Dr Jim McAuley: Irish peace is lesson for world – and you can shake on it

HAVE the walls come tumbling down? Is it really all over? Following the recent accord, is Northern Ireland now about to enter a harmonious period of "normal" politics? Will future debates in the Northern Ireland Assembly display a new concentration on "bread and butter issues", mortgage and employment rates and bankers' bonuses?

Certainly, there is some cause for optimism. After yet another period of entrenchment following the supposed deal at St Andrews, and 10 days of near round-the-clock negotiations by Sinn Fin and the Democratic Unionist Party, Gordon Brown claimed that Northern Ireland's politicians had found "a new spirit of mutual cooperation and respect". Hopefully that is true.

While we should not deny the still deeply divisive and conflictual aspects of Northern Irish society, or that most everyday relations continue to be constructed around deeply entrenched and competing senses of British and Irish identities, the movement around a problem often previously described as intractable, has been remarkable.

All is far from settled, however, and symptomatic of that is the fact that First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, have still to offer a public handshake, but social and political progress, and the developing commitment to a society based on consent and the legitimacy of the rule of law, are apparent.

Over the past decade the effects of "peace" on Northern Irish society have been profound. Even allowing for present economic circumstances, day-to-day life for most has changed positively so that it is almost unrecognisable to those who lived through the depths of the Troubles.

Given this, the Northern Ireland peace process is increasingly celebrated as an example to the rest of the world. Partly, that is because it is a rare beast; most peace accords fail, certainly very few result in lasting political settlements. For that reason alone, since the late 1990s Northern Ireland has been flooded with delegations from other troubled areas of the world, seeking guidance on peacemaking.

But can such things really be transferred from one conflict situation to another and, if so, what lessons can be learnt?

The first is the primacy of politics in solving political problems. Purely security and military based responses to violent conflict cannot lay the foundations for peace. Unsavoury as it may be for many, the slow journey along the road to agreed devolved administration really only gathered momentum when both British and Irish governments were prepared to recognise that the violence had core political dimensions, and that both terrorists and the state had fought themselves to near stalemate. Terrorists themselves began slowly to realise that violence was a futile means to achieve long-term political goals. The solution had to be elsewhere.

The second lesson is that for the peace process to succeed the extremes needed to be brought into the process.

Broadly, when confronted with the possibility of a peace accord, combatants usually take four major positions. There are "dealers" who are openly prepared to negotiate towards peace. But there are zealots, whose major goal is to spoil a peace process, often by the use of violence (and which still exist in the form of republican dissidents); "opportunists" who may be persuaded under certain circumstances to end violent conflict; and "mavericks" whose violence is primarily motivated by personal rather than political objectives. Northern Ireland has seen a response from all of these. But it was the extremes, both paramilitary and political, that made the peace.

The political settlement, initially located in the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (mainly Catholic in support) and the Ulster Unionists (mainly Protestant) in the Assembly ground to a halt as both were outflanked by Sinn Fin and the DUP, which within their respective communities were perceived to offer a stronger defence of core political beliefs.

Likewise those who fight the war make the peace. Not enough has been heard about the work of many former paramilitary prisoners, whom in both communities have engaged in a wide range of activities in peacebuilding and to inhibit those seeking a return to violence. During the marching season, for example, former loyalist and republican prisoner groups often work together to minimise tensions.

Thirdly, despite the dominant focus on political structures, individual commitment and personalities are important. There can be no doubt, that Tony Blair's skilful diplomacy and unflagging appetite for negotiations were key factors in nudging the parties towards agreement and eventually to devolution. But Blair's endeavours would never have borne fruit had it not been for a whole generation of politicians, from Mo Mowlam to David Ervine to Gerry Adams, who also demonstrated a depth of his personal commitment to finding a consociational settlement (a form of government with guaranteed group representation). In the case of Ervine and Adams this was brought about by a personal conviction that the next generation should not have experiences similar to their own.

Finally and perhaps most crucially, was the development of dialogue with and between as many groups as possible involved in the conflict. That is not to say such contacts are welcomed with open arms, without risk of setback or quickly established; a feature of Northern Ireland has often been "talks about talks" and shuttle negotiations. But once made public, the symbolism of old enemies coming together can be worth dozens of press statements. Perhaps that's one lesson that hasn't quite been learned. So, gentlemen, how about that handshake?

Dr Jim McAuley is Professor of Political Sociology and Irish Studies at the University of Huddersfield