Building peace across borders – by Katy Hayward

24 Jan

Last June, I participated in a joint analysis workshop the University of Cambridge that had been organised by Conciliation Resources, a charity working internationally to prevent and resolve violent conflict. The event brought together 30 international practitioners, policymakers and academics to identify key challenges and opportunities for cross-border peacebuilding. The product of this workshop was a themed issue of the journal Accord published by Conciliation Resources and edited by Alexander Ramsbotham and I William Zartman. Titled Paix sans frontières: building peace across borders, it features 20 case studies of cross-border peacebuilding from around the world.

The All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Conflict Issues hosted an event in Westminster on 19 January to present the findings and policy brief arising from this issue. Below is a portion of my presentation at the event, which focused on what the Irish case study can tell us about regional initiatives in cross-border peacebuilding.

Strategically linking peacebuilding initiatives

The primary policy point drawn from this issue of Accord is one that unites all cases and circumstances: To function effectively, it argues, peacebuilding initiatives beyond and below the state need to be strategically linked. Such supra-state/grassroots connections are perhaps particularly difficult in a situation of border conflict given that, by definition, a border conflict is about states, between states, across states. Indeed, when it first directly addressed the issue of the Troubles in 1984, even the EU (then EEC) defined it as: a ‘problem of conflicting national identities’, and suggested that the clue to any lasting improvement must be ‘comprehensive Irish-British understanding’. But fast forward ten years, the IRA and Combined Loyalist Military Command are on ceasefire, Irish nationalists John Hume and Gerry Adams are in talks with the British and Irish governments, just as Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds are in talks with each other. The EU Commission’s response at this time was a special funding programme for Peace and Reconciliation (PEACE) which was to be, in effect, a ‘carrot’ to help actors at all levels in Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland realise the tangible benefits of peace.

Systems not states

The second core action point in the Accord brief asserts: Policy that refers to systems rather than states can shape more flexible and appropriate responses to cross-border conflicts. It is worth acknowledging here that what might be for some a cross-border conflict is to others a domestic issue. This is, of course, a difference of opinion that blocked understanding between the British and Irish governments for the first 15 years of the Troubles. The European Union played a significant part in overcoming this division, partly through normalising collaboration between the two. Arguably, through this experience of elite-level cooperation, a precedent was set for stretching policy visions beyond the border. This has begun to happen at sub-national and local level in Ireland, albeit in a manner wholly dependent on national-level facilitation. States not only have to allow cross-border peacebuilding initiatives: they must also recognise that a systemic, border transcending approach is needed to cement peace. Yet, as we’ve seen in the case of Franco-Spanish approaches to the Basque country, this is often a step too far for some states, even with encouragement from the regional level.

Think local, Act local

The third of Accord’s action points is to: Adjust regional policy according to local contexts, interests and institutions. A most crucial element of the EU’s peacebuilding legacy for Ireland will have been one of the least visible and least possible to quantify. This ‘hidden’ legacy will have been in the conditions EU funding has engendered and required for multilevel partnership. This is not merely a nice idea from European integration theory, it is working in practice in Northern Ireland and the Border Region on a day-to-day basis. Whether such multilevel, multiactor partnerships ultimately stimulate an adjustment of regional policy according to local interests is debatable. But it does help ensure that the influence of the European Union can change practice and norms at the mezzo, if not the macro, level.

Prioritise conflict resolution

I will conclude with a brief note on the fourth of the policy points drawn from this issue of Accord, this being to: Prioritise regional conflict prevention and resolution. Conflict resolution is, of course, a learning process as much as an objective – and perhaps one of the core lessons from the EU’s peacebuilding experience in Ireland is that conflict resolution may be conceived very differently by different local actors. Indeed, even the EU’s very involvement might be seen as highly problematic by some actors. Such actors in Northern Ireland have included no less than the First and Deputy First Ministers, each of whom are from political parties with a history of Euroscepticism.

But EU Commission President Barroso’s strategy to metaphorically embrace the two of them (e.g. through the EU Task Force on Northern Ireland) has been a tremendous example of the personal power of a regional institution. In building a good relationship with Ian Paisley, his successor Peter Robinson, and Martin McGuinness, Barroso may also help grant legitimacy at a different level to, say, a local loyalist youth group seeking PEACE funding or a group of former republican prisoners going for European Social Funded vocational skills training. It is a good illustration of the argument made in this issue of Accord that regional institutions need to work with governments and civil society networks to facilitate local participation and buy-in to peace processes.

Only with such visionary engagement and sustained commitment to conflict resolution from the European Commission might the EU’s legacy endure long after the well of PEACE money runs dry.

For more details on the work of Conciliation Resources and for the Accord issue in full, please see


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