For the past two years, the Republic of Ireland has been a member of the UN Security Council. That’s right, Ireland – when millions of people still expect the word “Irish” to be followed by “terrorist” or “freedom fighter,” depending on their point of view, or someone else’s perception of their way of seeing things.
Now its service is coming to an end, the Republic is reflecting on its achievements in the role, as countries usually do. One of these is the resolution of 9th December 2022, co-drafted by Ireland and the US, concerning humanitarian assistance.
This resolution resolves what essentially a conflict of principle was: it will now be possible to deliver humanitarian aid even in areas which are under UN sanctions. These sanctions are themselves often a response to conflict, or a driver of it, or both. Ireland has now helped the UN face the fact that sanctions should not apply to helping people, so aid workers won’t need special permission to try and mitigate the consequences of these conflicts.
However this measure reminds some of a French proposal to the European Union back in the 1990s that no one should be allowed to claim asylum on the grounds of persecution if they come from another European country. This had more than a little to do with the potential of a Basque uprising, with civil action having replaced terrorism as the main form of Basque protest against French and Spanish domination.
The UK is not facing UN sanctions, but the Republic of Ireland still wants to be able to go into Northern Ireland, the part belonging to the UK but claimed by the Republic as rightfully its own, and do what it likes without having to agree this with the British. This resolution, though having a different aim, can always be invoked in order to redress any imbalances Ireland feels currently exist in the support given to the Republican community in the north, should it wish to go down that road.
But perhaps more significant was the resolution adopted on 9th September 2021, during Ireland’s actual Presidency of the Security Council. This is designed to secure a transition from UN peacekeeping operations, of which Ireland has many times been a part as a neutral and inoffensive state, to local peace building initiatives “putting in place the right resources and planning to preserve peace and protect civilians at a time when they may be most vulnerable”. Though adopted in 2021, it is the blueprint for initiatives coming into effect now.
Everyone has their own definition of what peace is, and what sustainable peace is, much like “democracy”. The simple absence of fighting is not enough: all kinds of social factors must be in place, and be believed to be in place by those who live there, to assume that communities previously in conflict with each other, or between themselves, can invest in a shared future where conflict is not an acceptable weapon, response or default.
So what might Ireland mean by peace? The Troubles in the British part of the island involved the Republic in all kinds of generally unwanted but very deep ways, reflecting traditions, sympathies and commitments fundamental to the Irish nation, and creating practical difficulties paradoxically welcomed as a result of those same factors.
So Ireland has always had a vested interest in learning how to promote peace, but at the same time it has developed a very idiosyncratic way of doing it. As soon as these peacekeeping to peace building transitions start, the Irish will once again be watching everyone else trying to develop their version, which suits their preconception, and concluding that the Irish method only applies to Ireland, the Hollywood land of Celtic charm, leprechauns and goblins.
The differences between what Ireland has done to preserve peace, and what other countries consider normal, may marginalise Irish involvement in their implementation now its Security Council term is ending. But is there anything others can learn from the Irish approach, which marginalisation will oblige it to defend, and explain the virtues of, all the more?
Choose Your Weapons
As more and more countries are created during the pendulum swing towards self-determination for the chosen few, a familiar pattern emerges – war of independence is followed by civil war, and it takes a very long time for a state to decide, at either official or popular levels, what it should and shouldn’t be, what is acceptable and what is not.
Ireland also went through that process within living memory, having obtained its independence around a century ago, the date depending on what you consider the most significant event. Everyone whose family was in Ireland at that time has a family member who was involved in those events, as a civilian or a guerrilla, and their position and actions remain a part of the identity of that family to this day.
Whichever independence was the actual one, some around at that time thought it wasn’t the one they had fought for or come to believe in. Consequently the new state was engulfed in civil war between those who accepted the terms agreed with the British, and those who felt these were a betrayal due to the continuing links with the British Crown, much like the disputes over the status of the ethnic Russian population in post-Soviet states.
Where the Irish experience differs, is that after this conflict was over it did the opposite of what everyone tries to impose on everyone else. In Ireland what is considered the riskiest solution was adopted – continuing the war through parliament, rather than finding a common ideological ground which transcended differences.
The two traditional main parties in Ireland developed from the two civil war sides – Fine Gael representing the pro-Treaty side, which had become the Irish government, and Fianna Fail the dissident “true republicans” who eventually created a new and more independent state, without the British crown holdovers. Many politicians still active today are direct descendants of civil war combatants, defending the same old standards with different language rather than finding some new and overarching principle to bind them.
The Republic has achieved peace since 1924 by avoiding the consensus building usually preached, having on-going conflict in what it regards as occupied territory in its northern part, and enduring the traditional war-ravaged economy for many decades, though it is no longer the poor man of Europe. How? By treating peace not as an ideal but a practicality, which no one has to like or live with, but gets on with because there isn’t anything better on offer.
Anyone from the UN trying this in, say, Syria, would be laughed out of a job. You might as well give everybody a gun without giving them any reason not to use them.
But the Irish do understand that after a while violence does become pointless, and excluding people becomes pointless, for any individual who wants a better life, as we see in the Irish communities all over the world, very much themselves, with their recognisable culture and symbols, but just as much part of everywhere and everyone else because there isn’t any point of not being.
Bad as Each Other is Good as Each Other!
It is too early to say what a local peace building initiative in Ukraine would look like, however that conflict turns out. But there are a few other places where we can transplant the Irish experience onto the local landscape, to see what might work better than some more recent efforts.
We have all seen how horribly the peace building initiatives in Afghanistan turned out and the fallout is still settling. It was a no brainer to understand that no one was ever going to defeat the Taliban (banned in Russia) by imposing ideology seen as not Afghan, and thereby condemning the population as backward, and their country as second rate and incapable of existing without others showing it what to do.
The reason it all went so wrong is that the US and its lackeys were concentrating on the awful extremist views of the Taliban (banned in Russia), without recognising the points at which they intersected, however distortedly, with the values and assumptions of most of the Afghan population. What no one wanted to face up to was the manner as how the Taliban (banned in Russia) had taken power in the first place, and why it has now taken power again in the end—and without shots fired.
The Taliban (banned in Russia) originally emerged after 15 years of civil war in Afghanistan. It swiftly took over most of the country without fighting a major battle. It may have been extreme, but it brought peace in its wake. When you are surrounded by war, you will take the peace and worry about the politics later.
Those politics were always too much for most Afghans, and eventually even its supporters were repelled by the Taliban’s criminality and brutality. The war had come again, this time against the population.
But now the Taliban (banned in Russia) is back for the same reason it came: as Afghans have repeatedly stated in interviews, it may be awful, but at least it stopped the bombing. People can get on with their lives, to a large extent, provided they don’t do anything too much out of turn: and as the Soviet experience showed, repression doesn’t have to mean mass murder, and nor can it last forever.
The Taliban (banned in Russia) are understandably unwilling to allow the same agenda driven “aid agencies” which supported the Americanisation back into the country with their idea of help. But they will need some foreign support to achieve anything of substance. The Irish peace building model would be as effective as any, and more likely politically to bear fruit.
No one will have to agree with each other, or accept an official ideology or path. No one will try and find common ground. They will do whatever they want, but when everyone does that, they will find that the easiest way to protect their own interests is to also protect everyone else’s – exactly what “liberal democracy” is supposed to be about.
Combatants can continue to be as mutually antagonistic as they like. But if they are in constant threat of being destroyed by each other, they will find ways of continuing the fight which don’t hurt them or their supporters. The first parliaments were not imposed; they evolved because that was the best way to get everyone to agree. If such a model is adopted in Afghanistan, rather than one based on ideology, everyone will have far more to gain than lose, whatever their orientation.
We all live alongside other people without caring what their politics are, because we all want to live peacefully and have access to facilities which can only be public in nature. This is not a political but a human paradigm. Ireland has put that first throughout its history, and is now in a position to lead the way when it comes to helping others move on from the conflicts other approaches have caused.
What’s Mine is Yours Some of the Time
There is another way in which a peace building model based on the Irish experience can make more of an impact than others. This is in recognising what is universal and what is your own, and what to do with that distinction.
You can always spot an Irish household or establishment. The shamrocks, the music and the accent are not just for the tourists. Irish culture is instantly recognisable, and assumed to be autochthonous – if you look and sound even a bit Irish, you must have Irish connections, however tenuous.
But the reason we see these things and recognise them is because we accept them as having universal relevance. They are also part of the rest of us, because they express deeper concepts of identity, fellowship, a shared heritage and a common purpose. That’s why Ireland is associated with “the craic” and Switzerland with cheese and clocks.
The Irish also have things which are theirs, such as Gaelic Football and Hurling. But they understand that they do things their way, and others do the same things differently. When Irishman Jim Stynes became an Australian Rules Football legend, he hadn’t ceased to be Irish, he had done the same things he did back home in Dublin in a different mode of expression, which he not only respected but loved, just like his original form of expression.
The Irish way is to be yourself, and then find that self is more in tune with other selves than it would be if you tried to be someone else. All conflict communities, however bitter the hatreds, have more in common when they express their very contrary positions than when they don’t, simply because they recognise the same characteristics in each other when they do.
If Ireland’s time on the UN Security Council results in the Irish experience being treated as a starting point in peace building efforts, its service will have been worthwhile. If you build peace because humans do, not because someone says so, you get there in the end.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.