Iraq’s lessons from Ireland

Padraig O’Malley (center), a professor of peace and reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, in Baghdad in July 2008, after the signing of the Helsinki II agreement between representatives of all political parties in Iraq. O’Malley, who has been a key figure in helping settle sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, will speak at a two-day justice conference hosted by BU’s Institute for Philosophy and Religion. Photo by Nancy Riordan
Padraig O’Malley (center), a professor of peace and reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, in Baghdad in July 2008, after the signing of the Helsinki II agreement between representatives of all political parties in Iraq. O’Malley, who has been a key figure in helping settle sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, will speak at a two-day justice conference hosted by BU’s Institute for Philosophy and Religion. Photo by Nancy Riordan

Iraq’s lessons from Ireland
by Caleb Daniloff (BU Today)
20 March 2009

Twice in the past two years, Padraig O’Malley has maneuvered representatives of warring Iraqi factions into the same room so they could talk — and keep talking. The first meeting, also attended by negotiators from reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland and South Africa, resulted in the Helsinki Principles — a framework for keeping the dialogue open. The key, says O’Malley, the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, was bringing in veterans scarred by both bloodshed and reconciliation.

“Divided societies are in a better position to help other divided societies,” he says. “People who know killing and who have killed can talk about reconciliation in a way that churchmen and theologians and men of goodwill and counselors and psychotherapists can never talk about.

“They know what it’s like to forgive — and when it’s not possible to forgive.”

Dublin-born, O’Malley has been involved with the conflict in Northern Ireland for most of his professional life. In 1997, he organized talks that brought hardened adversaries of “the Troubles” together with former combatants in South Africa who had found a way to live together.

O’Malley will speak on campus on Saturday, March 21, part of the two-day conference Reconciliation, Moral Obligation, and Moral Reconstruction in the Wake of Conflict, hosted by the Institute for Philosophy and Religion. Among the many participants are Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations, who will discuss the moral implications of the U.S.-led global war on terror, and philosophers Margaret Urban Walker, of Arizona State University, Claudia Card, of Arizona State University, and Charles Griswold, a CAS philosophy professor, who will take up such issues as moral repair and forgiveness.

In the wake of several recent political killings in Northern Ireland, BU Today asked O’Malley how he manages to keep hope alive and whether reconciliation is truly possible.

BU Today: What motivates you to jump into the middle of some of the world’s most intractable conflicts?
O’Malley:

It’s because I’m a bad Catholic. I was born into a very conservative Irish Catholic family, where Catholicism was taken to its ultimate of ultimate extremes. So I went from being a religious young person to a person of no faith whatsoever when I reached my mid-20s. I would say really it’s about finding meaning in life. It’s the ongoing crisis of seeing the human species as no more than just another evolutionary step, another species well on its way to self-destruction. We kill off other species. And we may be the first species that kills itself off.

How can you imagine that it’s possible to bring peace to places where war has been a way of life for generations?

They said that about Northern Ireland. I don’t believe the past is ever past in terms of generations, or even hundreds of years, but I do believe that people can reach what I would call accommodations, which are invariably the result of compromise, and compromise is a result of a long, long, long period of violence until you have an emerging consensus that the continuation of violence, the violence of the past, is a form of insanity.

If I put my hand over a hot stove, I burn my hand. Now if I come back again tomorrow and burn my hand again, OK. But if I come back a third time and put my hand over a hot stove and expect a different result, I would be insane. The practitioners of violence persuade themselves into believing, generation to generation, that if only they persist with violence, there will be a different outcome, and there never is.

The latest example of this might the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Did they really expect a different outcome? The outcome that has happened is the outcome that has happened every time they’ve embarked on such behavior.

How do you bridge two sides whose only commonality seems to be hatred?

The most successful program for addiction is one addict sharing with another addict, and together they keep themselves sober or clean. The principle is that people who don’t have the disease of addiction can understand so little about how addicts behave. I began to apply elements of that to my observations of behavior in divided societies, first with the Northern Irish, whom I worked with in the 1970s and ’80s. Then I began to examine and document the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa in the ’90s. It became apparent to me that the behavior of South Africans on both sides of the apartheid divide was eerily similar to behaviors I had come across among Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland.

In 1997, I got President Mandela to invite all the negotiators from Northern Ireland to meet with the chief negotiators of all the parties in the South Africa settlement of 1994. The South Africans shared how they emerged from conflict, how there was growing consensus on both sides that violence would lead not to victory but stalemate, and that whatever South Africa was left behind would be so economically destroyed it would take generations to redevelop.

How did the Northern Irish react?

When they were listening to what the South Africans went through and the obstacles they had to overcome, they began to nod their heads in identification, saying, “We faced some of the same types of problems, and gee, the way you approach them reminds me of the way we approach them, too.” There evolved a terrific learning and sharing process, which the Northern Irish took back to Northern Ireland. To this day, they continue to say how grateful they are for what the South Africans did for them — how they helped them.

So you’re harnessing the snowball effect?

Well, in 2007, at a conference at Tufts University called Iraq: The Way Forward, I asked the organizers to consider asking some Northern Irish and South Africans to attend. I wanted to set up an experiment to see if I could get any balls moving between the Northern Irish, the South Africans, and the Iraqis. Everyone kind of laughed at the idea. What would blacks from South Africa and people from Northern Ireland have to tell Muslims half a world away? So the Northern Irish, and South Africans, sat with Iraqis one-on-one.

Afterwards, we asked the Iraqis — and this was around the time of the big spike of sectarian violence — whether a meeting among Shia and Sunni parties and the chief negotiators from Northern Ireland and South Africa might be helpful. They said they thought it might be. That resulted in a meeting in Helsinki with 16 Iraqis from Shia and Sunni parties and 4 chief negotiators from Northern Ireland and South Africa. Before they got down to business, the Northern Irish and South Africans shared the narratives of their conflicts and the obstacles they faced, how they had failed, and how they had found ways to overcome those obstacles. Again, you could see the Iraqis beginning to nod their heads in identification.

How can reconciliation truly take hold?

Reconciliation is a word that is bandied about in Iraq to the point where it’s meaningless, overused and abused. In terms of there being reconciliation between Shias and Sunnis, among Arabs and Kurds, one can put not just a huge question mark, but a zillion question marks behind it. Is it likely to happen in the next 10 to 20 years? The answer is likely no. The question for me is not whether there will be reconciliation, but whether there will be at least a consensus that they will try and work out their problems without using violence.

What will you be speaking about at the BU conference?

Iraq is a country with a fifth of its population in exile or displaced, and we have this continuous feed of news that things are getting better. They’re certainly better than they were at the height of the sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, but that is because most of Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed. Sectarian war is about cleaning out areas. It’s about territory. Studies strongly suggest that two-thirds of the reduction in violence attributed to the surge can in fact be attributed to the end of ethnic cleansing, because there were no more Shias to be moved out of Sunni areas and no more Sunnis to be moved out of Shia areas. They were dead or had fled.

But every day there are killings due to political reasons that don’t make news in the United States because it’s Iraqi killing Iraqi, because American eyes are already on Afghanistan, where the government is getting ready to make the same mistakes over again. It saddens me to see what Obama is doing in Afghanistan, but we’ll see. I want to believe.

The Institute for Philosophy and Religion two-day justice conference Reconciliation, Moral Obligation, and Moral Reconstruction in the Wake of Conflict will take place in the Photonics Center Colloquium Room, ninth floor, 8 St. Mary’s St. Opening remarks are at 1 p.m., Friday, March 20. The conference’s second day begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 21.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

Article originally published at BU Today.

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