Taking risks for peace

Gary Mason
Tuesday 21 Nov 2023

Lessons from the Irish Peace Process in the 1990s and beyond could have much to offer in the Palestinian-Israeli context, writes Gary Mason



 was born, grew up, and still live in that sectarian cockpit called Northern Ireland.

Those from the British Unionist tradition call it Northern Ireland; Irish Nationalists, many times, do not use that word and call it “the North” or the “six counties.” People in the Middle East understand the power of words: Israelis call the 1948 War the War of Independence and Palestinians call it the Nakba.

Having lived as a young boy through the early years of the conflict in the Irish space, when many commentators asserted that “this conflict will not last,” little did I realise that it would last through my boyhood, teenage years, and well into my adult life. Some believed that when the British army arrived here in 1969, it was for a limited operation to restore law and order. However, the operation officially ended at midnight on 31 July 2007, making it the longest continuous deployment in the British army’s history and lasting 37 years.

The last six weeks have grabbed the world’s attention, as the Middle East has once again spilled into violent conflict. Many commentators, academics, diplomats, and religious leaders are asking the age-old question: will there ever be any form of peace and stability in the region?

Looking back to the early 1990s, within the global context there were primarily three conflicts that were grabbing the world’s attention: South Africa, Israel/Palestine, and Northern Ireland. Most commentators saw Apartheid slowly coming to an end in South Africa, and with the Oslo Accords, many believed that Israelis and Palestinians were slowly getting over the line. It seemed to be that troublesome island of Ireland that was lagging behind.

Yet, here we are three decades later, and while the Irish Peace Process has not been without its difficult moments, it is still seen as one of the more successful of the last 50 years.

Most conflicts seem to have land, identity, and religion at their core. These concepts were part of the Irish conflict, and they are also present in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While the Irish Peace Process is still imperfect, civil society played a key role in it, and several of its leaders could have much to offer to their colleagues in the Palestinian-Israeli context. This is particularly in relation to allowing civil society to be the social glue that in many ways holds the Irish Process together.

It has been suggested that many efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed due to a flawed methodology of pursuing peace, namely that the conflict can be resolved by a selected and exclusive leadership. But such a strategy fails to address the complex entanglement of grievance, belief, and ideology that characterises the region’s context and which are at the root of this conflict.

Therefore, an inclusive peace process is required – one of societal shifts where senior and mid-level political leaders, community leaders, religious leaders, and civil society all have a role to play in communicating the need for real and difficult action in pursuing peace.

My organisation, Rethinking Conflict, has hosted over 1,000 Israelis and Palestinians in Belfast and Dublin over the last ten years. These Palestinians and Israelis have been from all political parties and have included senior civil servants, people from academia, representatives from NGOs, and religious leaders. These visiting delegations have highlighted several key learning experiences from their visits.

First, political leadership is essential to achieving peace. Leaders on all sides must sincerely believe that change is preferable to the status quo and then be willing to take the risks to achieve peace, whilst providing the vision that maintains the confidence of their grassroots supporters.

Second, a desire to break the cycle of violence to save future generations from the horrors of conflict plays an important role in creating an environment for peace. This desire for a better future encouraged leaders to take the risks and face down accusations of betrayal from within their own communities in order to achieve peace in the Irish context.

Third, a lack of trust between opposing sides is inevitable, but it cannot be used as an excuse to not start talking. Trust does not come at the start of the process, but it develops over time through dialogue (at times meeting secretly), by making and meeting commitments, and building confidence through concrete actions.

Fourth, attempts to resolve the conflict through military force are ultimately futile and do not result in sustainable security for either community. Instead, a cycle of violence flourishes as each side seeks to “hurt the other side as much as they hurt you.” Security is only achieved when dialogue is prioritised, root causes of conflict are addressed, and new frameworks and political institutions are established that give ​space for each community to peacefully pursue their visions.

Fifth, grassroots organisations and civil society have a particularly important role to play in ​helping society find a way to heal past historic animosities and build a more positive shared ​future.

US Senator George Mitchell said on the day of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that “if you think getting this agreement was difficult, implementing it will be even more difficult.” Yet, despite all the implementation difficulties over the last 25 years, the role of civil society has been the social glue that has held the Northern Irish Peace Process together.

In a way that was not dissimilar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we had many attempts at building peace, and many failures along the way. Yet, one lesson remains at the forefront: it took courageous leadership from both sides and people who were willing to take risks to overcome the status quo for the next generation.

It is important to note that no suggestion is being made that the Good Friday Agreement is a template for the Middle East, but there are aspects we got right, and most certainly aspects we got wrong, that may be helpful in moving forward in this fractured region.

What is certain is that the road to resolution can be a long one, and I doubt that in the next few months someone is going to have a lightbulb moment overnight and come up with the ultimate solution. In my mind, it is down to key leadership in the public square, locally, nationally, regionally, and globally.

There is a quotation on a pub and restaurant in Belfast that simply says: “A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.” No one in the Middle East can change history, but Northern Ireland has shown that courageous leadership can shape a new and different history.


The writer is the founder and director of the Belfast-based Rethinking Conflict organisation and played an integral role in the Northern Irish Peace Process.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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