Learning from the Northern Ireland and South Africa’s Conflicts (Cont’d)


Pierre Celestin Bakunda – TRANSCEND Media Service

Peace research into the case of war has been essential in this world crisis due to unbalanced types of humankind management. Actually, conflict is as a result of bad understanding between two parties or more. Absence of conflict is known as “Peace” and all the peoples dream of such peace, which bring about a totally fulfilling life. The North Ireland conflicting situation occurred because of human arrogance and contempt from one group of individuals to another. Religious matters were put forward as other political and economical elements were hiddden, the real cause was a foreign domination to local people as this happened in Africa during the colonial era.

Taking note of Christine Bell, p. 51,  who says: “The history of the conflict in Northern Ireland reaches back to the colonial military conquest of Ireland by England in 1169 and subsequent ‘plantation’ in the early 1600s, during which hundreds of thousands of (Protestant) settlers were offered land to move from England and lowland Scotland to Ireland, where they displaced native Irish (Catholics) predominantly in the north-east of the country. However, the story can be started, as in the case of South Africa, in the early twentieth century.” In my point of view, native Irish faced contempt and segregation from the new comers who behaved like anywhere in the world regarding the colonization. Local people could not  have any right to employment, school, accommodation, etc. That is why one could observe in all system of colonialism the loss of political power, loss of land, loss of freedom of movement, loss of personal autonomy, and loss of dignity.

1. Identity

According to Ruane and Todd 1998 who analysed the situation of both Catholics and Protestants, there exist other parameters to be taken into consideration to really understand the Irish issue: “From the late 1960s until the early 1990s, identity became a zero-sum game as unionists and nationalists were split over the fate of Northern Ireland. Political affiliation reflects the deep division between the two communities: over 80 per cent of the population votes for parties that are identified with their own community. By itself, nationalism, like economics, tends to be a reductionist explanation for development of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Several research surveys conducted in Northern Ireland demonstrated that there are significant issues other than ”self-determination” that concern both communities and there is variance within both communities regarding the significance of their identity.” All sort of illegal occupation of a foreign land by conquerors goes along with intimidation, which is followed by enslavement. In this respect one can argue that social organisation which must strengthen a dominant power is necessary and most of the time military force plays the role of keeping away local people from the reality of the social management.

The evident polarization of the two communities, therefore, is not simply a function of national identity. It is this variance and dynamism that explains the development in the changing perceptions of identity as even during the peaks of the conflict both communities were divided between moderates and extremists. While there was a relative consensus among the communities over their desired goal, becoming a part of a united Ireland or remaining a part of Britain, there were differences over how these goals were to be achieved and, specifically, in regard to the use of violence and the ability to compromise for something that fell short of the desired goals (Guy Ben-Porat, pp.204-5). Violence cannot solve any problem, rather dialogue can bring about consensus from which people can build real peace and confidence. What is a real problem in this particular relationship is the unbalanced opposed forces, which cause loss of human beings and in the end people accept to compromise after they have rioted, have killed each other.

2. Riots and Killings in Northern Ireland

Power is what motivate individuals to dictate their will to others, which seems to be normal when we know that wherever human beings are settled,  harmony, peace and love are essential. However, some people with a drive for power will show his/her ability of creativity and prove that s/he has the leadership and will act to dominate others. In Northern Ireland, the pressures that emanated from issues of identity, equality, and sovereignty turned into armed conflict in the late 1960s. The Catholics’ demand for equal rights and the Protestants’ refusal to reform the political system could not permit both belligerents to compromise despite pressure from the British government to do so. Catholics’ civil rights demonstrations were met by loyalist responses and the crisis escalated in August 1969 when rioters clashed with each other and with the police. Solving a conflict one must think twice about the way that would fit both parties instead of being biased and creating a deep and long lasting conflict. Military force can be confronted to a popular anger and if there is no strong military advisers, things would degenerate into civil war in which unarmed inhabitants may be victims.

British troops, requested by the Stormont government, were sent to restore order, but the conflict escalated and seemed out of control. The IRA itself split and the Provisonals, the extreme splinters, emerged as defenders of Catholic neighbourhoods against loyalist attacks. In 1970 they went on the offensive, bombed public targets and staged attacks against the security forces. While both sides took part in the violence, the internment introduced by the British government in August 1971, to restore order, was directed against Catholics. The weakness in this circumstance resides in the British side because the government could have invited both sides for a dialogue rather than contributing to create chaos. To solve a long lasting issue, one should be neutral and listen to both sides in a fair manner so that the crisis can be resolved at the satisfaction of all.

3. The shooting down of rioters by British troops

The use of force when dealing with a social conflict is a brutal way to problem-solving. Nobody has the right to kill and this should be one of the rules that might lead all human societies. According to Guy Ben-Porat, pp.207-8, “the resentment of Catholics increased when in an anti-internment demonstration in January 1972, British troops shot dead thirteen unarmed Catholics. The British Government, who abandoned hope that the Stormont government could be reformed, legitimate and stabilised politically as a system, created instituted direct rule of Northern Ireland from Westminster.

How one can overcome a conflict that has its roots in social division?If politics is a way of leading people, then there could be a lack of people management, which should be based on a good organisational and legitimate team to give incentive to people for their concern. During the late nineteenth century Irish pressure for home rule and independence had led the British government to respond in the form of home rule bills. When a mediator has an interest in a situation for which he has to find a solution, his positon may be biased. Being neutral is the only way to deal with conflict resolution. First of all opposed parties must agree to compromise otherwise, one side can refuse to accept the fate that is somewhat imposed by the mediator. Taking note of Danesh, p.55, some elements are essential to avoid conflict: “In reality, the open exchange of diverse ideas is the source of creativity. This open exchange is best facilitated when an environment of trust, respect, equality, truthfulness and inclusiveness exist. Indeed, the fruition of ideas can only be achieved when unity between points of diversity is established. Conflict, on the one hand, is destructive of these bonds and is, in truth, non essential to the creative process.”

By the early twentieth century large numbers of Protestants, in particular from the north-east of Ireland, where they were in greatest number, mobilized militarily to oppose home rule. The solution, in this particular case, is to create a conducive environment where both sides express their point of view in order to solve the matter once for good. If there is no compromise, the consequence is the agravation of the relationship between the two belligerents. That is why events in the rest of Ireland, notably the Republican Easter Rising of 1916 and the general election of 1918 (in which Sinn Fein won a majority of votes on an independence plate-form), had made it clear that the demands of Irish nationalists could not be effectively resisted.

4. The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, 1998

Negociation is the best way to reach an agreement for parties in conflict.

However, a long lasting peace comes when there exist a common willingness to cease the conflict for the sake of a peaceful coexistence. Why do people refuse to compromise? Sometimes some of them don’t want to be seen a the losers and maintain their pressure just to show that the opponents are weak up to the total destruction of hope, which brings about more and more suffering to innocent people. Arrogance, brutality and contempt cannot be elements for unity.

Unity based-reconcilation is the key factor to let people create confidence and awareness that they can coexist peacefully. Inner peace is the basement of peace-building mechanism that enables opponents to deal with all nagative characters of which anger, fear, frustration and anxiety. The discord between the Catholic minority in the island who wanted to integrate with the Republic in the south and the Protestant majority who refused to compromise the status of the province and did little to incorporate the minority escalated into open conflict in the late 1960s, demonstrating that Northern Ireland was a textbook example of what scholars described as ”state and nation building failure” (O’Leary and McGarry 1999) quoted by Guy Ben Porat, p. 202. Human beings make mistakes when they prefer fighting than putting forward common understanding to better solve their concerns. What is amazing is that after they have committed unnamable atrocities, they accept to create unity, which must be built on new visions as the consequence of regretable human life losses.

5. A South African Approach to Mediation and Conciliation

The South Africa’s background is rich in direct, structural and cultural violence in a diversity of Blacks majority, Coloured, Indians, and Whites. The latter as power dominant classified the others as follows: Indians, Coloured and Blacks. The Economic ideology was the reason why Whites could not tolerate Blacks. Indeed, in 1800s  Whites went to South Africa and discovered “gold”, “diamond”…, which became source of Black exploitation in mines. The exploitation of Blacks by Whites was as a result of planned occupation of a land and the marginalization of its people to be dominated by a force from new comers who wanted to establish their settlement and become the masters of the land. They had to create a system in which Apartheid had to control whoever local people would claim for his dignity.

The South African Struggle for liberation against a cruel system of Apartheid was cruelly reprimanded by the authority using the power of the Police. This led the Apartheid system to arrest leaders of the ANC, African National Congress  such as Nelson Mandela, the assassination of Steve Biko, etc. The strong Apartheid system erected in pyramidal power collapsed due to the lower strata, which were marginalized. The key factor in this circumstance is to accept compromising and

tolerance. Danesh p.65 argues that “compromising is essentially concerned with balancing power; hence, compromising doesn’t get beyond the basic power struggle and interests of the conflicted parties. If, afterwards, the power-bese between the parties were to change, the compromise agreemment would be undermined. This is why compromising is always short-lived.

Tolerance gives stability to surface of the conflict say Danesh p.65, but it does not deal with the underlying tensions that remain below the surface. Tolerance means putting up with something that one otherwise dislikes or is opposed to. Who want to be merely tolerated? People want to be respected and loved, not tolerated. The Mandela’s declaration during his imprisonment is telling, he states: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” This nationalistic commitment is the fondement of tolerance and show the maturity and wisdom of a persecuted man vs his perpetrators. If Mandela was to revenge using the opposition force, the current South African image would have been ternished because a civil war was intractable.

It is known that Police committed killings of opponents to Apartheid, and by marginalizing Blacks, all types of violence were imposed to them. The social stratification was such an evidence that the Upper class could face a strong movement from the Lower class due to black marginalization, exploitation, mistreatment, etc. As a matter of fact, through social change, Apartheid was defeated and Mandela was released. He became the hero of peace since he accepted to forget and forgive the wrongdoings that he had endured as well as his comrades of the struggle. Trough the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC, South Africa went into a long process to reconcile and put forward identified individuals who committed atrocities to disclosure and to ask for forgiveness. Perpetrators and victims had to have a face-to-face dialogue in order to tell the truth due to the mass killings or individuals who had been killed by the Police. Victims could hear from the perpetrators how their beloved ones had been tortured and killed and who may have been ordering these acts from the high rank of the Police. Three pillars of Unity in diversity are known as: Mandela, de Clerk and Desmond Tutu. The latter  contributed to creating the “Ubuntu” philosophy, which is: “You exist because I exist and vice versa.” This was a recall to the Bantu’s cultural solidarity in a human dignity for all people living in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC played a crucial role in mediation and reconciliation of people through, story telling, trauma healing, forgiveness, etc. “Truth, in the context of contribution, refers to finding the best possible solution to the issue given the information available. As such, truth here refers to relative and not absolute truth. It is clear, furthermore, that the consulting group may not always make the right decision and occasionally needs to consider its decisions in the light of new facts and information that emerge”, Danesh p.65. Unity and justice are considered as the indicators tthat measure the truthfulness of a consultation no matter what decision-makers are tending to propose as the last resolution.


Through my own participant observation during my research at Queen’s University from September 2008 to March 2009, the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement is of a great help. Nowadays both communities coexist in peace even though some isolated cases of attacks can be observed. Some people believe that the wounds would take generations to be healed while other think that the South African process through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC would be an asset to grant forgiveness and amnesty to the ones who committed wrongdoings. Indeed South Africa showed how a long lasting conflict can be transformed into a successful reconciliation based on fair mechanisms where all opponents are motivated to solve their differences. However, without Mandela, de Klerk and Desmond Tutu no peace could have been reached in South Africa. Why do African countries resist to open dialogue in order to discuss about their internal conflict and build their nations on the basement of truth and confidence as did South Africa or Northern Ireland?


Pierre Celestin Bakunda, Ph.D. is a researcher in Social Sciences. His focus is Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation in African Great Lakes Region. He is a Peace Activist who attended Peace Studies Programmes at the European University Centre for Peace Studies, Schlaining, Austria, and Wold Peace Academy, Basel, Switzerland. He is the author of Rwanda, the Inferno of Implicit Rules, L’Harmattan, July 2006, Paris; and his thesis, The implicit Rules of the Rwandan Society and their Impact on Social, Political and Economic Development, Anrt Press, October, 2007.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Jan 2012.

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