In his Agenda for Peace the former UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali observed, the causes of war were pervasive and deep. Therefore, if peace, in a post-settlement society, was to become sustainable, it would have to address the deep-rooted causes of conflict or face the consequences of continuing civil and communal violence.
To shape a vision of how to tackle these underlying causes, Boutros-Ghali proposed developing the concept of post-conflict peace building. This concept aimed to transform war, violence, economic despair, social injustice and political oppression through peace building activities as a means of supporting societies and survivors find true and lasting peace.
By promoting the active participation of local people in peace building, Boutros-Ghali believed the underlying issues enflaming war, injustice and oppression, could be sustainably resolved. Through his vision, Boutros-Ghali attempted to conceptualize a pervasive peace within and between people, who could finally find security, truth and reconciliation.
Boutros-Ghali’s vision for this model of peace building can be seen in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. With a commitment to addressing the deep-rooted causes of our conflict, it was hoped a new era of participatory democracy, economic development, human rights and social inclusion could lay the foundations for a sustainable peace within and between the people of Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Ireland.
Attempts to transform this vision into a practical reality, however, have proven challenging. While the peace process has undoubtedly brought many positive benefits, and its successes have been rightly lauded around the world, there has been a noted failure to tackle the underlying causes of the conflict.
This harsh reality can be seen most evidently in the case of dealing with the consequences of political violence where, fifteen years on, it is still too soon to say, if our peace process has helped victims and survivors find truth, security, reconciliation and peace.
The failure to deal with the underlying issues of the conflict can also be seen in the looming spectre of growing unemployment, economic stagnation, increasing poverty, low educational attainment and ill health.
These polar extremes, of peace process success and growing poverty, are at odds with Boutros-Ghali’s vision, and have now raised the question of whether peace building in Northern Ireland is shallow or deep? With a trickle down peace dividend, too many marginalized, deprived and socially excluded communities voice concerns they have yet to experience the benefits of peace despite £1.35bn having been spent by the EU on post-conflict peace building activities since 1995.
As Boutros-Ghali notes, a failure to deal with these underlying causes of conflict ultimately challenges the potential to develop and sustain peace. And history shows those who fail to eradicate victimhood, poverty, inequality and social exclusion, inevitably create the conditions for further violence to erupt.
In constructing a shallow peace, we may unwittingly undermine our notable successes, banked since 1998. A shallow peace may also encourage more political violence, which is already on the rise and, like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, a flotilla of disputes, commemorations and enquiries, could ultimately emerge to plunge us back into another cycle of conflict and despair.
While peace industry professionals and political elites feel it is not appropriate to highlight our peace building failures and think it best to accentuate the positive gains, of a paramilitary peace and elite economic development, reasoned questions continue to arise on why our local peace building process has been unable to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and deliver a pervasive peace?
In his study, on the Idea of Justice, the Nobel prize winning author, Amartya Sen, warns that reason alone cannot prevail in answering such questions as the ‘prevalence and resilience of unreason may make reason-based answers to difficult questions far less effective’.
Yet if we are to build an effective peace we need to ask reasoned questions as to why the underlying causes of conflict are yet to be addressed? To ask such questions can be dangerous. A growing concern within local peace activism is that by raising questions about the underlying causes of conflict people are being demonized, as anti-peace or dissident, and ostracized within the peace building industry and across political and institutional elites.
As a consequence, civil society has been largely silenced and rendered ineffective in growing a vibrant participatory democracy. Increasingly, constituents are refusing to vote and disillusionment with the peace process is growing while thousands are sailing, especially young people, to find a better future and quality of life in other societies.
To avoid the politics of demonization and become more effective in seeing beyond the ‘prevalence and resilience of unreason’ by our political and institutional elites, academics at the Stanford Centre On International Conflict and Negotiation recommend developing shared visions that move reasoned debate towards concepts of a future where the underlying causes of conflict can be dealt with through a growth in trustworthiness, understanding loss acceptance and gaining just entitlements to make peace bearable.
In developing these common visions, of what a bearable future could look like, it may be possible to safely question why the peace process has been unable to tackle the underlying causes of our conflict, why victims are unable to find truth and reconciliation and why economic inequalities, poverty, ill-health, social and cultural exclusion still prevail?
With the construction of the Agreement our politicians, civil administrations and civil society, promised to use processes of post-conflict peace building, to work collaboratively and resolve the underlying causes of poverty, inequality, ill-health, social and cultural exclusion, decommissioning, security, policing and justice: to help victims, survivors and former combatants find a place, at peace with themselves, in our future.
In the absence of this promised peace it might now be necessary to resurrect new variants of ‘grassroots’ peace activism, or innovate an Ulster Spring, in order to realize the hope of 98. It may also be necessary to reconstruct or resurrect a more bearable vision of what a shared peace could look like. This resurrection process may also require a new indigenous Agenda for Peace to begin to tackle the underlying causes of our conflict at an everyday level.
As we reach the fifteenth anniversary of the Agreement we all now need speak out, to reenergize peace building at the local level, to innovate new solutions and develop more evidence-based conversations, and visions, of what this new and deeper Agenda for Peace could, and should, look like. With peace being too important to be left to politicians we also need to use all our fiscal, intellectual and social capital to resource and empower this pervasive peace building Agenda.
Fifteen years on, we need to ask, if our divided and traumatized communities can begin, once again, to resurrect a bearable and pervasive peace? Can we do this? Yes, we can!
About Seán Brennan
Seán Brennan is a part-time PhD candidate at the Queen’s University Belfast, School of Politics International Studies and Philosophy, researching Ulster Loyalism and the politics of Peacebuilding, Development and Security in Northern Ireland. He is a representative of the community on Belfast City Council’s Good Relations Partnership and has contributed articles for The Other View magazine, Pue’s Occurrences and Conflict Transformation Papers, Volume 9, Ethnicity and Nationalism (2005) and Volume 10, Peace by Piece (2005) and has contributed poems, The Gaza Ghetto (2008) and Belsen by the Sea (2008), for the Palestine Chronicle (16 July 2008). Seán also designs and delivers training in Community Relations, Conflict Resolution and Conflict Transformation and his Peace Building in Interface Communities programme was short-listed for the Times Higher Education Awards (2008).