International lessons from the Good Friday Agreement, 25 years on

Posted on: 06 April 2023

The idea that the Good Friday Agreement has lessons for the rest of the world is as old as the deal itself. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to John Hume and David Trimble in 1998 endorsed the agreement as a globally world-class peacemaking event.

Political speeches, academic events and publications and media debates have investigated the “lessons of Northern Ireland”. Countless groups have travelled from conflict zones around the world to try to learn from the Irish experience.

Yet the upcoming 25th anniversary of the agreement amid the ongoing failure of power-sharing is a reminder of both the longevity and shortcomings of the peace process. What, then, are the lessons? The sheer volume of assertions and analysis that has been produced is daunting, but one way to make sense of it is to sort the lessons into three categories – technical, political and psychological.

Technical lessons have to do with the practice of managing conflict. Many academics and international policy-makers have looked at the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement to see whether, rather than reinventing the wheel, they can borrow an idea to solve a problem they are facing in their own context. Power sharing, international commissions, the public referendum and many other features of the peace process have all been held up for potential export elsewhere.

The challenge with this approach is working out whether the techniques are the chicken or the egg. Did they bring the parties together, or were they the outcome of the parties coming together? If they appear to have worked – and even that might be hard to assess – it was due to underlying dynamics at play in Northern Ireland. They can’t simply be parachuted in elsewhere. Nevertheless, many people from other conflicts seem to find it useful to study technical lessons, as it might help them design a mechanism that could work for them.

The second kind of lesson is political. From Israel to Turkey and Korea to Colombia, political actors have found a wide range of often competing guidance in Northern Ireland.

Politicians are prone to drawing broad and sometimes inaccurate analogies with other places. It offers them real-world evidence for a course they wish to take. But referring to other peace processes may well be a good strategy to encourage progress in your own. Following the 1998 agreement, Basque separatists modelled their peace strategy on that of Irish republicans.

Undoubtedly, Northern Ireland is a more useful mirror for some places than others. President Zelensky has not been calling for an Irish-style “win-win” peace process in Ukraine. That said, it’s not impossible to imagine a future in which some of Northern Ireland’s experience of managing identities and recovering from conflict might have more relevance there. It can be surprising how Ireland resonates with far-flung places.

The Colombian peace process drew much inspiration from Ireland, despite dramatic differences. “Belfast is like a little Korea,” a journalist from Seoul said to me.

The third type of lesson is psychological. Rather than draw specific lessons, this approach seeks to change mindsets. Many conflict resolution organisations have brought people from conflict-affected societies around the world to Northern Ireland to try to stimulate a sense of possibility. They tour sites of violence and transformation and meet political leaders, former combatants and community activists. They experience a living illustration of a peace process: imperfect, long in duration and requiring constant attention and at times reinvention.

The hope – and it is only a hope – is that people come away with not necessarily a toolkit but with a new perspective of their own conflict and a new resolve to transform it.

It’s hard to know what impact all this lesson sharing has made. But Northern Ireland as a place for peace-learning mimics South Africa’s role in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere) in the 1990s. South African personnel, ideas and visits do appear to have made a positive impact on political progress in the North, although these were hardly decisive factors in 1998 agreement.

The imperfections of peace in Northern Ireland are as clear in 2023 as ever. Some may wonder whether it is an appropriate place to find peace wisdom, but a generation mostly free of political violence is enough to pronounce the peace process a success compared with many other places.

Decades of peace efforts have created a remarkable wealth of human peacemaking experience in Ireland at all levels of society, from diplomats to community workers. Tapping into that experience seems as promising a way as any to inject fresh thinking into another intractable conflict.

This piece was first published in the Irish Independent on April 6, 2023: