From the IRA to Iraq: McGuinness’s surprising mediation

From the IRA to Iraq: McGuinness’s Surprising Mediation
by Roger Faligot (Truthout)
17 September 2007

It was September 6, on the front page of the Irish Gaelic newspaper, An Phoblacht, “The Republic.” A full-page portrait of Martin McGuinness, former Irish Republican Army (IRA) official, today Northern Ireland’s vice prime minister. Nothing surprising for the readers of the Sinn Fein (nationalist Irish party) weekly, who are in the habit of following the vicissitudes of their leaders. Except that the headline was surprising: “McGuinness Chairs Iraqi Peace Talks.”

Shiite and Sunni Representatives

What was that about? In principle, about a discreet meeting that took place the first week of September in Finland. A meeting of sixteen representatives of several Shiite as well as Sunni organizations who wished to discuss – on neutral terrain – Iraq after the Americans’ departure … and a cohabitation protocol entitled “Peace and Democracy.” Among the delegates were representatives of Shiite Moqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the important Sunni group Adnan al-Dulaimi, as well as the Shiite president of the Iraqi Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Humam Hammoudi. Four days of intense discussions, according to McGuinness, between these delegates who were inspired by the Irish process and the South African “Peace and Reconciliation” system.

To structure these talks, one finds well-known figures, such as former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari – whose “Crisis Management Initiative” organization structured this meeting’s logistics – the same man who godfathered the Kosovo discussions and also, principally, the reconciliation between the Indonesian government and the Muslim Aceh guerilla movement immediately after the 2004 tsunami.

One also found African National Congress (ANC) leaders, including Cyril Ramaphosa who, on top of leading the ANC and maintaining ties with Sinn Fein during the 1980s, also negotiated with the former Apartheid government, then was charged, along with other diplomats, with supervising the disarmament of the IRA in Northern Ireland.

A Northern Irish Protestant jurist, Jeffrey Donaldson, a deputy of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, who would not have addressed a word to McGuinness ten years ago, made the trip, as did other Protestants.

Finally, the essential point: the Iraqis agreed to come to this conclave as long as none of the guests had connections to the American or British occupiers of their country. Hence the choice of McGuinness as president of the session (even though Sinn Fein was supported by American administrations – more by Clinton than by Bush – during the Anglo-Irish negotiations).

The “Helsinki Principles”

During the discussions, a road map was mentioned concerning the format of negotiations to include all political parties present in Iraq, including the militias and insurgents from different sects. Also discussed were the creation of a national army, a unified police and political system (the subtext: as opposed to a policy of partition that the Americans could promote in the framework of a withdrawal).

Protection mechanisms for minorities were discussed, such as the impossibility of supporting the resurrection of the Baath Party, which the Shiites fear. All these subjects and many others were the object of a twelve-point agreement (not yet made public) that will subsequently be known as the “Helsinki Principles.”

Utopian, people will say…. But as were, no doubt, the first meetings in the 1980s between McGuinness and a representative of the British Secret Services, MI 6, in Derry, to envision burying the war hatchet in Ulster. Even if, compared to the Iraqi tragedy, the war that struck Northern Ireland for thirty years was “low intensity.”

McGuinness’s critics are not laying down their arms, deeming that former Sinn Fein leaders, like Gerry Adams, have transformed themselves into politicians who are principally seeking to regain prestige by enhancing their media stature at home and abroad.

Those who have followed the surprising trajectory of these Irish closely know that they are openly appreciated in numerous countries where they have been asked to intercede. At present, in spite of the rupture of the ETA truce, they continue to exert pressure on the Basque organization to renew dialogue with the Zapatero government. In the same way, Sinn Fein people have recently been asked by Fatah and Hamas to establish bridges between the enemy brothers following the Gaza crisis.

Historical Precedents

More spectacularly, last year, Martin McGuinness was invited by the Sri Lankan government in Colombo to attempt to relaunch the peace process in concert with Norwegian intermediaries. And one could have seen this surprising scene: the Northern Irish negotiator taking off in a Ceylonese Army helicopter to reach the areas held by the Tamil Tigers being triumphantly welcomed by Prabhakaran Vellupilai, the ordinarily invisible leader of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam) who considers McGuinness an alter ego. With the difference, of course, that in the Irish peace process, the former IRA completely opted for disarmament and the democratic option. One is not yet there in the former Ceylon.

Those who study history will note that McGuinness’s trajectory is not unheard-of in Ireland. In the mid-1920s, the IRA’s chief of staff was Sean McBride. Thirty years later, McBride was co-founder of Amnesty International, UN representative for the independence of Namibia, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who intervened in many negotiations to engage peace processes throughout the world, some of which turned out favorably immediately after the Cold War.

Article originally published at Truthout.