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Northern Ireland: Analysis From Washington -- The Lessons Of Belfast

Washington, 15 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The peace agreement in Northern Ireland provides some important lessons about the nature of ethnic conflicts elsewhere, the positive and negative roles of outsiders in these conflicts, and the difficulties involved in securing peace even after overarching agreements are signed.

First, the agreement shows that ethnic conflicts -- just like all other kinds -- are not eternal. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. And as such, they can be exacerbated or resolved by the actions of participants and outsiders.

That lesson flies in the face of the widespread notion that ethnic conflicts are the product of "ancient ethnic animosities" and thus different in kind as well as degree from all other conflicts. Indeed, for the past 30 years, various political leaders have held up the struggle between Protestants and Roman Catholics to support this contention.

But the agreement reached last week, fragile as it may still be, suggests that many on each side of this divide are prepared to cooperate to achieve a settlement, that the identities that supposedly drive them in this conflict are not the only identities they have or value.

Second, the agreement underscores that outside powers can and do play a key role in ethnic conflicts, often negative but sometimes positive.

Such outside groups play a negative role when they provide various kinds of support to the factions that allow the latter to continue the struggle. Indeed, one recent study showed that the only ethnic conflicts that continue for any length of time are those in which both sides enjoy outside support.

But as the accord on Northern Ireland shows, outsiders can play a positive role both by agreeing not to supply weapons and encouragement to the various sides in the conflict and by providing a negotiating setting in which they can bring pressure on these sides.

The negotiations that led to the peace accord in Northern Ireland became possible only after the outside groups that had been providing direct support to the participants in the conflict agreed or were forced to agree to end that practice.

And the talks were crowned with success only after the various outside forces involved were brought together under the diplomatic leadership of a country -- in this case, the United States -- that had not been a direct party to the talks. Those most directly involved in this conflict, Ireland and the United Kingdom simply could not do it themselves.

That pattern suggests that other communal conflicts around the world are unlikely to be resolved unless the international community and its leaders can agree to force outsiders who have been arming the participants to stop and unless countries far from the conflict itself take a leading role in organizing any future talks.

And third, as even those who backed and signed the Northern Ireland accord have said, this agreement even if it gains the support of the overwhelming majority of the people of that long-troubled region will not prevent future outbreaks of violence. Indeed, as American mediator George Mitchell said on Sunday, the accord may even spark some new outbreaks.

Consequently, he and others have urged, the agreement should be seen as a means to bring together the vast majority on both sides of the communal divide and to isolate the small bands of irreconcilable who will reject anything short of their own agendas.

Not only does this advice suggest that everyone involved must give this accord time -- something the impatient public opinion both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere may be reluctant to do -- but it also calls attention to aspects of such conflicts and their resolution that many have not wanted to face.

As many people around the world have learned, it is easy for various groups both immediately and indirectly to start conflicts, but it is inevitably harder to stop them. And it is thus necessary to understand that the process of peace in such circumstances is a process of coping rather than achieving some kind of total resolution.

To the extent that the international community begins to apply these lessons of Belfast elsewhere around the world, ever more of the ethnic conflicts that so many people are prepared to call eternal will be overcome.

But to the extent that the international community does not do so, then not only will these ethnic conflicts continue -- after all, they are taking place because they reflect someone's interests -- but there will be more such conflicts in the future.