the price of peace

I am just back from a short visit to Belfast. It is fair to say that it is a city of huge contrasts. I cannot think of anywhere else where I have been made to feel more welcome, or where I have been more apprehensive. Driving round the streets tells you one story, huge bridge shaped cranes at the docks, big enough to lift a ship, the loss of shipbuilding must have ripped the heart out of the place. Sectarian murals on the walls and gable ends, beautiful but deeply disconcerting. From the air it looked leafy and beautiful, on the ground much of it had an air of staunch working class-ness.

The taxi drivers, when asked, could tell you about when no one dared drive a taxi, when not knowing the name of a pub meant you came from the wrong side of the divide and could be fatal. There was still a wariness, but the more usual concerns of drunken students, and stag parties were starting to rear their head. The papers had a sense of heightened reality, there was an edge to disputes, government seemed to hang by a thread, but then it had hung by a thread for so long now, it was not alarming.

Speaking to people there was a lot of talk about growing maturity, recognising that a process might take decades. At first the opposing sides sit round a table, mainly trying to provoke each other, or rehearsing familiar arguments for the benefit of their electors. And in fairness that might never quite end. But as politicians are given real things to debate, and engage with, they have to start to work with each other.

Perhaps the price of peace is sitting round a table with people you have every reason to hate.

Perhaps the price of peace is the cost of regenerating areas, expensively creating hotels and attractions.

Perhaps the price of peace is the cost of early retirement for vast numbers of public servants to allow for the recruitment of staff better reflecting their community.

Extremism can only really flourish where people feel no other way of making their voice heard. When people stand by, in favour of a lesser evil. When people feel so completely disenfranchised that they feel no part of society.

I am sure that the lessons learnt in Northern Ireland could equally be applied across the world, patiently working towards a form of peace, re-establishing democracy as something with meaning, letting those who want to speak for their people do it through the ballot box and the husting. Putting opponents round the same table, and letting them start to shape their own future.

It was easy for the West to operate gun boat diplomacy, it will be harder, but ultimately more rewarding to try and create the sort of social change that puts democracy back in the hands of the people, brings people round tables, patiently rebuilding society. The strongest of men are those quietly and patiently working for peace, even when it does take generations.