Implementing Sustainable Peace Process in Colombia and Northern Ireland – Keynote Address

University of Notre Dame

Northern Ireland and Colombian Peace Accords: Insights on Negotiations, Design, and Implementation for Sustainable Peacebuilding
6 May 2021


Organised by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studiesand the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies in collaboration with the Global Policy Initiative



Thank you Dean Appleby.  Good morning or good afternoon wherever you are everyone. It is a pleasure to be with you and to be back, albeit virtually, in the University of Notre Dame.  As you said Dean Appleby I had the honour of addressing the Keough School’s Washington inauguration in 2018 and am very pleased to see how the School has gone from strength to strength since then, including through the Global Policy Initiative.

Of course, I am very familiar with the excellent work of the Kroc Institute and have had regular contact with the team through my work as the Special Envoy for the peace process in Colombia. Indeed only yesterday I had a briefing from Josefina and her colleagues on the latest report, which Kroc is presenting.  Your contribution to the implementation of the peace process in monitoring and tracking the 310 pages of commitments in the final peace agreement between Colombia and FARC has been invaluable.  It has helped us all better understand what has been achieved and what still needs to be done.

I have been privileged to be involved in two peace process. In my own country Ireland, as Tánaiste, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister I had responsibility for managing the implementation of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement. And I have been the EU Special Envoy for the peace process in Colombia since 2015.

My role as Special Envoy was to support the implementation of the peace agreement. However, due to delays in concluding the agreement, I also supported the negotiations in Havana and met with the Parties in Cuba several times. Prior to the pandemic I visited Colombia regularly to bolster EU political support for peace implementation and meet with victims, human rights defenders, government, opposition, FARC, civil society and media. While I am now EU Special Representative for Human Rights, I also continue my work as Special Envoy and continue to meet with Colombian interlocutors.

The first thing I would say about both the Colombian and Northern Ireland peace processes is that they are both a success, albeit with problems. There are many challenges, as there are in the implementation of any peace agreement, but there are many achievements and countless lives have been saved because of these agreements.

As with every conflict, those of Northern Ireland and Colombia are different in scale, causes and context. The Colombia conflict lasted 53 years and resulted in 9 million victims, including over 240,000 killed, 100,000 disappeared and 7.7 million displaced. It was largely concerned with issues regarding political participation, particularly of left wing movements, inequality and resources, especially land access and ownership.  The main actor, FARC, had developed a sophisticated military structure, with camps and training grounds, linked often to the drugs trade and supply lines, and mainly operated in rural areas.

The Northern Ireland conflict was very different.  It spanned 30 years, with more than 3,500 killed.  At its heart were issues of national identity overlaying with religious affiliation, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and civil rights.  The main actors involved operated mainly in small cell-based paramilitary structures and their activities were largely concentrated in urban areas.

Both peace processes built on several previous attempts at peace negotiations, which had not succeeded and both negotiations followed the principle that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed.

There are a number of elements which I believe were conducive to bringing both processes to a successful conclusion.

Firstly, both drew on lessons learned from other contexts, and Colombia in particular looked to Northern Ireland.  During those negotiations, politicians, trade unionists and human rights activists travelled between Northern Ireland, Bogotá and Havana to assist in the peace talks. Indeed, this was influenced by President Santos own experience. In 1974 he was walking past the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly in London when a bomb exploded in a nearby bin. It threw him to the ground but he was unharmed. The blast had been planted by the IRA. This stayed with Santos and when the time came to negotiate with FARC, he drew inspiration from Northern Ireland.

And of course FARC themselves also had their own ties with Ireland.

Secondly, dialogue was the central feature of both processes. In the case of Colombia, the dialogue was in the form of direct talks between the parties divided into 6 chapters which covered the main causes of the conflict.   In Northern Ireland a mediator, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, was appointed to steer the talks which covered 3 strands; relationships within Northern Ireland, relations within the island and relations between Ireland and the UK.

Thirdly, in both processes, the negotiators recognised the need for the agreement to be comprehensive and address the root causes of the conflict.  Otherwise, the potential for new cycles of violence and breakdowns in the peace process would never be far away. Agreements should be implemented in their entirety to have the greatest chance of success, as the elements are interlinked and interdependent. We see that clearly with the Colombian Agreement, which is very detailed, particularly in relation to the causes of the conflict. It is much more ambitious than the Good Friday agreement in that regard.

The Good Friday Agreement was deliberately broad, but it ended the conflict and led to further negotiations to resolve remaining issues. Indeed, the broad nature of the Good Friday Agreement and the need for successive agreements is often used politically in Colombia to argue for reopening the agreement with FARC and to the making changes to it.

The fourth point I would make is that international solidarity and support are crucial to any peace process. The world needs good news and more stability and peace makes the world safer for all of us.  The support of international actors including the United States, Canada, the European Union as well as the Irish diaspora, proved critical in the run up to, and also following, the Good Friday Agreement, and remains hugely important to this day.

In Colombia, the governments of Norway and Cuba act as guarantors of the final agreement and played a critical role in the negotiations. The UN oversaw the demobilisation, disarmament and reincorporation process through a tripartite mechanism with the Government and FARC and it still monitors the Parities compliance with the final agreement through the UN Verification Mission under the guidance of UN Special Representative Carlos Ruiz.  The consistent attention of the UN Security Council has also played a very valuable role in sustaining the Colombian peace process.

International support can also provide credibility and space for further confidence building in implementation and it is even more important after a deal is reached, as implementation is often the hardest part.

In that context, the fifth element is the involvement of the European Union itself. The EU brings considerable credibility to peace negotiations. The EU is itself a peace project and stability in Europe has clearly illustrated that no country or region operates in a vacuum.  In the case of Northern Ireland, EU membership of both Ireland and the UK provided the space for discussion and dialogue and was the working assumption on which the agreement was based. Between 1995 and 2020, there were 4 EU PEACE programmes in Northern Ireland, with a financial contribution of €1.6 billion. And despite Brexit, the EU has committed to fund projects up until 2027 with a total value of €1 billion.

In Colombia, the EU has been supporting peace for over 2 decades.  This has covered a broad range of actions, but particularly support to peacebuilding from the ground up with civil society and local communities, through the Pace Laboratories Project and its successor programmes. This is why when the peace agreement was reached in Colombia, the EU was named as a supporting actor in 3 areas: rural development, reincorporation of former FARC combatants into civilian life and the establishment of a Special Investigation Unit in the Prosecutor General’s Office.  To affect that, we established the EU Trust Fund with €127 million in 2016 to support the implementation of the agreement.

The sixth point I would make is that civil society involvement is imperative and civil society continues to play an enormously important role in both processes.  Inclusivity gives legitimacy and stability, but it requires time and effort and not just from political parties or guerrilla groups. In the Colombia negotiations, victims, women, civil society and indigenous and Afro-Colombian people all contributed to the discussions at different stages. As a result, there are specific provisions in the agreement as result on gender and ethnicity that recognise the specific effects of the conflict on these populations.

I am deeply concerned by the killings of social leaders, human rights defenders and ex-combatants since the Colombian agreement was signed. Practical solutions to such a complex situation can only be found by sustained dialogue with civil society and local communities and the National Commission for Security Guarantees can be an important vehicle for that dialogue.

Every peace process needs women to be centrally involved. The participation of women strengthens the process and enhances the outcome. In Northern Ireland, the formation and participation of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was critical to an atmosphere of openness and problem-solving, which enabled the parties to overcome difficult and politically contentious issues. And I would also say that the role played by the late Mo Mowlan, whom Tony Blair had appointed as the first woman to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was critical in that process.

Any agreement requires compromises from both sides and those compromises are often most difficult when it comes to transitional justice. Colombia went for a very innovative transitional justice system, which is a victim-centred approach to transitional justice, providing for prosecution and sanctioning through restriction of civil liberties for several years rather than imprisonment. Three institutions make up the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, known as the JEP, the Truth Commission and the Search Unit for the disappeared. This year will be a significant year for the integral system. And just in the past week, FARC have responded to the contents of Auto 019 from the JEP fully recognising their collective role in kidnapping during the conflict. This a very important step forward for victims, and for truth and reconciliation.

The commitment of the parties is absolutely vital to the peace process. President Duque, and his Administration, has consistently reiterated to me his commitment to the implementation of the peace agreement. So too has the FARC leadership and I understand that they are working with the UN to use the tripartite mechanism to resolve outstanding issues, such as the delivery of assets. We have seen good progress in the reincorporation process and on the PDETs and know there is considerable work being done in the regions. The European Union is supporting these efforts and will continue to do so.

Lastly, I believe that confidence-building measures have a positive impact on negotiations. This is why the EU supported humanitarian demining, including a demining pilot project between FARC and the armed forces before the agreement was signed. Other confidence building measures include back channels and these were used over many years in both the Northern Ireland and Colombian processes to create the conditions for beginning formal negotiations. Back channels could I believe continue to be used to encourage the restarting of talks in Colombia with the ELN.

Today, both Colombia and Northern Ireland are undergoing significant challenges. Just this past month, we marked the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland. This is against the background of a struggling power-sharing Executive, which has only been restored for a few short months after three years in abeyance.

Brexit created further divisions and has led to a simmering tension. The Northern Ireland protocol was designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement by avoiding a hard economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.   It means Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods, so products being moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland undergo EU import procedures. This avoids the need for checks on the Irish border, as EU customs rules are enforced at Northern Ireland’s ports instead.

Anger has grown since the terms of the Brexit deal took effect at the start of this year and exploded into violence during the week of the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Rioting broke out on the streets of several towns and cities in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries have withdrawn their support for the Good Friday Agreement and dissident republican groups, such as the New IRA, have also moved to renew a bombing campaign aimed at intimidating the police force.

Aside from the fallout from Brexit, there are still structural issues that still needed to be addressed in Northern Ireland to consolidate peacebuilding. For example, fewer than 10% of students in Northern Ireland attend religiously integrated schools. Social interaction between the two main religious communities remains limited. Dozens of so-called peace walls continue to divide Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods.

This week, Colombia too has witnessed considerable unrest and violence in protests that originated in the now withdrawn tax reform bill. I am profoundly shocked by these events and I want to express my sincere condolences to the families and friends of the people who have been killed and the hundreds that have been injured. While the events of the past week were not specifically about peace or the peace process, they clearly point to mistrust, anger and frustration, which need to be resolved with dialogue.  The complexity of the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic demand peaceful efforts by all political actors and sectors of society to reduce tensions, to promote inclusive dialogue that provides effective responses to the aspirations of the Colombian people and to forge consensus around the country’s major challenges.

There must be trust between the population and those who protect it.  This is often a barometer for democracy.  To ensure that trust, any excessive use of force must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.  The right to peaceful protest is fundamental in any healthy democracy.  But indignation and outrage, while understandable, should never be accompanied by violence.  As the great John Lewis once said: “Fury spends itself pretty quickly when there’s no fury facing it.”

One thing that is clear from both the Northern Ireland and Colombian peace processes, is the necessity for equality to nurture and sustain peace. You cannot have a peaceful future where you have a large section of the population who are left behind and who know it.  Groups that are distrusted and discriminated against, or those who do not feel they have an equal voice in their own society can sometimes be led to violence. It does not take a majority to destroy peace; sometimes it is only a small group.  As one of Ireland’s famous journalists, Tommie Gorman, who has recently retired and who covered Northern Ireland for many years, recently said, we need to be careful: “that we do not create a generation or a group of politically homeless people”. 

In a recent opinion poll, people North and South in Ireland were asked about the possibility of a Border poll on the unification of North and South. The Good Friday Agreement settled that a 50.1 per cent majority is all that would be required in a Border poll.  However, despite increasing discussion due to Brexit, it is clear there is considerable caution on both sides. The findings show that most people North and South would prefer a two-thirds, or even 70 per cent majority threshold for a Border poll.

Of course, this is just one opinion poll, but it illustrates the complexities involved and that people fear a return to violence. I would hope that it shows North and South that we have developed a more mature accommodation and understanding of the other.

Seamus Heaney captured the desolation of The Troubles with the following words: “the dream of justice became subsumed into the callousness of reality, and people settled in to a quarter century of life-waste and spirit-waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities that were the natural result of political solidarity, traumatic suffering and sheer emotional self-protectiveness.”

We cannot go back to that life-waste and spirit-waste. These peace agreements in Colombia and Northern Ireland were reached through the realisation that the other is not an aberration nor an enemy.  In a social media driven age, it is easy to retreat into talking only to people who share the same political outlook and never to challenge our assumptions. But politics is a contest of ideas. In any healthy debate, different sides will prioritise different goals and different means of reaching them. Without some willingness to listen, we will continue to talk past each other, making common ground impossible.  Above all, there must be respect, especially for those with whom we disagree.

At its core, peace is about protecting human rights. Conflict often comes from the denial of human rights.  This too is a lesson from both the Colombian and Northern Ireland peace processes. Much my work these days that I do as EU Special Representative for Human Rights relates directly to conflict and peace building. Yesterday I met with three courageous representatives from civil society in Yemen.  Earlier today, Human Rights Watch briefed me on their latest report on the situation in Israel and Palestine.  And over the last week, I was dealing with the continuing violence in Tigray, Sahel, Myanmar and the human rights situation in Ukraine.

In all of this work, I draw on my own experience and knowledge of the peace processes in Northern Ireland and Colombia. There is much to be learned from both.  But probably the most important lesson is that the work of building and sustaining peace is never finished and we must always be vigilant; that just when we think we have ended a conflict, it bubbles up again in another place and sometimes in a different form.

Thank you for your attention.