If Pakistan were like Ireland

Indians visiting Northern Ireland could be forgiven for asking the obvious question: why can’t we too bring peace to Kashmir? The simple answer, at the most fundamental level, lies in the markedly different roles played by Islamabad and Dublin.

The slow but steady progress in bringing peace and development to Northern Ireland has had a lot to do with the sense of responsibility and cooperation shown by Dublin.

There was a time when armed Republicans in Northern Ireland would be aided by Republicans across the border in the Irish Republic. This is no longer the case, although a recent spurt in dissident Republican violence in parts of Northern Ireland may have been encouraged by disgruntled armchair militants across the border.

The Irish government came in early into the Northern Ireland peace process, begun by John Major in the early 1990s and culminating with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. A year later, the Irish amended a key section of their Constitution which referred to the Northern and Southern parts of Ireland as one “national territory.”

The 1999 amendment still aspires to unification but speaks of a common identity rather than territory. More importantly, it says, unification will only happen if the majority of the people in Northern Ireland vote for it.

Why did Dublin make such a startling change to a cherished objective? In the first instance, it was plain to everyone in the 1990s that the violent conflict in Northern Ireland was going nowhere. And there were signs that the ordinary people of the province – both Protestants and Catholics – were becoming fed up with it.

Secondly, Dublin had begun its Celtic Tiger phase of economic growth in the 1990s. The European Union would contribute 10 billion euros to develop its infrastructure. And Ireland needed a climate of peace to enable its economic growth, which would be built primarily on US investments.

There are other, far more complex factors, such as the decision by politicians in Northern Ireland to allow their fierce rivalries to rest in favour of day-to-day governance. America too played a powerful and benign role.

Recently, the Times of London reported that Manmohan Singh had opened “back channel” communication lines with the Pakistani Army chief, Gen Kayani, 10 months before inviting President Zardari to the World Cup cricket semifinal. There has been a denial from the PMO, but it is worth remembering that the John Major government was holding its own secret talks with the IRA’s Martin McGuinness through a “back channel” way back in 1993.

Now Martin is deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland regional assembly. See my article here.

None of this is new to India – Rajiv Gandhi’s success in Mizoram should be essential course work for all studying conflict resolution. Manmohan Singh’s talk of making “borders irrelevant” through free trade and people-to-people contact may be the logical next step. But first Islamabad and its myriad agencies need to take a step back.

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