Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

If Northern Ireland found a solution to its decades-long bloody conflict, we should also be able to find peace for Mindanao. It just needs determined leaders, the way ex-UK PM Tony Blair shepherded the NI peace process with passion and deep conviction. Do we have such leaders in our midst today?

PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair, Architect of Peace in Northern Ireland
So many conflict areas can be found in the world---one can think of Iraq and Syria, the Kashmir borderland between India and Pakistan, between the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, in Colombia, and to a milder degree, Barcelona in the Basque region of Spain which aspires to separate from the Spanish Peninsula.

 In recent weeks Marawi City has figured prominently as forces identified with the Islamic State battled government forces in an effort to ally Mindanao with the Caliphate. While other conflict areas have quieted down, such as in South Africa over apartheid, the battle in Marawi seems far from over.

Two Sundays ago, my radio partner Cecile Guidote Alvarez and I decided to help bring about a better understanding of the crisis there. We invited to our dzRH show, “Radyo Balintataw,” Imam  Akbar Wasad, who served in the AFP in various places in Mindanao, and Fr. John Leydon, an Irish-American priest of the Columban Fathers who has been here for the past 41 years, partly spent in Mindanao.


Fr. Leydon, whose  grandmother was Irish, feels that the conflict situation in Mindanao is not hopeless because  there have been conflicts far worse, that have found solution. He cited particularly Northern Ireland (NI) which was wracked by violence FOR DECADES, until the leadership of both Irish and English side decided they've had enough of the fighting, and agreed to seek a peaceful settlement despite obstacles.  

Fr. Leydon stressed, however, that in the search for solutions to conflicts, it’s so important that leaders want true and lasting peace and settlement. In the case of the once-festering NI dispute, he cited the singular VISION of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who made the peace agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland the SHINING LEGACY of his 13-year rule. 

Of course the case of Mindanao is different as the intention of the IS-influenced Maute jihadists is to set up a caliphate there--to be used as a springboard of radical Islam to various parts of our country and the region. But our advantage is that we are all Filipinos (except for the mercenaries from other countries now fighting with the Maute group)---unlike in the NI conflict, which was between British and Irish. But ultimately, when the smoke of battle clears it still would continue to be turmoil in the big island--- if the passion for peace fails to prevail among us Filipinos.

There’s a lot to be learned from how Britain and Ireland achieved peace in NI. 


The conflict over NI was far more complex than that in Mindanao, for it was a centuries-old dispute between UK and Ireland over who controls NI (conflict accounts date as far back as 1609 when NI became English territory). As in Mindanao, there was the element of religion in the "Irish Question"---between the UK Protestants represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the predominantly Catholic Sinn Fein of Ireland--- a.k.a. the loyalists vs. the nationalists. There was also the search for equitable treatment among all sections of the British realm and above all, the use of terrorist violence to achieve political ends.

The NI issue represented, as an account put it, “one of the most violent and intractable conflicts to threaten a democratic state in any part of the world.” Violence and deadly wars, carried on by the much-feared Irish Republican Army (IRA), was the rule for decades.  The NI question became one of the longest-running---and bloodiest---conflicts in Europe. 

It became a huge concern of the civilized world and pressure was applied on both the UK and Ireland to settle their bitter conflict; various world leaders helped for years to bring an end to NI’s troubles.


British PM John Major's role in the 1990s came to fore, as did efforts of Ireland’s PM  Bertie Ahern to find a solution. A power-sharing deal in NI was proposed between Ulster’s unionists (British), led by Ian Paisley, and the Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, under Gerry Adams---and both sides came under tremendous pressure to submit to DISARMAMENT--- the toughest bone in the throat of peace. When this happened, Irish PM Ahern was ecstatic, branding the move as “significant and hopefully signaling a further step toward ending all para-militarism in NI.”

Diplomacy took over and  PM Major’s successor, Tony Blair, became unrelenting in his quest for peace for NI, making it the major priority of his government.  BLAIR CAME TO NI A TOTAL OF 37 TIMES AS PRIME MINISTER---three times more often than any of his predecessors. He hosted countless meetings at the PM’s official residence at No. 10 Downing St. in Central London, as well as international summits where the peace process was discussed. 

Journalist James Button, who covered the peace talks, pointed out that “Blair played a clever hand. He saw that the hardliners had to be involved.”


The British negotiators adopted the “bicycle theory” of peace: as an account put it, “they had to keep going forward, otherwise they would fall over.”  There were lessons learned such as:  in conflict resolutions, governments need to take risks AT EVERY STEP to keep the process alive…to prevent violence from filling the vacuum left by long political engagement. It was "a worked example of politics as the art of the possible” and Tony Blair firmly believed it.

An Irish political scientist put it thus, “Blair’s diplomacy wooed the previously immovable Ian Paisley of the Ulster’s Unionists (British), so that “the alliance with Paisley was Blair’s last great Romance.”  Verdict on Blair continued:  “Once again, when we thought the old maestro was fading, his capacity to seduce, politically speaking, is phenomenal.”

A power-sharing deal was struck between Ulster unionists led by Paisley, and Sinn Fein, IRA’s political arm, led by Gerry Adams. Adams had opined that “THE CONFLICT WAS PRIMARILY A LOCAL ONE THAT NEEDED TO BE SOLVED BY LOCAL PEOPLE. THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE TO BE THE BROKERS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN THE AREAS OF CONFLICT.” 

Gerry Adams' dictum is good to remember about our Mindanao conflict---the Mindanaoans have to seek the way to our problem there.


The ferocity of the NI situation pushed world leaders to pound the pavement to to bring about an agreement. PM Blair drew on the wise counsel of US President Bill Clinton, who visited NI twice, US Senator George Mitchell and other leaders. Finally, a historic agreement was launched on Good Friday of 1998---the first step in the long journey to peace. 

Sen. Mitchell, the midwife of the Good Friday peace agreement, later remarked that implementing it was going to be difficult. It proved prophetic. In subsequent years that peace would be broken still, but the peace advocates refused to give up. Finally, on May 8, 2007, in Stormont, the stately white Parliament in Belfast, NI. Ian Paisley, leader of the Ulster unionists, and Martin MacGuiness of Sinn Fein, launched a power-sharing agreement, whereby MacGuiness became First Minister and Ian Paisley Deputy First Minister, respectively. Fittingly, the background music at that launch was "You Raise Me Up," popularized by Josh Groban. 

The power-sharing agreement was one of those “never, never–ever happen” days, said MP Peter Hain, who had earlier been appointed Secretary of State for NI even as he remained in that position for Wales. Even Queen Elizabeth did her share by visiting Stormont and meeting with nationalist ministers.  MP Hain was quoted as asserting that in conflict resolution, governments need to take risks at every step to keep the peace process alive---to prevent violence from filling the vacuum left by political engagement.


On May 8, 2007, the people of NI decided to break free from history, to shape a new history. Thus, it was said, “governments need to be dogged, determined, imaginative, inclusive and flexible” to keep the peace process alive. One day, perhaps---when the foreign jihadist IS elements have been banished forever from Mindanao and we, the Filipino people, have once again taken full hold of this great island of promise--we should be able to learn from the tortured history of Northern Ireland. Then the realization should sink in among us Filipinos that lasting peace and prosperity for our people in the big island can only come from our determination to seek and enforce it. 

My 2015 visit to Stormont, scene of the historic peace agreement between the UK government and Ireland signed on May 8, 2007, to end the long bloody dispute over Northern Ireland.

That’s me in 2015, signing the Peace Wall in Belfast between the “Protestant” Ulster area and the Catholic “Sinn Fein” area in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The ultra-modernistic museum in Belfast depicting the story of Northern Ireland, with the sculpture showing a figure in flight in the foreground.

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