oneself.

While it is incredibly liberating to finally realise that you respect, like and trust someone you have been in conflict with – and whose ultimate political ambitions you diametrically oppose – this can be an extremely difficult position to reach.

Even those with the highest intellects have to radically recalibrate their emotions to build peace from the physical and emotional wreckage of conflict. For some this may prove impossible, and the most you can ask is that they say or do little that will cause problems.

For those (understandably) weighed down by the past, compromise can too easily feel like a betrayal of the dead and the injured (rather than seeing failure to reach compromise as a betrayal of the still living and the yet-to-be-born). For every participant, remembering one’s dead while dealing daily with the real or imagined authors (at least by extension) of their demise is bound to raise personal anxieties around traitorousness.

But these gradually dissipate as protagonists realise the essential humanity of people on the other side, and the simple truth of another old saw: “There, but for an accident of birth, go I.”

Peace has not only to be won, but stringently maintained. And in this most important regard, McGuinness and Robinson are doing a magnificent job. Last week, speaking of his virtual deafness in one ear, and the tinnitus that Martin McGuinness suffers from, Peter Robinson joked that they probably get on so well because neither can hear half of what the other is saying. They seem to be hearing one another (and the vast bulk of the rest of us) just fine.

Thank God.