Next week marks 25 years since Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants. What can we learn from that breakthrough to strengthen peace efforts today? A Northern Irish peacebuilder argues a that a vital step in his homeland’s peace process placed civil society — and, critically, civil society’s religious participants — at its center in a way that other peace efforts (between Israelis and Palestinians, for example) have not. Northern Ireland continues to build reconciliation, a demonstration that, while religious factors sometimes fuel conflict, a fuller engagement of religious leaders and groups contributes powerfully to lasting peace.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, a Northern Irish Methodist minister and psychology scholar, grew up amid gun battles and bomb-gutted neighborhoods. There, Northern Irish “republicans” fought for unification with the Republic of Ireland, while Protestant “unionists” battled to keep the province in the United Kingdom. Mason has spent decades working to implement the Good Friday Agreement — and in recent years has facilitated dialogue among Palestinians and Israelis. He partners with USIP to strengthen peacemaking through fuller involvement of religious participants.
USIP research shows that faith-based leaders, communities and institutions can be uniquely important in peacebuilding. They are driven by personal convictions for social justice and are embedded in local communities, their moral authority and their networks able to foster trust. As the United Kingdom and Ireland mark the 25th anniversary, including a visit by President Joe Biden, Mason argues that Northern Ireland’s gradual, still-incomplete process of peacebuilding has benefitted from the critical role of religious participants.
Nozell: Religious actors have played key roles in Northern Ireland’s peace process. What do we understand now about those roles, and the process, that was perhaps less apparent when the Good Friday Agreement was signed a quarter-century ago?
Mason: Those years, and even the final days, leading to the Good Friday Agreement were a rollercoaster. U.S. Senator George Mitchell had spent almost two years in long negotiations with protagonists who refused even to be in the same room. All agreed that the process was absolutely grueling (although Senator Mitchell wisely warned that implementing the accord would be even harder). When we eventually got that historic agreement on April 10, 1998, a leading journalist described it as a “political miracle.”
In Northern Ireland, a number of religious actors were seen as interlocutors. They sustained channels to those who were pursuing political violence and tried to offer alternatives to resolve the complexities of the Irish conflict. I often describe these people as “temperature readers.” They were trying to wisely assess where certain key groupings were, and what was the possibility, if the conditions were right, in moving them towards politics rather than violence — or, as one veteran of the Irish peace process put it, finally, removing the gun from Irish politics.
I believe that too many clergy simply end up chaplains to their own tribes. There was some great ecumenical work going on where church leaders of the two traditions were reaching out for joint Bible studies, joint worship services, et cetera. The significance of efforts like these ought not be diminished. Some religious leaders stepped from their sanctuaries into their streets for what I define as hard-core peacebuilding work. This meant going out to meet the people who were angry and armed, to create a moral framework in which those with the guns could choose a better way than killing.
As engaged members of civil society, religious leaders are particularly well situated to implement these concrete peacebuilding efforts because they often have shared deeply in their communities’ lives over decades and have earned people’s trust. In Northern Ireland, they were able to connect people to the peace agreement and its painful, political compromises, to foster social healing, and to enable reconciliation to begin. That societal healing is not automatic, but it’s required to move beyond the violence — and religious leaders are essential to it.
Nozell: A new generation has grown into adulthood having not experienced the Troubles first-hand. Have these years produced real reconciliation, notably among youth? If not, how far along is that process and how sure is the peace?
Mason: To my mind, while the peace process has not brought utopia, my adult children inhabit a very different space to those of us who experienced the conflict at the sharp edge. I often remind people that in 1972 we had a terrorist incident every 40 minutes, Belfast was surrounded by a ring of steel, people lived in their own separated areas. At times, Belfast, was literally a ghost town.
Now there is still segregation, but that is changing. I see hope when I look at the rates of marriage and long-term partnerships across religious lines. During the conflict, a very small percentage of relationships and marriages crossed the political divide, and in fact your life could be in danger risking a relationship with the “other.” Now approximately 20 percent or more of people from those two traditions are in long-term relationships or marriages. That was practically unheard of in the toxic atmosphere of this place 50 or 60 years ago, when religion was used to verbally assassinate the other person, rather than develop respect and understanding for the other person.
Nozell: What lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process, particularly regarding religious actors’ roles, are relevant to other critical conflicts today?
Mason: Our peace process, its successes and challenges, can offer examples to many other formal peace efforts. One is the Israeli-Palestinian context, which I am engaged in through my nonprofit. I’ve hosted over 1,000 Israelis and Palestinians in Belfast and Dublin in the last 10 years. I underline that our agreement is not a blueprint for the Middle East, yet I do suggest that some things we got right — and, yes, things we got wrong — may have applicability in that region. Interestingly, Palestinians and Israelis highlight five lessons that they have learned, and religious leaders can have a role at the fore in many of these lessons:
- Political leadership is essential to achieving peace. Leaders on all sides of the conflict must sincerely believe that change is preferable to the status quo and then be willing to take the risks to achieve peace.
- A desire to break the cycle of violence, to save future generations from the horrors of conflict, is essential. This desire is what encourages leaders, as in Northern Ireland, to take the risks, and face down accusations of betrayal from within their own communities, to achieve peace.
- A lack of trust between opposing sides is an inevitable feature of building peace and cannot be used as a justification for not beginning the process. Trust does not come at the start of any process, and it most certainly was not there at the beginning of ours.
- Attempts to resolve the conflict through military force are ultimately futile. In Northern Ireland they did not result in sustainable security for either community. Security was achieved only when dialogue was prioritized and the root causes of the conflict were addressed.
- Civil society has a particularly important role in helping the overall society find a way past historic animosities to build a more positive, shared future. Religious actors are very much part of civil society and they have a key role.
Actually, Northern Ireland’s struggle to implement peace these 25 years provides a dramatic illustration of civil society’s power – and the roles of faith-based people and organizations within civil society -- as the social glue that has held our peace process together even when its formal workings have faltered. The Good Friday Agreement established a legislature, the New Northern Ireland Assembly, as the foundation of a new power-sharing government. Yet the many extraordinary difficulties of implementing the peace accord have repeatedly led to the assembly being suspended. Indeed during 40 percent of these past 25 years, our assembly has been unable to meet. People often ask, how has Northern Ireland not collapsed back into violence when disagreements have been so grievous as that? My answer is that our peace has been sustained by the strength of its civil society underpinnings. That’s why I believe strongly that in any peace process, more work and energy needs to be given to civil society’s role, and particularly that of the religious.