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Collective Amnesia and the Northern Ireland Model of Conflict Resolution

20/12/2011

Northern Ireland, as we all know, is often presented as a model for conflict resolution around the world. That it should be is a reflection of the success of the peace process there, the key moment of the success of the peace process which was the Belfast Agreement of 1998. There are numerous exciting stories about Northern Ireland’s transition from war to peace which translate well in other conflict zones and have a certain appeal to them and, in some instances, even an element of glamour. The job of the historian is to re-insert some complexity into these stories, and to balance contending narratives about ‘what brought peace’. Before we begin to discuss the ‘lessons’ of Northern Ireland for other trouble-spots around the world, it seems important that we get over that hurdle first.

To say this much is to risk striking a discordant note from what might be called the ‘peace process industry’. It also carries with it the danger of going against prevailing political fashion and to be labelled as somehow anti-peace process. This is a symptom of the poor quality of the debate and the collective amnesia which underpins it. My view is that it is admirable that the ending of the conflict in Northern Ireland is examined and it is to be welcomed that thought is given to what lessons it might hold for Israel/Palestine, Iraq, East Timor, Sri Lanka, or other places. Yet for these efforts to be genuinely helpful and intellectually honest, it is important that we also consider the less ‘glamorous’ sides of the story.

This paper makes the case that much of what has been said about Northern Ireland has been either over- simplified, or, over-conceptualised in a way that fails to acknowledge the ragged edges of real historical experience. The over-simplification is partly the product of the enthusiasm of eager participants in the peace process who wish transfer their experience elsewhere; in some instances, though not all, their efforts are over-laden with preconceptions about other conflicts. The over-conceptualisation is perhaps more the responsibility of academics, who insert post-facto rationalisation and schema to interpret the peace process, in a way which is remote from the reality on the ground at the time.

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