10 Lessons Pakistan can learn from the Northern Ireland Conflict

Pakistan has suffered extensively from a war which has bled this nation with hundreds and thousands of lives lost to a ruthless enemy called TTP & Talibans. Pakistan needs to come out of this conflict for the survival of our own existence – but to solve this crisis, we as a nation are forced to stand at a cross-roads – to either go headlong into a “military action” or explore a “ceasefire option”.

The choice is not, one or the other, but the choice is to explore a combination of both, using good cop – bad cop approach, try to head into a ceasefire talks but use strategic & timed military force to drag the militants back onto the peace table

Truly the bleeding hearts of every Pakistan screams, to beat the hell out of these murdering terrorists, but for the sake of Pakistan, and as, educated Pakistanis we must avoid being lead into a mindless war without exhausting avenues and all non-military options, for the fear of loosing our country further.

I share a paper published by London School of Economics and Political Science titled Ten Lessons for Conflict Resolution from Northern Ireland by Jonathan Powell is a great paper to read it sheds light on the lessons that can be extracted from the Northern Ireland conflict. Jonathan Powell was the principal negotiator on Northern Ireland and was instrumental in bringing about a lasting peace in that troubled province after centuries of conflict this

I accede even prior to quoting this paper in context of Pakistan there is no way to convinceably argue that the conflict in Pakistan is similar to the Northern Ireland, but it is equally wrong to suggest that there are no lessons to be learned, from the mistakes the British made and from the successes they achieved.  These lessons can be applied elsewhere, with care, by people like us in Pakistan to learn and seek a lasting settlements to this armed conflict.

The 10 Lessons from Northern Ireland are summarised from the paper with my own personal anecdotes (in green) as to how this could translate to us here in Pakistan – the original paper can be read online directly from the LSE website (PDF Download)

10 Lessons from the Northern Ireland Conflict

  1. No Purely Military Solutions to Insurgencies
  2. Cannot Stop the Violence Without talking to the Men with Guns
  3. Insurgent Groups will Not Just Surrender
  4. Both Sides need to Believe that they Cannot Win Militarily
  5. Needs to be Political Leadership on Both Sides
  6. Peace is a Process not an Event
  7. There is a Role for Third Parties
  8. Breakthru Agreements are Beginning not the End of a Peace Process
  9. Lasting Settlement if Both Sides can Breakthru the Zero-Sum Game
  10. No Conflict in the World, however Bloody, however Frozen that Cannot be Resolved
  11. Conclusion
  1. There are No Purely Military Solutions to InsurgenciesLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    There are no examples anywhere in the world of terrorist problems being ‘policed out’.  There is a definite political problem at the root of most conflicts and hence there has to be a political solution.

    That is not to say that security measures have no place. On the contrary, they are essential.  Without security pressure downwards, insurgents will find life comfortable and have no incentive to make the tough decisions necessary for peace. But security pressure by itself without offering a political way out will simply cause the insurgents to fight to the last man and you cannot believe to totally wipe them out

    Some point to the Sri Lanka conflict as proof that there can be a purely military solution to an insurgency. It is true that Prabrakhan, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, appears to have been insane enough to believe he could win a conventional military campaign against the Sri Lankan armed forces. He was proved wrong. But it is a mistake, unfortunately, to believe that this conventional military victory will be the end of the story Unless the underlying Tamil grievances are addressed politically it is probable that the terrorist campaign will start all over again and such a campaign will be impossible to resolve by purely military means.

    We must realize that the Talibans are also fighting a political battle, holistically two major demands have come forward, they want to stop foreign involvement in the day-to-day affairs of Pakistan i.e in regards to the US which is waging the War on Terror against them, and the other main political goal is to enforce Islamic Sharia state in Pakistan

    The first of their main political goals “the presence of a vested foreign agenda in Pakistan“, should be easy to handle. The other issue being the “enforcement of an Islamic State” is mostly an ideological struggle and can be put on the table to see if you we could “try” to negotiate down (its best to try and fail, than to have not tried at all)

  2. You Cannot Stop the Violence Without talking to the Men with GunsLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    Unless the British could get the IRA to stop they would not be able to bring peace to Northern Ireland. There is however a Catch 22 to this need to talk which leads governments to do it in secret, as the British government did from 1973 to 1993. Democratic governments cannot be seen to be talking to terrorist groups while they are killing their people; but terrorist groups will not give up fighting unless the governments can convince them there is a political way forward to achieve their aims

    Governments are sometimes accused of appeasement for talking to insurgent groups. That is to misunderstand the nature of appeasement. Chamberlain’s mistake at Munich was not in talking to Hitler. That was a sensible thing to do. It was to believe that by offering Hitler a slice of Czechoslovakia he could buy him off. Accepting the terrorist demands under the threat of violence would be appeasement.

    But talking to terrorists is not the same as agreeing with them. The British talked to the Republican movement but they never offered them the united Ireland that they had been seeking by force. On the contrary the British persuaded them to accept the principle of consent whereby the status of Northern Ireland could only be changed by the will of the majority.

    Let there be no doubt that Taliban are viscous militants – but both the Talibans and the Govt it seems to be engaging in a media warfare issuing bold & bolder media statements against each other. It is then that a bleeding nation is left at the mercy of media pundits to spin their own interpretations and connotations to appease their viewers and TV ratings. This media battle needs to stop, both sides pulled into some face-to-face dialogues and a solution reached (onus is on our govt to drag these militants into some discussion).

    It is also time to politically divide and split the various Taliban groups, exploit their internal differences and weaken them politically from within. With 50+ alleged factions, each group has a different leader and possibly motivated by a slightly different agenda / goal. Even Talibans have ego’s and internal political rifts its time we put one against the other. Had there been unity in command and no political undercurrents we would have seen one or two groups but not 50 and each with 50 different leaders running their own war against their self proclaimed enemy – time we deliberately create the rift, exploit and weaken them on their own turf. Time we regain trust of the Tribal elders and isolate the civilians population from the 5-6000K militants embedded within. Work the sidelines politically with the saner elements and you will weaken the foundations of the Talibans

  3. Insurgent Groups will Not Just SurrenderLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    Insurgent groups need a narrative to explain to their supporters what they have achieved and why all the sacrifice was worthwhile. If an agreement looks like abject surrender they will reject it. For that reason it is a mistake to insist on preconditions before beginning talks. Democratic governments find it very hard to be seen to talk to insurgent groups until there is a ceasefire. But to demand additional pre-conditions before talks can start is usually a mistake

    This is true in terms of Pakistan, TTP & the Govt of Pakistan both argue each other to do a ceasefire before opening up peace talks, this can go on forever, or alternatively some visible confidence building measures or even military bullying be used to start the process, drag them onto the table and explore the mutual ceasefire

  4. Both sides Need to Believe that they Cannot Win MilitarilyLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    If either side thinks it can win, it will not negotiate seriously but instead seek tactical advantage from the negotiation. In Northern Ireland the British army was clear by the early 1980s that it could contain violence at ‘an acceptable level’ indefinitely but it could not win an outright victory.

    They therefore understood the need to seek a political settlement. On the other side, Adams and McGuinness had joined the Republican movement very young, but by the mid 1980s they were well past fighting age. The IRA had tried the short sharp shock, the long campaign, the mainland campaign, and the armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other, but none of them had driven the Brits out.

    They knew the IRA could never be defeated but they also realised they could not achieve their objectives by purely military means. So they too started casting around for a political solution first by talking to John Hume and the Irish government and later by seeking entry to the all-party talks process.

    A a very valid argument being put up by many Pro-War critics – How can be negotiate from a position of weakness?, agreed, but to only focus on a military action without a strategy to achieve peace talks is bound to fail. The Prime Minister of Pakistan needs to clearly layout a strategic military plan, but with the threat and condition that it is geared towards bringing them on the negotiation table.

    On 20th Jan an interview of various TTP factions by Hassan Abdullah of Dawn says that TTP do want peace, on the condition that government should be sincere, do you ignore this olive branch? even if it may have been laced with “their offer from a position of strength” I say even then yes – test the waters and explore how far they are willing to go. This seems to be a conditional offer, their demand that the govt of Pakistan to be sincere in negotiations, meaning without a US/NATO vested agenda, truly, is that demand to difficult to achieve? For the sake of Peace in Pakistan, I hope not

  5. There needs to be Political Leadership on Both SidesLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    In Northern Ireland Adams and McGuinness risked not just their political careers but their lives in leading their movement into a peace the movement would not have accepted at the beginning of the process; David Trimble and John Hume both sacrificed their political parties and their careers in order to achieve peace; Ian Paisley, having contributed to the start of the Troubles, decided after a close encounter with his maker in 2004 that he wanted to end his life as Dr Yes rather than Dr No; John Major stood to gain nothing politically from starting a peace process in Northern Ireland and yet decided to do so; and the fact that the British and Irish Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, were willing and able to work seamlessly together for a decade made peace possible.

    Without political leaders prepared to take risks there will be no peace. More than that there needs to be political momentum to achieve peace. Tony Blair deliberately used the magnitude of his landslide election victory in 1997 to jump-start the process

    With multiple TTP factions – issue a call to all 50+ groups, you really do not want to end up talking to all 50 groups simultaneously but force them to unify in command (if possible) selecting a few reps to come forth and represent & voice their demands, some will come forth, they will talk, they may or may not agree on the various terms & conditions and may end up walking back calling these talks a farce or a failure, but it is also possible some demands may appeal to a few, they may possibly squabble – this could create more differences amongst them and a struggle for power – exploit their differences to the point of weakness – keep doing this exercise repeatedly without fail.

    On our side the government has been in power for over 8 months, an APC held 140 days back empowering the govt to hold peace talks, but nothing has happened, neither any substantial attempt to open dialogue or even a counter military strategy, it is the Federal govt which has the mandate and power to hold talks and without leadership, nothing will transpire. The media wolves use the PML “inaction” to hit out on Imran Khan and PTI which continues to lobby hard for ceasefire talks, but PTI does not have the power to negotiate.

  6. Peace is a Process Not an EventLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    With a process there is cause for hope and parties are kept busy. Without a process a vacuum opens up and is rapidly filled by violence. If nothing else a process allows you to manage the problem even if you cannot solve it. In the Middle East the outlines of an eventual settlement are pretty clear in terms of land and of refugees and even of what should happen to Jerusalem. But there is no process. Shimon Peres summed up the problem neatly, saying, “the good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel

    Once you have the process up and running you must not let it stall. This can be called as “The Bicycle Theory”. Once the bicycle is up and moving do not let it fall over. If you do, you will find it incredibly difficult to pick it up again. Keeping it moving however requires ingenuity, coming up with a new way forward every time you meet a blockage, an ability to absorb political pain, and most of all a refusal to take no for an answer.

    Giving up after one try, is akin to giving up on Pakistan, we need to keep pushing the envelop and keep dragging these militants to a point of a ceasefire. If we give up, its akin to giving up on Pakistan – try, try and keep trying

  7. There is a Role for Third PartiesLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    The British government had long refused to countenance any international role in Northern Ireland, just as other governments around the world refuse to allow external actors to play a role in their conflicts.The British government however changed its mind in the early 1990s by inviting Ninian Stephen, an Australian to chair the talks. Later they invited George Mitchell to play the role of referee, a role he fulfilled with remarkable patience and balance.

    Third parties can also be crucial in guaranteeing independence. The IRA found it far easier to put their weapons beyond use through an international commission on decommissioning chaired by a Canadian General than they would have done handing them over to the Brits or the Unionists

    Its possible to engage in third parties, who we both can trust, let both parties reach a consensus on who, or which country, can be good neutral mediator

  8. Breakthrough Agreements are the Beginning Not the End of a Peace ProcessLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    When the peace agreements were announced there was a burst of enthusiasm on both sides. But neither side did anything to implement the agreements or even to sell them effectively, and disillusion soon set in and the process collapsed into another Intifada.

    It is exactly when the breakthrough agreement is announced that efforts should be redoubled rather than both sides collapsing in exhaustion and doing nothing.

    Achieving peace is a long and winding road, if we are sincere to the welfare of Pakistan, we need to tread this path repeatedly again and again and not be faltered by failure or vested interests to destabilise Pakistan be it from any country around the world be it US of A, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Russian, China or India (and many others)

  9. There will Only be a Lasting Settlement if Both Sides can Break Through the Political Zero-Sum GameLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    If one side comes out of the negotiation looking cheerful then the other side feels that it has lost, regardless of the substance. The most bizarre example of this was the 1994 ceasefire. When the ceasefire was announced it was the Republicans driving around town honking their horns and waving their flags and the Unionists who were sunk in gloom, even though the ceasefire was exactly what the Unionists had been demanding for decades.

    This zero-sum game dogged them right through the negotiations and they only finally got to a settlement when the Republicans realised they had to think about the constituency on the other side as well as their own and participate in selling the agreement to that other constituency.

    Agreements will only stick if both sides come out of the negotiations feeling like winners, rather than feeling they have been forced to give in.

    Achieve a sense of agreement that both sides can convince their people that it is the best possible solution, no one needs to be declared victorious, only PEACE is the zero-sum game for Pakistan

  10. There is No Conflict in the World, however Long Lasting, however Bloody, however Frozen that Cannot be ResolvedLESSONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND:
    Successive British prime ministers from Churchill, to Wilson, to Thatcher believed that Northern Ireland was insoluble. A series of previous attempts from Sunningdale in 1973 to the Anglo- Irish Agreement in 1985 to the Downing Street Declaration in 1994 had all failed. But all of those attempts at peace were not in vain. The eventual success was built on those failures.It required the parties to exhaust all the other alternative options and for the cycle of blood to go through a full revolution before both sides were prepared to make the painful concessions that were required for a lasting peace.

    In the right conditions, with patience and political leadership the Northern Ireland conflict was solved. And so can all other armed conflicts if the same effort is applied at the right time.

    For the sake of Pakistan – we need peace, blind military action is bound to create more enemies then we already have

Let there be no confusion that I’m NOT defending TTP or asking to go soft on TTP or any militant organization – I unequivocally condemn their actions – but we simply need to reclaim the Peace in Pakistan – it has to be a combination of Good cop – Bad Cop approach, meaning Peace talks combined with threatening use of strategic force, no matter how we do it – Peace is what every Pakistani wants

If Pakistan Army does go into a military campaign – it should be fully supported by the political & public mandate. Innocents will be killed & displaced on both sides of the conflict – the political govt needs to prepare for their rehabilitation & compensation before hand. The military should only have the mandate to deliver a strategic, timed and targeted operation, enough to weaken the enemy and drag them back to the negotiation table, to assume that TTP will be totally eradicated is a fallacy, they must be ideologically defeated and a ceasefire reached for the sake of Pakistan.

While all this happens the Afghan border must be sealed and all international interference & funding sources needs to be shut down. Our cities need intense protection, as the Taliban supporters, when seeing the rampage happening in FATA will be motivated to seek revenge, and the fallout could be intense and debilitating for the people of Pakistan. This police operation in our cities need to also cleanse out the multitude of urban militant gangs & any international agencies waging a war against Pakistan

The political & public message, should be a humble call “we want peace and the doors for negotiation table will always be open“, do not be seen to be gloating vengeance filled satisfaction, as it will only motivate a more severe reaction, our goal is for peace in Pakistan.



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2 responses to “10 Lessons Pakistan can learn from the Northern Ireland Conflict”

  1. Pakistani IT New Avatar

    Good article……

  2. Hafsa Avatar

    A must read…!