Padraig O’Malley: US must talk to al-Qaeda

Professor Padraig O'Malley, right, speaks with Dr. Brian O'Malley, no relation, of Provincetown followed his presentation Wednesday afternoon at Cape Cod Community College. More than 400 attended.
Professor Padraig O’Malley, right, speaks with Dr. Brian O’Malley, no relation, of Provincetown followed his presentation Wednesday afternoon at Cape Cod Community College. More than 400 attended.

Padraig O’Malley: US must talk to al-Qaeda
by James Kinsella (Cape Cod Today)
11 December 2008

When Padraig O’Malley talks about the inner workings of bringing two violently opposed groups together to reach peace, he tells the story of the bar and the beds.

In 1997, O’Malley – who spoke Wednesday afternoon to more than 400 people at Cape Cod Community College – arranged for South Africa, which itself had come together after years of brutal and divisive apartheid, to host a meeting between groups in Northern Ireland, itself torn by decades of violent conflict.

O’Malley said the two main Irish groups – the Democratic Unionist Party, representing Protestants who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, which had been fighting for separation – wouldn’t agree to stay under the same roof.

So he said each wanted its own hotel, its own restaurant and its own bar, “the bar, of course, being the most important thing.”
Soon after the groups arrived, the Unionist representatives angrily confronted O’Malley.

“Their bar is bigger than our bar,” they said.

O’Malley was mystified. “But you guys don’t drink,” he said.

It didn’t matter. O’Malley had to arrange to rearrange the Unionist bar so that it appeared at least as large as the Sinn Fein bar.
Fast forward a decade to Helsinki, Finland, where a meeting had been arranged between violently opposed groups in Iraq.

Just getting the groups there had been an onerous struggle. O’Malley was finally getting ready to relax a bit when word came of angry Iraqis.

The problem: some of them had two single beds in their individual rooms, compared to a double bed in opponents’ rooms.

For at least the second time, O’Malley – a Dublin-born professor and peacemaker – was seeing a pattern that spanned cultures, nations and even continents: minor differences that seem laughable to outsiders are taken very seriously by warring groups who fear the other side is being given an advantage.

Recognizing similar common patterns, and how to contend with them, has enabled O’Malley to get bitterly divided groups to at least start talking to each other, the basis for creating common ground where conflict recedes and peace might actually have a chance.

O’Malley is the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

He directs the Iraq Project, a collaborative between the McCormack school and the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University.

O’Malley spoke Wednesday in a presentation sponsored by the Academy for Lifelong Learning at the college. Matt Pitta, news director at WXTK and WCOD, opened the presentation with an interview.

The Iraq Project, with the assistance of the Crisis Management Institute in Helsinki, is bringing together leading figures in the Iraqi civil struggle with negotiators from South Africa and Northern Ireland who were architects of their respective peace processes.

O’Malley and the project have been able to help get the representatives from different Iraqi factions to agree on principles and mechanisms on how to negotiate with each other, a key to making those negotiations happen, and ideally stick.

Ultimately, O’Malley said, the solution for Iraq, given the interconnection of issues and grievances in the Middle East, will involve representatives from nearby nations such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with groups such as the Palestinians, sitting down at the table with the Iraqis to devise a plan for stability and peace.

O’Malley knows it won’t be easy. These discussions fly in the face of human nature.

It’s a lesson, O’Malley said, that the United States needs to learn about al-Qaeda, the loose network of groups that backed and carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

“In the end, you must talk to the people who attack you and inflict pain on you,” he said. “You despise them. You want to throw up on them. You must talk to them.”

Along the same lines, he said, the United States needs to talk with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Hamas, a militant Islamic group that has sought the destruction of Israel.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, he said, characteristically put it well in his pithy way.

“You don’t negotiate with your friends,” Mandela said. “You negotiate with your enemies.”

Americans, O’Malley said, must contend with their national psychology about security and enemies.

Europeans, whose continent has been wracked by two world wars in the 20th century and millennia of conflicts, have developed a kind of immunity or safety net in their psyches toward terrorist violence.

In contrast, O’Malley said, Americans were shocked when attacks were mounted on their long-inviolable mainland.

They further have obsessed over the attacks and al-Qaeda, just as they obsessed over communists during the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

But in doing so, O’Malley said, they have agreed to the curtailing of rights long embodied in the U.S. Constitution, such as habeas corpus, which can challenge detention of an individual and order release.

O’Malley would agree that it’s not easy to be a peacemaker.

Asked at the end of his presentation why he’s devoted his life to such difficult work, he replied, “I’m a bad Catholic.”

Being a peacemaker, he said, is his way of dealing with however he comes up short in Catholicism, still devoutly practiced by his mother at age 94.

Article originally published at Cape Cod Today.