Peace v Justice: Lessons from Northern Ireland

African Union soldier outside aid camp near El Fasher, South Sudan, 2005

On one of my final visits to Khartoum I was discussing the gnarly old peace-versus-justice debate with a diplomat, who used a comparison with a peace process closer to home. She was making a point about the utility of issuing a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir even as negotiations continued for independence for Southern Sudan… (taken from Saving Darfur)

“It would be like arresting Martin McGuinness during the Good Friday negotiations.”

I was reminded of this by David Aaronovitch’s column in the The Times on Thursday (I’m afraid those of you who prefer not to pay for your journalism will not be able to read it) in which he sets out the dilemma by comparing one family’s desire for justice in Northern Ireland for their dead relative, with the benefits of sweeping such cases under the carpet, those benefits being:

It is that the peace process has succeeded partly because we have not sought too assiduously to examine who did what in the bloody recent past.

Not only have terrorists been released and pardoned, but it was also decided not to seek extradition in many cases of terrorists who had fled abroad on the ground that, as Charles Clarke put it when Home Secretary, it was “neither proportionate nor in the public interest”.

We hear much about the competing demands of peace and justice, but usually with reference to Sudan or Kenya and during the Arab Spring in Libya or Syria. But the debate rumbles on in the UK and Ireland too. And of course it must be desperately difficult for anyone who has lost a relative to see men they suspect of murder taking on positions of responsibility.

Aaronovitch spells out the dilemma without drawing a conclusion.

But reading again about how setting aside horrendous crimes in the north of Ireland was seen as an important part of finding peace, I’m reminded again that vantage point matters. How easy it is to try to impose lofty ideals of justice on faraway lands; how much more difficult to do it at home, where bombs and bullets can affect our loved ones.

My own position changed during the 2008 violence in Kenya. A shoddy peace deal rewarded government thugs who rigged an election and opposition figures who launched a wave of ethnic violence with ministerial positions for both. There was no justice in that. But it stopped the killing. And – for me – it was killing that had happened in the streets close to my house. Maybe justice will come now as the ICC decided whether to try six Kenyan suspects for their alleged roles.

In that case the right decision was made. And in Northern Ireland. But too often, a noisy Western lobby continues to push for justice before peace when it comes to conflicts elsewhere, places they have often not bothered to visit – despite claiming to speak for the voiceless.

So here’s my point. If we have set aside questions of justice in order to secure peace at home, shouldn’t we do the same for Sudan, Syria and the rest?

2 thoughts on “Peace v Justice: Lessons from Northern Ireland

  1. It amazes me how much people can mess with people’s minds.

    I always thought that ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ was a scam fed to people who had been turned over. It was not enough to hurt them: They had to like it too.

    I guess I declared my colours.

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