Monday, 4 August 2008

An Irishman offers advice in Beirut

Monday, 4 August 2008.
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

Beirut played host last week to Raymond McCartney, elected member of Northern Ireland's new devolved parliament. Although little known outside of his native Northern Ireland, McCartney's views on what social scientists call "conflict resolution" make him a much sought after speaker around the world. He arrived in Beirut two weekends ago to take part in a conference organized by the London-based Conflicts Forum, examining how political groupings on the margins of society can eventually move forward to occupy the center stage.

It's a journey he and his political party, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA,) have already made.

Not so long ago McCartney was deemed beyond the political pale. A member of the IRA, which opposed British rule in Northern Ireland, McCartney was convicted of two murders while a teenager in 1979 and spent 15 years in Northern Ireland's notorious Maze Prison.

During his incarceration he and other Republican inmates refused to wear prison uniforms, part of their insistence on being treated as political prisoners, not criminals, by the British government. He and others went naked, wrapping themselves in prison-issue blankets. McCartney was among those who refused to leave their cells to wash or use toilet facilities and instead daubed their excrement on the walls of their cells.

The conflict between the "blanket" protesters and the United Kingdom's government culminated in McCartney going on hunger strike for 53 days in 1980, the first wave of the hunger strikes that the following year culminated in 10 Republican prisoners starving themselves to death. A giant mural of a young, long haired and gaunt looking McCartney, wrapped in his prison blanket, still stares out from the gable end of a house in Derry City's Bogside area as a tribute to the hunger strikers.

Today McCartney is a respected politician. His murder convictions were quashed last year by the same British courts that condemned him years earlier. As a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, representing Sinn Fein, he now works closely with the British government whose prisoner he once was and whom he almost died opposing. The now middle-aged and gray-haired McCartney is both beneficiary and part of the new political establishment created by the peace process of recent years.

As a member of the Northern Ireland's International Development Committee he now travels across the globe, from South Africa to the Middle East and Basque region of Spain, discussing conflict resolution. History is riddled with examples of men labeled terrorists one day and statesmen the next. In this part of the world Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat spring to mind, though the most globally recognized and revered is the former South African President Nelson Mandela.

But what can someone with McCartney's experience as a former political prisoner turned statesman offer to the myriad conflicts that beset the Middle East? McCartney concedes that he can provide few concrete solutions and structures to deal with the issues facing Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan or Lebanon. "I'm simply in Beirut to outline my experience," he told me before traveling to Lebanon. "That allows people in similar struggles to relate my experience to their own and maybe use what's of benefit to them."

McCartney expected to meet Lebanese people "from various factions" during his short stay, including Hizbullah. He will find an informed audience. In the handful of meetings I had with Hizbullah officials while based in Beirut I was always impressed by their knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland. It was a good deal better than that of the average Irish American. But Hizbullah officials were always at pains to insist they were not following the same path as Sinn Fein, that of abandoning arms for political progress or even political power.

McCartney agrees that it's difficult to draw direct parallels, but adds there are what he calls "general principles" for resolving conflicts within rival groups that could be used in Lebanon and elsewhere. "Conflict resolution success processes have common threads, inclusivity, representation and equality," he explains. "Everyone has to see and treat everyone with equal respect. You cannot have a framework of resolving conflict based entirely on your terms. You have to have a mutual understanding of everyone's views."

A leadership that knows when to take the gun out of politics is crucial too, but that is something the Middle East, on the whole, has, so far at least, to grasp. This is arguably where British government officials, including current Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who continually raise the peace process in Northern Ireland as a template that can be utilized for the Middle East make a serious error.

In Northern Ireland the British government negotiated directly with those who could deliver the hard-line gunmen, those who in effect controlled them. That single point of contact does not appear to exist within Hamas, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. It does of course exist within Hizbullah, but there is more chance of US President George W. Bush being offered the keys to Tehran than Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ordering Hizbullah to disarm and commit itself solely to the political process.

While not wishing to discuss the issue of Hizbullah's weapons directly, McCartney makes it clear he believes the party's reluctance stems from a lack of political progress. "Ability to deliver people is one thing," he says. "But political progress is the paramount requirement."

"The key to the process in the north of Ireland was people could see that politics were working. Ability to deliver is meaningless if you're faced with a political vacuum. Things had to be achieved and aims have to be realized to keep people on board. The political process has to deliver meaningful change, otherwise the ability to deliver people counts for nothing."

Arguably, political progress in the Middle East is bedeviled by the inability of various parties to compromise. But can a visitor from Northern Ireland provide those in the region with good ideas for how to do so? Raymond McCartney doubtless hoped so as he made his way through Lebanon, where compromise has not been the highest priority lately.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

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