The lessons of peace learned in the North may not be that easy to export

Opinion: It is insulting to black South Africans to compare their experience to that of Catholics from the Bogside

Behind the debate on whether Gerry Adams can really be regarded as a mini-Mandela lies a suggestion that the conflicts in South Africa and Northern Ireland have been, if not identical, then sufficiently alike to allow parallels to be drawn between the ways they were resolved – insofar as they have been resolved.

Indeed, the Northern peace process is commonly advertised as providing a template for solving conflicts the world over. In May last year, delegates from the 57-member Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe assembled at Dublin Castle to examine the Irish process "as a case study of possible relevance to conflict resolution efforts elsewhere". Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore told the conference that, "Exporting the lessons learned in Northern Ireland has been one of the themes underpinning Ireland's chairmanship of [THE OSCE)]this year."

Gilmore didn’t offer delegates any specific examples of lessons learnt here being successfully applied in other troubled regions – despite delegations from the North for years fanning out across the globe to share wise secrets gleaned in the course of the struggle for peace in Ireland.

In January 2009, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Kelly and Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's close associate in preparing the path to war in Iraq, travelled to the southern Philippines for talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been waging a war for independence for more than 30 years. Martin McGuinness, former Northern Ireland Office official Chris MacCabe and ex-secretary of state Paul Murphy had shuttled between the Tamil Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka. Veterans of the North had also provided advice in Thailand and the Basque Country and to Palestinians.


Belfast vs Kabul
A few months after the OSCE conference, the export drive continuing, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson and SDLP man Denis Haughey travelled to Kabul to assist the Afghan High Peace Council in efforts to bring the country's warring factions to an accommodation. Upon returning to Belfast, Donaldson pronounced the visit "a considerable success . . . We got a very positive response and we've been invited to come back again."

There is no reason to doubt the genuineness of the peripatetic peace processors’ belief they have something valuable to offer. But it is also difficult to identify where their attentions have had any meaningful practical effect in hastening an end to violence. Except in the broadest, vaguest terms, the conflict in the North did not conform to the shape of conflicts elsewhere. South Africa makes the point.

Soweto vs Bogside
The level of oppression of the black majority in South Africa was of an altogether different order from the oppression of Catholics in the North. It is insulting to black South Africans to imply the experience of Soweto has been much of a muchness with growing up in the Bogside.

Moreover, South Africa is a big country of huge natural resources and great strategic importance: more than 50 million people; reserves of oil, gold, diamonds, uranium, coal, cobalt, iron, copper, bauxite, silver, grain and cocoa beans; and it is crucial to the deployment of sea power in the Indian Ocean and the south Atlantic. Every major power had an interest in the outcome of the South African conflict.

In contrast, no major power had a compelling interest in how the North’s Troubles were to be brought to a close. The US was able to involve itself and adopt a relaxed and expansive attitude precisely because it had no vital interest in the conflict. US leaders might have sought a foreign policy success for their electorates, but they will not have felt any need to secure a share of the North’s wealth.

The North’s experience is unexportable for another, related reason: its underpinning principles are elusive and incapable of definition.

The problem in South Africa was white minority rule. The solution was black majority rule. The process of transition was fractious. We can doubt the degree to which it has been achieved. But nobody involved was in doubt about the direction of travel.

In the North, on the other hand, the nature of the conflict was never addressed, much less defined, in the course of the negotiations. Nothing fundamental had to be faced. This made the deal a doddle to achieve compared with almost anywhere else, and impossible to replicate anywhere else.

It pleases us to imagine ourselves an exemplar for all the world, to see ourselves as relevant to the great issues of the age, to try to establish who is the Mandela and who the de Klerk. Delusions of grandeur.