As President Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland this week reminds us, the Good Friday Agreement is rightly seen as a model – and source of hope – for conflict-resolution throughout the world.
But one aspect of the agreement – the “great unsung hero” in the words of the chief British negotiator, Jonathan Powell – has often been overlooked, not least because its roots stretch back to the darkest days of the Troubles.
Established in 1986, the International Fund for Ireland laid the civic society foundations for the Good Friday Agreement and built a deep and broad constituency for peace in both the nationalist and unionist communities. As Gary Mason, a Protestant clergyman and founder of Rethinking Conflict suggested recently, civic society is the “social glue that holds our peace process together”.
Projects in Ireland show how trust can be built
The atmosphere of pessimism, fear and violence facing Northern Ireland in the 1980s has important parallels with the current bleak situation in Israel and Palestine, which in the last week have seen acts of terror, rocket fire and rising tensions in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Clearly there are many differences. But in Israel and Palestine now as in Ireland then, terrorism, deep divisions and the lack of a meaningful political process have drained hope and fed a narrative that the conflict is somehow intractable.
After the last serious attempt to bring the two sides together collapsed nearly a decade ago, the then-US secretary of state, John Kerry, reflected that “the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost”.
Tellingly, Kerry believed that “the deep public scepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks”.
But the experience of Ireland – where the International Fund invested $2.4bn in more than 6,000 grassroots peacebuilding projects designed to build bridges of trust and mutual understanding across the sectarian divide – shows that the status quo can be challenged and changed.
It will, however, require a sustained and focused effort. While the International Fund in Ireland spent $44 per person per year on such peacebuilding work, a mere $2 per person is being invested in Israel and Palestine.
Cross-border work in Israel and Palestine grossly under-funded
The International Fund for Israel-Palestine Peace – a concept devised by the Alliance for Middle East Peace and promoted in the UK by Labour Friends of Israel – seeks to fill that gap. It would bring together and leverage investment from the US, Europe and the Arab world – now, thanks to the Abraham Accords, a realistic prospect – to scale-up the important, but grossly underfunded, cross-border coexistence work that is already up and running.
That work – which stretches across environmental, tech, youth and health projects – has been repeatedly shown by academic studies to make a real difference in changing attitudes, fostering empathy and trust, and building crucial “conflict-resolution” values.
However, while it may have a transformative impact at an individual level, a lack of investment has prevented these initiatives from making the kind of community-wide difference that Ireland witnessed.
The tragic spike in violence and terrorism which has occurred in Israel and Palestine over the past year – together with the impending 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords this September – should act as a spur to action.
Warm words but not concrete action so far
The building blocks are already in place. In 2020, in a rare, bipartisan move, the US Congress passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. It is already investing $250m – the largest such investment ever – over the next five years in peace-building work. The legislation is also specifically designed to evolve in a multinational direction if other countries wish to participate. It specifically created seats on the Partnership for Peace advisory board for foreign governments or other international actors.
There is also a cross-party consensus in the UK, with strong support for an International Fund on both the Labour and Tory benches. Keir Starmer has endorsed the idea and in 2018 the UK government became the first in the world to offer its support.
Sadly, however, ministers’ warm words haven’t yet been matched by concrete action. Indeed, in 2020 they eliminated the small-scale programme, People for Peaceful Change, which invested in people-to-people work in Israel-Palestine.
It’s time to reverse these cuts, commit to new support, and, using our historic links with the region, work with the US to establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.
Britain benefitted hugely from the generosity and dedication of our friends in the Commonwealth and the US. Their investment in the International Fund for Ireland helped lay the groundwork for the 25 years of peace in Northern Ireland we’re rightly celebrating this weekend. We now have the opportunity – and responsibility – to give something back.