However bloody it gets, you must talk

July 5, 2002

Two initiatives in Northern Ireland, no stranger to violence, are seeking new ways to look at global conflicts and peacemaking. An Ulster-based unit is informing policy on conflicts from Burnley to the West Bank. Its director spoke to Tony Durham about what makes a Mandela or a Milosevic.

Optimism is not the natural reaction to affairs in the Middle East. But Mari Fitzduff, who has lived with conflict in Northern Ireland and studied it worldwide, is optimistic. She sees Israelis and Palestinians playing out a familiar pattern in which episodes of bloodshed interrupt temporarily the long, slow progress towards peace.

Fitzduff, a social psychologist who from 1990 to 1997 led Northern Ireland's Community Relations Council, decided to study conflict and peace after looking out her window one morning in Ardboe, County Tyrone. "You could see what we assumed were the IRA practising in one field, and the British Army threatening to come through from the field on the other side of the house. I felt there had to be a better way."

This was in a republican area called the "killing fields". "Thirty of my neighbours were murdered within a few square miles. The family business was blown up by republicans, and then by loyalists, and then by republicans pretending to be loyalists."

Since 1997, Fitzduff has led the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (Incore), a unit of three academics, three administrative staff and a varying number of interns based at the University of Ulster's Magee campus in Derry, Londonderry.

She has recently returned from Israel, having been invited by the Hebrew University's Leonard Davis Institute to help find ways to keep Palestinian and Israeli communities talking. She says many dialogue initiatives have "fallen by the wayside" amid the recent violence, noting that "it can be advisable to put face-to-face talks on hold while emotions are high". But she thinks it crucial to maintain some communication so talks can resume eventually. In Northern Ireland, community groups often kept in touch with the other side via mobile-phone networks. Fitzduff has found that some Israelis and Palestinians are sending email messages, albeit "of the vaguest", such as "thinking of you" or "times are difficult".

"Peace processes go ahead in a very jagged way," she says. "You often have great disappointments and depression. We've had many dark days in Northern Ireland. You know that these days happen - you look much more at the longer position."

The unit has been asked to work with other organisations in the Middle East in the coming months. Fitzduff says part of the problem in the current crisis is the gap between what people can say in private and in public, particularly about Palestinians' right to return to Israel - which she sees as a key obstacle to the peace process. In reality, few Palestinians want to return, and in private there are discussions about other solutions, such as financial compensation. But because these discussions are not public, many Jews still fear an influx of 5 million Arabs.

Incore's research has shown how long it takes before people realise that they have to compromise. Leaders may be ready to negotiate, but they must have the strength and influence to bring their people along. "[Ariel] Sharon really did think [Yasser] Arafat could deliver. And Arafat thought Sharon could deliver. But neither of them can because while Sharon wants a weak leader, all the research shows that you need a strong leader in opposition to deliver."

One Incore project will study "warlords" and "peacelords" around the world to see what makes the difference between a Milosevic and a Mandela.

The study of peacemaking has never attracted as much funding as the study of war, but the Incore website lists a surprising number of research centres and degree programmes around the world.

The field is a young one that attracts people from many established disciplines including politics, history, sociology and psychology. It does not fit neatly into departmental structures or the research assessment exercise. Fitzduff often sees a stark choice between playing the research game - writing for other academics - and doing work that will actually influence events.

Ensuring that Incore's work is relevant and usable is part of the brief of Cheyanne Church, the unit's policy and evaluation director. One of her projects is an annual summer school that invites policy-makers and practitioners from conflict areas to reflect on their work and compare approaches. At the one just ended, 20 countries were represented, including Kosovo, Angola and the Philippines. South African and Northern Irish policy-makers have met there to swap experiences.

Incore researchers have easy access to United Nations officials, which comes from being a part of the UN University. But they discovered that UN staff largely ignored academic work and long reports in impenetrable language. Now Incore produces a stream of executive summaries of its research and a review journal, Ethnic Conflict Research Digest . Staff jet around the world to meet politicians, policy-makers and academics in countries immersed in conflict or recently emerged from it. The British Council often assists.

Incore's website has a conflict data service with information on 43 countries, a much-praised archive on Northern Ireland, a phenomenal collection of web links on conflict and ethnicity and a collection of about 200 peace agreements from around the world. In this mass of facts, researchers have glimpsed some general principles. Fitzduff says: "Most conflicts happen because some group gets left out. They are mobilised around it by a leader prepared to use violence."

She presents this theory as a formula with three terms: perceived inequitable resources, mobilised identity and negative leadership. The first precondition of conflict is a group that feels left out or deprived of something. When it mobilises around race, religion or some other marker of identity, conflict is a step closer. But it is still not inevitable. With positive leadership, the group may achieve many of its aims with little violence. When violent leaders take over, all the ingredients of conflict are there.

The formula suggests many ways of intervening to prevent or end conflict. Perceived inequities can be hard to eradicate - try getting Israelis and Palestinians to agree on an "equitable" solution - but it may still be possible to prevent people mobilising around racial or religious identities. In the Middle East, it is a bit late for that and only positive leadership can help. But other places, such as Oldham or Burnley, can perhaps still escape from the grip of identity politics.

"There should be a big question about single-identity schools in a situation where you have tension," Fitzduff says. Gurbux Singh, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has been saying much the same. What if parents want their children to be educated in their religion and culture? "In Malaysia they have one school, one principal. All the ethnic groups are taught separately within the one school, but all the children play together in the playground."

Peacemaking is pragmatic and political. Unfortunately, Fitzduff says, it is not always about justice and human rights. Part of the price of peace in Northern Ireland was the release of political prisoners. In Sierra Leone, people guilty of murder and mutilation were allowed by the Lomé agreement to go free.

"You have to make concessions," Fitzduff says. "The hard swallow and the weak smile and then move on. One of the tensions between human-rights and conflict-resolution people is that conflict-resolution people often have to make agreements that they don't like, that may not stand up, and yet you do it in the hope that you will save a few more lives. Conflicts don't end. They get fought out by different means - politics and the airwaves - rather than violence."

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