BLOG - Peace Making Lessons from Northern Ireland to Israel and Palestine: 3 - Establishing confidential lines of communication between the parties to a conflict
Colin Irwin Fri 29 Jun 2012 updated: Sun 01 Jul 2012
Peace Building Problem.
A break down of communication due to a lack of trust. For example when parties engaged in hostilities will not give up violence in favour of political negotiations because they do not believe the other parties will negotiate in good faith. When, perhaps, one party or the other believes the negotiations and/or the cease-fire is only tactical.
Northern Ireland Experience
When the negotiations for the first poll were begun in January 1997 the Conservatives were in government in Westminster where they relied on the votes of the Northern Ireland Unionists to keep them in power. In this situation the possibility of meaningful compromises being agreed on the future of the Province were very doubtful and consequently the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had broken their cease-fire and returned to hostilities against the British state. In these circumstances there was a break down of effective communications between Sinn Féin (the political wing of the IRA) and the other political parties, the two governments and the Office of the Independent Chairmen because the British were opposed to any negotiations with terrorists at war. When Labour replaced the Conservatives in May 1997 Sinn Féin wanted to reinstate their cease-fire and return to political negotiations but only if they believed that these negotiations would be undertaken in good faith. They wanted to be sure that those responsible for managing the talks would not allow the Unionists, in particular Dr Paisley the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, to frustrate progress through filibusters and other delaying tactics. In particular they were concerned to know how Senator George Mitchell, the senior talks chairman, might handle such matters. These concerns were addressed to Sinn Féin’s satisfaction firstly through the informal channels of communication available to them, which included the public opinion poll contact group, and then formally when the embargo on direct communication with the British government was temporarily lifted during an informal suspension of hostilities. Subsequently the IRA called their second cease-fire, the DUP left the talks, the Ulster Unionists did not block progress and the Belfast Agreement was signed on Good Friday 1998. As an academic at Queen’s University the poll facilitator also had free access to other scholars, in particular human rights and constitutional lawyers, who were able to give opinions on specific issues when a party to the negotiations so required.
Public Opinion Poll Action
Establish independent, reliable and confidential lines of communication between the parties with points of access to other independent third parties who can provide expert advice as required.
Israel and Palestine
Because the negotiations between Israel and Palestine are limited to the parties in government independents and small parties who may be strongly pro-peace (e.g. Meretz in Israel) or parties very sceptical of the value of negotiations (e.g. Hamas in Palestine) become side-lined by the peace process. At the very least they should be part of informal contact groups so that they can make a positive contribution to negotiations when they are able to do so and/or become a party to a final settlement if and when it might be achieved. Of course they may not take advantage of such opportunities but through informal contact groups, that include common programs of public opinion research, all the parties have the opportunity to communicate with each other, share their ideas and concerns and thus vicariously be a party to a peace process that may, from time to time, break down at the formal level.