Playing the Accordion; Negotiating Peace, with Lord Alderdice

Although the conflict of Northern Ireland may seem a world away from Australia, former Alliance Party Leader and first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, John, Lord Alderdice has a more local connection to Australia than you might think.

My great-great grand-uncle John King was the only survivor of the Burke & Wills expedition. My wife, Joan and I went up to the ‘Dig Tree’ at Cooper Creek and it was very moving from a personal point of view to see where John King managed to survive thanks to the hospitality of the Aboriginal people.

It is this Aboriginal connection that encouraged Alderdice to come to Melbourne for the first time in September 2013 to speak at the Reconciliation Australia: Psychological Perspectives conference held by CASSE (Creating a Safe Supportive Environment).

Leader of the Alliance Party from 1987 to 1998, Lord Alderdice’s political awakening came about during one of the most difficult periods of Northern Irish history.

I was growing up when everything was beginning to break down again in Northern Ireland in the 1960s when there were civil rights movements throughout the world and also in Northern Ireland. What that meant was trying to ensure that everybody, particularly those in Catholic Nationalist community, had their rights respected. Not everyone in the Protestant community was happy with that – some of them felt that their rights would be endangered, and this fear broke out into street violence and all sorts of troubles that deteriorated very seriously. For me as a young person I was asking, “Why is this happening? We’re not particularly wealthy but we’re not an incredibly poor society and we have democratic institutions and structures in place”

Such questions led John Alderdice to analyse various political parties in Northern Ireland and the potential to create social change through political activism.

I decided that the one party that felt like a place where I could work toward a more peaceful outcome was the Alliance Party, because it had been set up by Protestants and Catholics – people from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds – to work together to build a more tolerant society. As a young person, this seemed to me like an opportunity that I wanted to take to contribute to a tolerant, more peaceful outcome for my country.

A medical student during some of the early years of ‘The Troubles’, Dr John Alderdice’s professional experience as a psychiatrist influenced the way in which he approached conflict resolution.

Growing up, I was not satisfied with the kind of political science explanations being given for why we had trouble in Northern Ireland. It seemed to me that if it was possible to understand why an individual person would do self-damaging things, maybe we could take the community as an organism and understand why the community as a whole was doing damaging things to itself, because nobody was really benefiting out of it. I went into psychoanalysis to try and gain an understanding of how individuals and small groups get into trouble, with the idea that we could then take that into the larger community to see how it got into self-damaging behaviour.

In a time when sectarianism characterised many elements of Northern Irish politics, the Alliance Party deviated from this trend by engaging with political actors right across the broad political spectrum of Northern Ireland. This eventually led to negotiations and a peace process resulting in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. One document which emerged at the time was the Alliance Party’s ‘Governing with Consent’, in which Alderdice called for a devolved power-sharing government.

When I became leader of the Alliance Party in 1987, we looked again at our party principles, which were about tolerance, respect for each other, and tried to see if there were any other new ways of constructing this. We went round and round and eventually came back to our original point, which was that if you have a society where there are ethnic divisions and politics are based on those ethnic divisions, then you’re not going to get the kind of alternation of majority that you have in normal democratic politics which are governed by socio-economic issues. If parties are based on things that don’t change, like your identity, religion or ethnic make-up, then you can’t use that as a way of changing the government. So another way is to insist that instead of a government simply having a majority of the voters, which would always be the people one from identity, you need to insist on a majority which requires people from both communities, such as the case in Lebanon.

Such ideas of power-sharing and inclusiveness were not readily received across the wider community.

It took a very long time to get people to the point where they would accept such a novel, and in many ways, untried form of government.

Following the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Lord Alderdice was one of the few members of the unionist community who was willing to enter into dialogue with the pro-IRA republican political party Sinn Féin.

This was not necessarily a very welcome conclusion [amongst members of my own party] – it was going to be difficult; that was clear. But it also became clear to me that unless you give people a route out of the use of violence, then they’re going to continue with it. If you say, ’Stop using violence to achieve your political aims’ they will quite rightly come back to you and say, ‘Well, what is the way of achieving our political aims?’ It was John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who put it to Sinn Féin and the IRA and he asked them “Are you committed to a political aim, or are you committed to terrorism? If you’re committed to terrorism, then there’s nothing to talk about; but if you’re committed to political aims and terrorism is simply one method, then are you prepared to look at other methods?’ And of course the answer was “Yes, we are prepared to look at other methods.” I found a similar thing in the Middle East and in the same way it became clear to me that if other people are prepared to take a different approach to a problem, then you have to be prepared to take a different attitude and approach too.

A joint interview with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in the United States on the ‘Larry King Live’ show allowed Lord Alderdice to emphasise his preparedness to meet and talk if there was an end to IRA violence.

Within a matter of weeks of the IRA and Loyalist ceasefires, I was in conversations with Gerry Adams directly as well as with loyalist leaders. It seemed to me that if people are prepared to take the risk of moving away from that tactic in order to use democracy as the way forward; those of us committed to democracy have got to be prepared to make that shift ourselves with them, and listen to them.

Such a process reflects the notion of community engagement strategies, which have been used increasingly as soft power counter-terrorism tools since 9/11, such as the Prevent strategy initiated in the United Kingdom in 2011.

You have to ask yourself, why is it that people want to engage in political violence? In our case, it was relatively clear – it was a historical political agenda which could be identified and engaged with. When looking at something like the Prevent strategy in the UK it is clear that it emerges out of a fear, particularly post 9/11, that there are people in the Muslim community who might wish to engage in violence – therefore you’ve got to try and find a way of engaging with them. I’m not convinced that people always identify why they think it is that someone in the Muslim community might be tempted to engage in violence, and I think there is a lot more to be done to understand this very complex issue.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is often referred to as one example of a highly successful peace agreement, and certainly one which has had overwhelming influence on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, it still required considerable efforts and maintenance after its signing to achieve its goal of peace and stability.

I think that is was a good agreement – not just a Good Friday Agreement, but a good agreement! – but it wasn’t a perfect agreement. If I was to do it again, I’d want to look at some things more carefully. For example – we were so keen to reach an agreement; we didn’t really look at how we might move on from that agreement, which is now proving a little bit difficult. We didn’t fully sufficiently address the implementation of change in issues like disposal of weapons and the structures and normalising of security.

One of the remaining problems now is that when you’ve been involved in violence as a community, it becomes part of your identity as a person and a group. Moving on to something different is really very challenging. To give up the notion of dominance and accept that you are now part of a shared community with an equal value is something that can be really tough to do and it is one of the big challenges of the moment. This is particularly so amongst working class and unemployed young Protestant loyalists who, for a wide variety of reasons, did not historically value education, whereas the Catholic community did value it. Jobs come to those with education, and physical jobs are no longer available. So you have a lot of young Protestants whose cultural identity seems under threat and whose opportunities for employment are not so good. They are the ones that tend to slip back into the use of violence and street trouble. The facilitation of change in community identity is the tough place where we’re at the moment.

A turning point in relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom was the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011, which was hailed as a great success and a most significant step in relations between the two countries.

The Queen’s visit was transformational and quite remarkable; including in relation to people within Sinn Féin. They began to see The Queen not as a threat but as someone to engage with. Part of it was that she approached the visit with the notion that we all needed to move on from the past and acknowledge that there ways in which we could have done things much better.

The boom of the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent Irish economic crisis have presented Ireland with new challenges which Lord Alderdice describes as affecting the esteem of the community.

On the other hand, there is a sense that the Good Friday Agreement and the new institutions do open new possibilities for all us to ‘cross the border’, and all borders of our minds; to move the island of Ireland forward in relation with each other and with the rest of the British Isles, but particularly with England, Scotland and Wales.

These challenges are met with cautious optimism and hopes for a better future.

I think there is the sense now that we might just be turning a corner economically. We’re in a difficult place at the moment, but my own sense is one of medium to long-term optimism. We’ve crossed a historical Rubicon with the Good Friday Agreement. We’ve have referendums on both sides of the border which have shown our community wants to move forward. There is no sense now of the emotional drivers that force groups to use violence to achieve political aims…… I think we can see a path forward, and I do hope that through our experience many people from right around the world can also see new ways out of their conflicts – including people in Australia where there are so many people from Ireland, north and south.

In describing the process of peace negotiation, Alderdice refers to his friend Vamik Volkan’s comparison with playing an accordion.

You bring two sides together almost to the middle, then they push back out apart again; then you bring then in again, this time a little closer…. each time you appear to be moving together you are just about to move away from each other again, and even as you are moving away from each other it is not necessarily a deterioration, but may be a prelude to moving back towards each another again.

Such an incremental and measured approach to conflict resolution, which accepts the complexities of human nature, remains a prudent metaphor for peace negotiation processes around the world.


This article originally appeared in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Quarterly Access, published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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