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'You had the unionist guy saying to the Tory - 'you're not understanding what Sinn Féin is saying''

Years before the Good Friday Agreement, politicians came together at Glencree for unofficial, trust-building talks.

WE HAD ‘GERRY Adams Day’ in New York earlier this month. Bill Clinton and George Mitchell, the US envoy who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, will be given the Freedom of Belfast next month.

There would, no doubt, be a lot more fanfare if the institutions of Stormont were up and running as normal at the moment – but it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Good Friday peace deal in the coming weeks as its 20th anniversary is marked (Good Friday being a moveable feast, the actual anniversary is 10 April).

The big personalities may, once again, garner most of the headlines. Behind those headlines, back in the 90s, an informal network of lower-level politicians, advisers and officials, formed during weekend retreats at an old Co Wicklow military barracks, also played an important role in the process.

Geoffrey Corry, a Dublin-based mediator who helped bring those figures together for a series of workshops at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation has been recounting how the cross-party group helped keep the nascent peace process on track amid the halting progress of the post-ceasefire years.

It was all about building trust and understanding between the various players. Northern unionists and nationalists, southern politicians, and politicians and officials from Britain and the US embassy all, variously, attended those weekend workshops at Glencree.

Spending several days in close quarters in the Wicklow hills helped forge, at first, an understanding, and later a degree of trust between the various groups as they participated in dialogue sessions.

Email addresses and mobile phone numbers would be shared between the members attending. Corry, speaking to TheJournal.ie, said those informal contacts meant people who might otherwise never have come into contact were able to keep the peace process from careening off track during crisis points like the Canary Wharf bombing.

The February 1996 bombing, which came a little under a year-and-a-half after the IRA’s initial ceasefire, killed two people in London’s Docklands. It was followed months later by the Manchester bombing, which injured hundreds and caused an estimated £700 million in damage.

“When the bomb went off in Canary Wharf it was just amazing that our lads – the lads in the different parties were able to phone each other and say ‘hold, hold’.”

There was, of course, condemnation of the London attack as senior politicians scrambled to try and rescue the Northern peace effort. Those contacts continued below the surface too.

“I’m only hearing now some of the things that were  going on in the back channels because it was obviously private and secret in those days,” Corry said.

mitch Mediator Geoffrey Corry alongside George Mitchell at an event in Belfast last year. Source: Provided by Geoffrey Corry

Glencree 

The Glencree centre was founded in the early 1970s. In the early days, Corry explained, “it was more in the religious concept of reconciliation. The science of conflict resolution or doing it in a mediating role was not really very well developed so we all had to learn through the nose how to do it.”

“I got connected to people in the States and people in South Africa and so on, and that was the first big initiative I was involved in – when the ceasefires came. We started these political dialogue workshops – I was facilitator, having built those skills.”

Basing his sessions on the work of Herb Kelman, a US conflict resolution expert, he targeted “sub-leadership” figures and invited them to attend the Co Wicklow weekend workshops.

“Young unionists who had come out of Queens, they were wanting to get involved in some way. And then down here were had young Fianna Fáilers, Young Fine Gaelers and young Labour as well as young SDLP – when I say young I mean people in their mid-20s that sort of thing.

They were excited by the possibilities of the ceasefires because it meant for the first time that Sinn Féin could come into the room – before, they were left outside the pale.

Mirroring the approach taken at top level, it still took years before unionists would sit in the same room as Sinn Féin members during the weekend sojourns - but, eventually, progress was made.

“What happened was there were these were weekends where we invited some of the Brits over – Conservative, Labour, some Lib-Dems – so one weekend we would have unionists not present and everybody else present, the next weekend Sinn Féin wouldn’t be present and unionists would be present.”

Snow Fall 17th Nov. 2016 Source: Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation

Kellman’s main strategy, Corry explained, is aimed at facilitating dialogue between so-called ‘pre-influentials’. In other words, “the people on the way up”.

Amazingly those workshops started with pre-influentials but within a number of years they had become influentials and got to know each other.

The network that began in Glencree proved its usefulness in tangible, practical ways at moments like the Canary Wharf Bombing.

Later, during the marathon talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement itself, “some of the people who were at our workshops were up at the talks and of course because they knew each other they were able to be part of sending messages or checking things out or talking with each other”.

As to how the weekends actually worked, the groups – sometimes made up of more than 20 people – would arrive on Friday evening and hold an initial ice-breaking session later on Friday night.

Saturday morning was “agenda setting”, as members proposed the issues they’d like to address. ”My role would be to distill those down into four or five issues to discuss.”

The participants would sit on sofas and comfortable chairs around a fire – adding to the air of conviviality.

“It wasn’t about negotiation – it was to create understandings between the parties as to what they were actually about and the political context and the constraints that a party has.

Republicans got to hear the constraints of unionists and unionists got to hear the constraints of other parties – that was a huge grounding.

“It became organic,” he explained. Unionists would attend knowing they would get some insight into political thinking in the south, “then they kept coming, and in turn they would be giving the inside track”.

You’d be hitting issues a month or two months before they were hitting the public sphere.

One weekend, he recalled, unionists broke the “party rule” and came to Glencree when Sinn Féin were also attending. That made for an illuminating encounter during the group discussions.

“We’d managed to succeed in having the Brits there as well – so you had this kind-of Tory Conservative Eton type – he had been in the Army too – and amazingly you had this unionist guy saying to the Tory Conservative ‘you’re not really understanding what Sinn Féin is saying – that’s not what he’s saying, this is what he’s saying’.

Suddenly you had the Irish – both green and orange – being able to say to the Brits ‘you don’t get it’.

One the of the big cultural learnings that became evident during the sessions was in the difference of approaches to the negotiations.

Protestant unionism is very much into text, into the literal meaning of words – whereas southern Irish politics and John Hume nationalism and to some extent Sinn Féin as well, it’s been described as reading between the lines or understanding more the relational dimension of things.

That difference in perspective meant that the top-level negotiations to address sticking point issues – decommissioning of weapons, for instance – often dragged on for years.

20170331_124144 Source: Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation

DUP 

Into the 2000s, as efforts between leaders to break that decommissioning logjam lumbered on, and as Ian Paisley’s DUP emerged as the primary force within unionism, Glencree again played a part in contributing to the momentum of the peace process.

Paisley’s party hadn’t been involved in the 1990s workshops, but began to participate years later in the run up to the St Andrew’s Agreement in Scotland, which would pave the way for the recommencement of power-sharing and the appointment of the then-DUP leader as First Minister.

“We now understand that those meetings were quite significant because suddenly with the DUP in the room there would be some PDs,” Corry said.

The PDs, particularly after the Northern Bank raid, they were trenchantly anti-Sinn Féin. For the DUP it was an eye-opener to hear people in the south more trenchant than they were.

DUP members – in addition to familiarising themselves with the views of the now-defunct Progressive Democrats – were given on-the-ground insight into the thinking of southern Irish politicians. And again, of course, the process worked both ways.

In London, Dublin, and in the North the senior politicians and officials who were at the centre of the peace process also built a bond of trust over years, sometimes confined in buildings for days as they attempted to overcome the latest impasse.

Said Corry:

If you like it’s an experiential learning and I think that’s the big difficulty over the last ten years – we’ve lost that because of the financial crisis and so on, all the politicians who were handling or who had that experience of unionism, they’ve gone on to other things.
We now have a generation of politicians who don’t really have any experiential understanding.

Read: Belfast council votes to award Bill Clinton freedom of the city >

Read: Explainer: Why UK Brexiteers have been told to ‘sod off’ away from the Good Friday Agreement >

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