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Ireland: Analysis from Washington -- How Ethnic Conflicts End

Washington, 25 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The international community helped bring peace to Northern Ireland not by imposing a settlement on the people there but rather by agreeing to deny the parties most directly involved the resources they would have needed to continue the fighting.

The overwhelming vote in favor of the Northern Ireland peace accords suggests that extremists on both sides of this longstanding conflict had lost the support of the majority of the population. But until recently, the extremists had been able to continue because they had been able to rely on outside support.

On the one hand, Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland had been able to count both on the implicit backing of the Irish Republic and on an illegal but not effectively blocked flow of arms from supporters in several countries around the world.

On the other, pro-British loyalists in Northern Ireland had been able to depend both on the British government to provide support for law and order there, support that tilted the balance in their favor, and also on the illegal but ineffectively blocked flow of munitions from elsewhere.

Deprived of such assistance by these accords, the two parties most immediately involved were forced to work out a power-sharing agreement that with luck may allow them jointly to find a way toward a more general reconciliation.

Not surprisingly, most of the coverage of this remarkable turn of events in a region that most people had thought would always be troubled has focused on the unique features of Irish history. But there are some important lessons to be drawn for other, apparently insoluble ethnic conflicts elsewhere around the world.

First of all, ethnic conflicts are not eternal. Despite suggestions on all sides that ethnic conflicts like the one in Northern Ireland are powered by "ancient ethnic animosities" and thus by definition insoluble, the historical record suggests that all such conflicts in fact have a beginning, a middle and an end.

One recent study of such clashes in fact found that only three of the 25 or so ethnic conflicts now going on had in fact lasted as long as a generation, and those three had continued largely because outsiders were backing both sides.

That finding suggests another lesson: Governments not immediately involved can play a positive if unexpected role in promoting settlements, not so much by providing a new road map toward peace but rather by removing the tools of war.

Despite the assumption that ethnic conflicts are eternal, many leaders around the world have sought to end them by offering this or that peace plan or even by seeking to impose a settlement on the two sides.

But these approaches have seldom worked very well. The parties involved have resisted being told what to do, often viewing outside proposals as inevitably biased. And they have even more frequently been able to undermine any accord even if the international community solemnly proclaims it.

What happened with Northern Ireland, however, suggests that these governments who want to promote peace do have a better option: They can effectively deny both parties the resources -- military and political -- that the latter need to continue the fighting, thus forcing them to seek a resolution on their own.

In that new situation, the typically small percentage of fighters on the two sides will quickly lose their ability to dominate the situation, thus allowing the overwhelming majority of the population to seek and find a way toward peace.

And lastly, the events leading to the overwhelming vote in favor of the Northern Ireland accords suggests a final lesson: Only those most directly involved can in fact make peace, a step they are likely to take with the right kind of outside support. Interviews with both Catholics and Protestants after the voting last week showed that vast majorities on both sides want peace and that they believe this accord offers them a chance to make peace on their own.

Indeed, representatives of both groups suggested that they understood that ultimately the people of Northern Ireland rather than the international community are responsible for their own fate.

To the extent that both direct and indirect participants in similar conflicts around the world learn these lessons, the chances for overcoming the current round of ethnic conflicts will dramatically increase.

But to the extent that they do not, the likelihood that any of the other conflicts will be resolved soon seems certain to decline and the number of new conflicts equally certain to grow.