Peace is a dangerous business

December 1, 2000

Can Northern Ireland find peace? Chris Gibson, pro-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, and new chairman of the country's Civic Forum, shares his insights with Anne McHardy.

As Bill Clinton prepares to sweep into Northern Ireland this month for a farewell visit, universities and the business community are at last getting down to the nitty-gritty of promoting the shaky peace process through the creation of an inclusive civic society.

At the forefront of the process is Chris Gibson, pro-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, and new chairman of the statutory Good Friday Agreement body, the Northern Ireland Civic Forum, set up to advise the Northern Ireland government on cultural, economic and social matters.

In the past, Gibson has shunned politics. But now he believes universities and business are vital for shoring up political moves towards peace.

Two months ago, as Northern Ireland's first minister David Trimble faced censure in the Ulster Unionist Council, business think tank the Group of 7 delivered a forceful statement, arguing that a second suspension of the Trimble power-sharing executive would be an international disaster that would reverse not just the peace process but the economic progress that has come with it.

"A second collapse would deal a savage blow to Northern Ireland's credibility worldwide and to the work being done to get the country back into the market for investment and jobs," the statement said. "The onus is on those who recommend temporary or permanent abandonment of the executive to say exactly what they can guarantee to deliver as a durable alternative, commanding the widespread support that will ensure stability."

Although Gibson is only associated with the group in an unofficial capacity, he has expressed this view under a number of other guises, including as chairman of the Confederation for Industry in Belfast - he is now vice-chairman - and through the Irish Federation of Business in Dublin.

"The economy of the north has not done too badly, but that is because it has swung too much to the public sector. Capital funds will not flow unless there is stability. Business people look at risk only in terms they understand." Businesses will not invest unless they are sure that peace will be maintained, he says.

"As we have moved towards peace, new capital has started to come in, a lot of it from the United States," Gibson says. But he adds that much of this investment is contingent on a permanent end to violence. "Violence has gone from the streets, but it is still present, and that is not compatible with stability."

Gibson argues that life needs to move on. "Things that were required to be put right have been put right." Those who cling to old divisions are destructive, he says.

The Civic Forum, which met for the first time last month, brings together 60 people from both sides of the sectarian divide and provides the opportunity for both sides to air and exorcise their bitterness about the past.

A bluff, pragmatic elder of the Presbyterian Church, the largest of the Protestant churches in Northern Ireland, Gibson is universally liked, although he is sometimes criticised, jokingly, for his fondness for chairing organisations.

He was elected pro-chancellor of Queen's two years ago after a head-hunting exercise to attract businessmen to the institution. Apart from his own undergraduate years and those of one of his two daughters, he had had no contact with the university. He believes the university has a crucial role to play in creating an educated work force - particularly in biotechnology - who can benefit from and exploit new investment opportunities. He also envisages a broader role for higher education, helping to build links between the north and south and promoting the peace process generally.

To these ends, he now chairs the university's finance committee and the Institute for Cross Border Studies, established last year in Armagh City by Queen's and City University, Dublin. He provides links between universities such as Queen's, City, Trinity College, Dublin and Limerick universities. He has been active in the development of the Irish School of Ecumenics, a peace studies organisation that will become a fully integrated institute of Trinity in January. And he contributed a chapter to a book of Protestant views of the political situation, published this month by the Institute of Peace Studies at Limerick.

When he was elected as a pro-chancellor, Gibson was already working in the northern branch of Golden Vale Plc, one of Ireland's biggest food processing companies. He retired last year after seven years with the company. Before that he was based in Dublin as chairman of the Irish arm of chemical conglomerate ICI.

That job put him on the Irish police "category one risk" list. From the point of view of the Irish Republican Army, ICI was a British company. British Airways' offices were regularly attacked by the IRA and a British ambassador was murdered in Dublin.

"It was a bit unnerving, but you keep your head down," Gibson says. The personal danger is one reason prominent businessmen have so often steered clear of politics. "There are no prizes for heroism," he says.

In his role at ICI, Gibson did not consider himself directly involved in politics, because, he says, the politicians were more concerned with constitutional arguments about the border. But now he believes that businessmen have an obligation to push the peace process forward, to reassure their Protestant and Unionist peers.

Within the Protestant business community, he says, there are many who voted for the Good Friday Agreement two years ago who would not vote for it now. The stumbling block is the decommissioning of arms, which Gibson argues is essential. The agreement, he says, must be implemented in full. He says he understands Trimble's refusal to bow down over decommissioning and says that if he had, he would not now be leader, "which would have spelt disaster".

But, to his mind, there is no alternative to the agreement. "I am a pragmatist. I have not yet heard a practical plan or proposal that would replace the Good Friday Agreement," he says.

The Troubles have provided a backdrop to Gibson's entire working life. When the civil rights movement descended into violence in 1968, when the Loyalist backlash began as changes were made to address discrimination against Catholics, he was living in Limavady and travelling to work in Derry through areas where sectarian attacks were frequent. "It was not a quiet time," he says. He moved to Dublin in 1973 and a year later Loyalist bombers targeted that city.

As a graduate in agricultural sciences in 1962, his background was establishment Unionist. He says he remains a "small 'u' unionist" today, because he continues to identify with Britain. "I believe in an island in which everyone can live in peace." But he says he would reject an united Ireland, saying it is an unrealistic aspiration, although he argues it is vital to acknowledge that the north and south have mutual interests.

"The two can work together towards common objectives. In agriculture, for example, there are clearly common interests and some of those might not be in the best interests of the rest of the United Kingdom, which is basically an industrialised country with a small rural population. We have a much greater rural population and more of our industry comes out of agriculture - 20,000 people work in the food processing industry. In the south, many more."

As an undergraduate at Queen's, Gibson says he remembers the early stirrings of the civil rights movement and the efforts by Northern Ireland prime ministers Terence O'Neill and James Chichester-Clark to address discrimination. He says he would even have supported the movement, were it not for the violence that broke out. "I didn't see that there was any gain to be made from people killing each other," he says.

On that particular point, his opinion remains resolutely unchanged.

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