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An Irishman in Colombia: 'It's worth remembering the Good Friday agreement has acted as an inspiration'

While it will take many years before Colombia reaches a lasting peace, the country is inspired by Northern Ireland, writes Kieran Duffy.

Kieran Duffy

IN RECENT YEARS the Colombian peace process has drawn a steady stream of politicians from both sides of the border to this South American nation I currently call home. Martin McGuinness visited the country in 2014 and government delegations from Stormont have visited since then.

Since 2015 Eamon Gilmore has acted as the EU’s special envoy to the peace process. In the next month David Trimble will attend a conference of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogotá and President Michael D Higgins will pay a state visit.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has made a journey in the opposite direction, visiting Belfast in November as part of an official visit to the UK. It’s clear that he and many others who seek an end to Colombia’s long internal conflict look to Northern Ireland as an example of a successful peace process.

Moving to Colombia

Most Irish people probably know little of this war other than the story of “The Colombia Three” who were arrested in 2001. When I first arrived in Bogotá in August 2014, I was quite ignorant of it myself.

I had travelled through several South American countries following the World Cup in Brazil and I only chose to settle in Colombia because friends of mine were already here. I knew very little about the country.

Living in this sprawling capital of eight million people, I was very far removed from the more remote rural areas where the conflict is mostly fought. While the city obviously suffered from a high crime rate, this didn’t set it apart from other countries in the region, and it was easy to forget about the existence of the internal conflict.

But over time I was staggered to learn the sheer scale of the conflict. Since 1964, when left-wing FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels first engaged the Colombian military in combat, over 250,000 people have been killed and over 6 million have been driven from their homes.

The peace process

But while I was learning all this, a peace process was underway. Talks had begun in 2012 and in 2015 serious progress was made. Although the peace deal was narrowly rejected by voters in October 2016, a revised deal is now being implemented.

Colombian journalists, academics and politicians have frequently looked to other peace processes for ideas. Northern Ireland, having been mostly at peace for almost two decades, is seen as a prime example and is often mentioned in newspapers and TV reports.

The FARC have praised the power-sharing aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Even former president Alvaro Uribe, the biggest opponent of the peace process, has referenced Northern Ireland, claiming that the terms being offered to FARC are more generous than what the British government offered the IRA.

The two conflicts have many differences

shutterstock_373724896 Source: Shutterstock/Ilyshev Dmitry

The Colombian war originated in the Cold War, as a struggle of right versus left and lacks the ethnic and religious conflict present in Ireland. It is also primarily rural conflict with the cities often unaffected, in stark contrast to the widespread violence in Belfast and Derry.

Another huge difference is the widespread production of cocaine in Colombia. It is a common mistake to think that the conflict originated in the drug war, when in fact Colombia was in civil war long before the drug became commonplace. But both the left-wing guerrilla and the right-wing paramilitaries have used their control of coca fields to fund their war efforts and amass wealth, in a way that no Irish paramilitaries could.

These differences might explain why some Colombians who should know better show huge misunderstanding of The Troubles. Among the mistakes I’ve seen in major newspapers and magazines were claims that Bertie Ahern was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, that Northern Ireland was engaged in a war with the Republic of Ireland, and that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted independence from the United Kingdom.

Inspiring peace in far flung places

Some friends and coworkers at my school have asked me if the IRA had bases in the jungle like the FARC. It seems that many people are somewhat aware of the conflict, but frame it in terms of Colombia’s.

Others have trouble believing that a guerrilla army could exist in Europe, only being with the many left-wing movements that arose across Latin America due to rampant inequality and the struggles of the Cold War. Given the very different histories of Ireland and Colombia, I often find it quite difficult to explain the complexities of The Troubles to people here.

Nevertheless, both the government and FARC have identified the agreements and compromises that have made the Northern Irish peace process a success. While it will take many years before Colombia reaches a lasting peace – the smaller National Liberation Army has just begun peace talks while many right-wing paramilitary groups remain at large – this decades-long war is hopefully coming to an end.

At a time when the uncertainties of Brexit threaten the stability of Northern Ireland, it’s worth remembering how the Good Friday agreement has acted as an inspiration for other places seeking peace.

Kieran Duffy is an Irishman living in Bogotá, Colombia. He writes about the country’s politics and ongoing peace process. He tweets at @bogota_duffy

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