Sharing the UK's Northern Ireland Experience: 2nd Secretary Thomas Phipps speech

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

2nd Secretary for Political & Security Thomas Phipps' speech at a forum on the Bangsamoro Basic Law by the University of the Philippines.

Magandang hapon, it’s a great pleasure to have been invited here by the Foreign Service Institute and the University of the Philippines to talk about the UK’s experience of conflict in Northern Ireland.

For many years, unresolved domestic conflict in the UK made it more difficult for British diplomats to project a positive image of the UK overseas. Although significant challenges still remain in Northern Ireland, the solutions that were found there and the experience that we gained has now become a feature of our diplomacy.

As Chair Coronel-Ferrer mentioned, for the last three years I’ve been representing the UK in the International Contact Group supporting the Mindanao Peace Process. The ICG is a mediation support mechanism made up of four states and four international NGO’s. It is the only formal hybrid support mechanism in the world made up of state and non-state actors. While this causes some challenges, they are far outweighed by the benefits and comparative advantages that a mixture of different states and experts brings.

The role of the ICG is to provide support to the two negotiating panels and the Malaysian Facilitator. ICG representatives attend each round of talks between the parties. It’s been a real privilege to be involved during the period that the parties were able to successfully conclude the Framework Agreement and the subsequent Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which was signed earlier this year.

ICG support to the parties is manifested in a number of ways, but for the UK much of our role has involved sharing our experience from Northern Ireland and of our models of devolution. It is important to be clear at this point that, of course, no two conflicts are the same and the context in Northern Ireland is in many ways different to that of Muslim Mindanao. As many academic papers have been written on the problems of trying to apply the lessons of one conflict to another as on the benefits.

Nonetheless, we believe firmly that there is value in sharing experience. What is perhaps most important is how experience is shared. During our involvement in the Mindanao Peace Process we have never tried to offer solutions to the challenges that the parties faced, not least because it would be inappropriate for the UK to interfere in a domestic peace process in that way. Instead we have offered our experience, not as a prescriptive model, but as a respectful mirror that can help the parties better reflect on their own unique challenges.

As well as offering our experience as a reference point during the formal talks, we have facilitated visits to the UK by both the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as well as other people involved in the peace process, including civil society, legislators, police and military. We have also brought a number of key figures involved in the Northern Ireland peace process to the Philippines to share their experience. These visitors have included Nobel Peace winner, David Trimble; the former Prime Minister Tony Blair and a range of other politicians, negotiators, former combatants, military and police. They have sometime shared broad principles and sometimes their advice has been more technical and specific.

I was 18 years old in 1998 when our peace agreement, the Good Friday Agreement as it became known, was signed. I had just began a history and politics degree which included studying the Northern Ireland peace process. The subsequent opportunity to spend time and discuss the peace process with key figures involved, has been almost as much of a privilege for me as bearing witness to the progress that has been made here in the Mindanao Peace Process. Most of the lessons I will share with you today are drawn from these numerous interactions. But before I share some of these lessons, I need to provide you with some background to our conflict in order to better contextualise the lessons.

The island of Ireland, or Eire as it is known in the Irish language, is located to the west of Great Britain, about 8 miles away at its closest point. [MAP] This close proximity to Great Britain means that for thousands of years there have been exchanges of people, trade, language and culture. The conflict’s roots can perhaps be traced as far back as 1170, when the then king of England, Henry II, claimed Ireland as part of his kingdom and secured territory around the city of Dublin. During the next 400 years the English attempted to extend their influence and take control of the whole island. By the start of the 17th century this objective had more or less been achieved, except for the in the Northern part of the country.

In 1609, Northern Ireland was finally conquered and land owned by the native Irish there was confiscated and given to English, Scottish and Welsh colonists from Britain. The large-scale movement of settlers into Northern Ireland became known as the Plantation of Ulster. The plantation essentially aimed to transplant a whole new society into Northern Ireland. The settlers were mostly of Protestant faith while the native Irish were Catholic. This process contributed to a religious, cultural and territorial divide that still remains to this day.

For the next two hundred years the Irish continued to challenge British rule throughout the island and there were a number of rebellions. Between 1845 and 1849 a million people in Ireland starved to death as a result of famine and a further million were forced to emigrate. Many blamed the British government that ruled Ireland from London for standing by and allowing the Irish to starve. The famine created sympathy among the population of Britain and a Home Rule for Ireland movement, championed by the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, began to gain support. In 1914 a Home Rule Act was finally passed by the British Parliament, however the outbreak of the First World War that same year meant the act was suspended.

As support for Home Rule had increased, many within the Protestant or ‘settler’ community in Northern Ireland became increasingly concerned about the prospect of a united Ireland. The Unionists as they became known - who wanted to maintain the Union with Great Britain - began to arm themselves, and in 1912 the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was established. Concerned about the potential for civil war in Ireland, the British made sure that the Home Rule Act made provision for self-government for both southern and northern Ireland. Protestant men, including in the UVF, volunteered in large numbers to fight for the United Kingdom during the First World War and the battles in which they fought and died continue to be commemorated in Protestant communities in Northern Ireland to this day. Their role in the war helped to secure the region’s continued existence as part of the UK and in 1920 partition between Northern and Southern Ireland was enshrined with the Government of Ireland Act and a new government was established in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, in the South of the country a group called the Irish Volunteers attempted an armed rising in Dublin during Easter week in 1916. Incensed that the rebels would mount such a rebellion while the country was at war, the British reaction was brutal. Sixteen of the rebels were executed and more than 3000 people arrested – many of whom had not been involved. The Irish Republican Army or IRA, that was formed after the rebellion gained significant support and when the First World War ended in 1918, a new war broke out between Britain and the IRA. The war ended when the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in 1921, which gave southern Ireland self-governance. Although the Anglo Irish Treaty brought war between Ireland and the UK to an end, not everyone in the South agreed with its terms – particularly the fact that the country had been partitioned into Northern and Southern Ireland. While much of the IRA disbanded in the mid-1920s a smaller hardcore group continued to pursue a united Ireland and carried out sporadic attacks in Northern Ireland and the UK during the next 40 years.

In part because of the fear of Irish Republican violence, the devolved government that was established in Northern Ireland was very strongly biased towards the Protestant or Unionist community. Its first Prime Minister James Criagm, once said “All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.” Proportional representation, which was designed to project the Catholic minority, was abolished, electoral constituencies were gerrymandered to ensure protestant control, all judges were unionists and the police force was 90% protestant. Jobs in the large shipyards, engineering works and civil service were overwhelmingly reserved for Protestants and Catholics were discriminated against in number of ways, including through the provision of social housing. Things stayed this way for the next 40 years.

Social changes in the United Kingdom after the Second World War ended in 1945, including free secondary and tertiary education for all, contributed to the emergence of a new Catholic middle class. Growing dissatisfaction amongst this new middle class manifested itself in a Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s, which drew heavily on the equivalent movement in the American South. Unionists, including the police force, reacted violently to the civil rights movement. In January 1969 unionists ambushed a civil rights march and beat the marchers severely as the police looked on. As the violence grew, the police continued to mishandle the issue and fighting spread to communities throughout Northern Ireland.

By the end of 1969 the British Army had been deployed to try and restore order and was at first welcomed by the Catholic community. But by 1970 relations had deteriorated and a rejuvenated militant form of republicanism emerged within the Catholic community. This led to the creation of new Protestant / Unionist militant groups and the violence spiralled out of control. The Northern Ireland government was abolished and the most recent manifestation of the conflict, which became known as the troubles, had begun.

Although the Civil Rights movement and the violent response to it sparked the beginning of the troubles, the conflict was actually the result of a complex web of factors. Different communities and individuals assign varying levels of importance to each of the different factors, but four key issues had become particularly intractable and sensitive:

Firstly, Politics – or the political dispute about the existence and nature of Northern Ireland itself. Secondly, no generation since the Plantation of Ulster had escaped violence, society was brutalised and and the conflict during the troubles was particularly bloody. Demographic and social segregation had existed for hundreds of years and Protestants and Catholics felt that they belonged to different social groups. Finally, inequality and poor governance exasperated these divisions and added additional layers of grievance, particularly for the Catholic community.

The conflict had a significant human, economic and social cost. More than 3500 people were killed among a population of 1.5 million people. Divisions within the communities deepened and the economy was battered. As the area became more deprived the socio-economic factors that helped sustain the conflict increased. By the 1980’s the conflict had spread to the mainland UK and the IRA carried out a bombing campaign that left hundreds of people dead and injured.

The peace agreement that eventually emerged in 1998 was not merely the result of two years of intense negotiations but was built on a series of previous agreements and negotiations. During the twenty years from1974 to the 1994 ceasefire, there were seven substantive efforts to reach an agreement. A number of factors helped finally make peace possible in 1998, some of which I will come on to shortly. The strong electoral mandate and political commitment to the process of Tony Blair was certainly an important factor, as was the political shift that had taken place within the armed groups. The involvement and dedication of the international community, including the Australian, Ninian Stephen, who first facilitated the peace talks as well as George Mitchell, the US Senator who eventually brokered the agreement, was also vital. As was the development of a vibrant and engaged civil society that took place in Northern Ireland during the 80’s and 90’s.

After the agreement was signed a copy was delivered to every home in both Ireland and Northern Ireland and was subsequently endorsed in a referendum among the population of the entire island. The agreement contained a number of important provisions: • Northern Ireland’s future status as either part of the UK or of Ireland was to be in the hands of its citizens. If the people of Ireland (north and south) wanted a united Ireland they could have one by voting for it at any time. This became known as the ‘principle of consent’. • Northern Ireland’s citizen’s could also choose whether to hold an Irish, British, or both passports. This became known as ‘parity of esteem’. • A new devolved government was established with power-sharing arrangements which meant all the main parties would be members of a permanent coalition, which enjoyed genuine devolved powers. • A process of decommissioning for all paramilitary groups was agreed. • And an independent commission was established to make recommendations on the nature of policing in Northern Ireland. These recommendations were adopted by the police force, which was also given a new name, uniform and badge. Once the political agreement had been endorsed in the referendum it was turned into legislation. As with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, not every aspect of the agreement required legislation. Many of the commitments, such as decommissioning, were political and could not therefore be legislated for. Although Tony Blair and the Labour Party enjoyed a strong majority in parliament at the time, there was complete cross-party consensus and support for the legislation. No member of parliament would dare to oppose an agreement that had the support of all parties, the majority public in Northern and southern Ireland, and which aimed to bring an end to 40 years of conflict.

16 years have now passed since the agreement was signed and significant challenges still remain in Northern Ireland. But the conflict has not resumed and the economy, which was once decimated, is now booming. Last year tourism to Northern Ireland was worth nearly $1billion and the popular TV series Game of Thrones is filmed there as part of a film industry that has generated $400m dollar of revenue over the last three years. We are also extremely proud of the process of police reform that has taken place, which is widely considered to be the best of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world.

As I said before, the solutions that we found are by no means relevant in every context, but there are some broad principles that I think can be usefully shared.

Perhaps most importantly, our experience suggests that no conflict is intractable. By the 1980’s, after successive attempts to resolve the conflict had failed, many people, including the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, suggested that there was no solution that could be acceptable to all sides. But at the right time, in the right conditions, peace was eventually possible.

The conflict was not solved through purely military means and we don’t believe that any conflict can be. 900 years of military victories in Ireland did not bring the conflict to an end. If there is a political problem at the route of a conflict then there has to be a political solution. Some people, including a senior government official I met when I first arrived in the Philippines, have suggested that the example of Sri Lanka proves that a military solution is possible. Not only did the military campaign in Sri Lanka involve significant human rights abuses, but without addressing underlying Tamil grievances, there is no guarantee that conflict there will not emerge once again.
Before a political solution is possible both the military and armed groups must accept that military victory is not viable. Some in the UK have claimed that the IRA was so badly penetrated by the British Security services that without political interference they could have been defeated once and for all. Jonathan Powell, the lead British negotiator in Tony Blair’s government, describes this as “the security delusion”. While the military often begin by suffering from the security delusion, they are also often the first to realise that a lasting solution cannot be achieved through military means. I have met many proponents of this theory in the Philippine Armed Forces, including now retired General Bautista. It was the progressive involvement of the Philippine military in the ceasefire architecture on the ground in Mindanao that helped create the space for political talks to make progress.

Political leadership on all sides is critical to achieving a lasting peace. Nobel Peace prize winners David Trimble and John Hume both sacrificed their political parties and their careers in the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland and Tony Blair made incredibly brave decisions, including inviting members of the IRA to 10 Downing Street for talks. President Aquino, Chairman Murad and many others have made similarly brave decisions. In both the Northern Ireland and Mindanao conflicts many people have risked their lives in the pursuit of peace.

But this political leadership cannot be short term. The signing of a political agreement does not represent the end of the conflict. In fact, peace agreements are perhaps better described as the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. The process of decommissioning in Northern Ireland took nearly twelve years to complete in a much more favourable context than in Mindanao. The devolved government in Northern Ireland was suspended repeatedly during the first six years after it was formed, but yet there was no resumption of the conflict.

Decommissioning was an extremely sensitive issue following our peace agreement. The Protestant/Unionist community in particular obsessed over the destruction of paramilitary weapons. However, what we came to realise was that the issue of weapons was perhaps less important than whether the main political groups were committed to giving up violence. Paramilitary weapons were eventually decommissioned with the support of an international team lead by the Canadian General John De Chasterlain. But a separate international team, known as the Independent Monitoring Team, was also responsible for reporting on whether groups were committed to political rather than violent means.

For many years the UK refused to countenance the idea of international involvement in our domestic process, but we came to realise that third party involvement was extremely helpful. Some issues, like decommissioning, were too sensitive for the parties to take care of themselves and on other issues, like policing, they simply couldn’t agree. We would not have been able to make the progress we have without the support of the international community.

Violent groups of course continue to exist in Northern Ireland, but they are very small, enjoy no popular support and are more criminal than ideological in nature. If you are going to remove support for such groups, you have to be able persuade people that their aspirations can be realised through political means. This is where the issue of parity of esteem or the principle of consent, which I have mentioned already, is so important. At any time, the people of Northern Ireland can vote and decide whether to join with the rest of Ireland. Any citizen in Northern Ireland can choose to be British or Irish.

But not everyone’s aspirations manifest themselves in nationalist sentiments. For most people the provision of basic needs, housing, education, and employment is far more important. This is where good governance is absolutely vital. Sometimes bad governance is the result of conflict and sometimes the conflict provides an excuse. Only once the conflict has been addressed can you remove that excuse, but once you do, governance must improve. This will perhaps be the by far the biggest challenge for the new Bangsamoro government.

As well as housing, education and employment, communities must feel secure. The role of the police is therefore also extremely important. Policing must be driven by the community. The community must be responsible for setting policing objectives and priorities and identifying how they want to be policed – in Northern Ireland we called this “policing with the community”. The police must be totally free from partisan political control and there must be direct accountability between the community and the police at the local level with full transparency. Only then can you establish trust in the police force and, by association, the government, which allows all members of the community to feel safe.

Finally, if genuine solutions are to be found for a community made up of different groups with different religious, cultural and ethnic identities then those solutions must be determined at the local level and genuine and inclusive devolution is therefore required. The UK has devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Devolution does not mean that the central government in Westminster has given up sovereignty – the UK parliament still remains sovereign in law and can still legislate, in theory and in fact, for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, including on all powers that have been devolved. But the UK parliament understands that abusing its residual power would achieve nothing other than creating division and strife. Instead, central government has entered into a partnership with the devolved governments, through our intergovernmental relations mechanism, that allows laws and policies to be crafted locally to suit local needs. We firmly believe that rather than weaken the United Kingdom, this has helped to strengthen it.

As with Northern Ireland, there is still a long way to go to find a lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao. Securing a lasting peace is vital for the development of the Philippines as a whole – it is not just for the people of Mindanao but for everyone, whether they are in Luzon, the Visayas or beyond. There have already been some extremely positive and innovative solutions found to the challenges of ending conflict here and it is heartening to know that the FSI is already beginning to equip Filipino diplomats so that they can share this experience with countries elsewhere in the region and beyond.

One final lesson is that lasting peace cannot be achieved by political leaders alone, but is the responsibility of everyone in society; in the conflict-affected area and beyond. I therefore wish you all luck as you continue to strive for a lasting solution to the conflict in the Philippines.