Belfast Peace Agreement: Any Relevance for Kashmir?

By Balraj Puri
November-December 1998


My itinerary as a guest of the British government included a visit to Belfast, the capital of North Ireland, which had returned to peace after 32 years of violence between its tow principal communities, majority Protestants and minority Catholics.

My meetings were arranged with the widest possible spectrum of views; including government officials - head of Political Affairs Division, Director Information Service, Director Prisons Policy, Chief of Police - Political leaders - Democratic Unionist Party - and Independent peace makers like University professors, Quakers and community Relations Council.

It is not easy to reproduce here the amount of information and diversity of opinions that I collected through continuous series of meetings from morning till late evening. Here I present the broad facts and impressions about the N. Ireland problem, the multi-party agreement on cease fire also called Good Friday agreement as it was signed on that day i.e. 10 April 1998 - and the post-agreement situation.

Out of a total population of 1,675,000, catholics comprising 38.4% have been crusading, violently since 1966, for union with southern Irish Republic. Protestants who are more than half the populations are equally passionately determined to remain part of the union of great Britain.

The tow Christian communities are even today almost completely polarized in their views and even their habitation. Belfast city is divided on communal basis The walls that separate them are often fenced. Members of one community avoid visiting areas of the other community even for shopping and recreational purposes. There are a few mixed colonies of upper and professional classes on the outskirts of the city. Mixed marriages are extremely rare. Children of a mixed couple were killed when it returned tot he protestant area.

Unionist Party of the Protestants always returned to power ever since North Ireland Parliament was set up in 1921. It was abolished in 1972 after continued violence and terrorism by Irish Republic Army of Catholics who demanded merger of N. Ireland with Irish Republic. British government offered to concede the demand for secession provided it was supported by the majority which Catholic secessionist always lacked.

A stage came when both the communities realized that continued hostility and violence would not lead them any where. Another helpful factor in the situation was that the relations between Irish Republic and British government always remained cordial. The former never supported the terrorist acts of the IRA, nor supplied arms to it. Thirdly, academic community and Quakers did not take sides and facilitated peace process. Lastly President Clinton of USA played a positive mediatory role.

After series of negotiations between British government and Irish Republic as also different factions of Protestants and Catholics, they agreed on the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998. In a referendum held on 22 May 1998, it was endorsed by 71.21% of the votes polled and opposed by 28.8%. All the parties to the agreement and the two governments recognized that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland is to maintain in the Union and accordingly its status as a part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish. At the same time, both traditions and their cultures and allegiances are recognized and protected.

A key aspect of the Agreement is the new 108 seat Assembly for the people of N. Ireland which will have full executive and legislature responsibility for subjects like Finance and Personnel, Education, Environment, Health and Social services, Economic Development and Agriculture. Elections for it took place on 25 June 1998 under the system of proportional representation; so that minority rights are secure. Care has been taken to ensure that all communities are represented in the decision making of the Assembly. Decisions on sensitive issues will be subject to approval on a cross-community basis and require a majority of both Nationalists (Catholics) and Unionists (Protestants) voting or total of 60% with at least 40% of both communities.

In recognition of legitimate Nationalist aspirations, a North-South ministerial council (between N. Ireland and Irish Republic) will be set up for mutual consultation on areas like tourism promotion, inland fisheries and strategic planning.

In addition, new body including the British and Irish governments, devolved institutions of N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales and representatives of the Channel Islands will be set up for consultation and cooperation on issues like environment, transport and approaches to EU issues.

Further, Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission reflecting the community balance will protect the interests of both communities so that they get equitable opportunities in all fields.

The Agreement Stipulates decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years. (In practice it means surrender of arms by the IRA). It introduces mechanism for an accelerated programme for the release of political prisoners irrespective of the nature of their crime including that of murder within a fixed time frame. It also provides for making the composition of police, which at present is about 90% protestant, more balanced.

Rt. Hon David trimble, leader of the largest party in the assembly i.e. Ulster Unionist Party was elected as the First Minister while Seamus Mallon leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (with catholic support and committed to eventual re-unification of Ireland) was elected as Deputy First Minister. According to the Agreement the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must belong to two different communities.

The agreement ensures safe-guards for the two communities in political, cultural and administrative fields. It is a complex response to a very complex problem.

There are still formidable difficulties in the implementation of the Agreement. As decommissioning of the IRA and release of prisoners, changes in composition of police and installation of an elected government where to take place simultaneously the two parties are blaming each other for the delay.

It is being realized that more confidence building measures are needed before provisions of the agreement can be implemented. The main lessons of the entire exercise of restoring peace in N. Ireland and its possible relevance for Kashmiri may be summarized as under:-

  1. All sides realize the limitation of violence in solving any dispute.
  2. A diverse society must first work out mechanism for reconciling and accommodating interests and aspirations of each community. Mere principle of majoritarianism is neither democratic not workable.
  3. The involvement of autonomous regional governments of N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales along with Irish and British governments in the British-Irish council was an important part of the Peace Agreement. Can autonomous regional governments of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Pak-part of the state and Gilgit be formed and included in peace talks and a joint India-Pak council?
  4. Independent institutions, intellectuals and conflict-resolution scholars must be respected by all concerned; so that they can work out Confidence Building Measures between different regions and communities of the state and between a composite personality of the state and the governments of India and Pakistan which must precede a discussion on concrete solutions.
  5. Ireland's total non-involvement in disassociation with terrorist acts of IRA and its cordial relations with British government was a helpful factor in Belfast Agreement. Pakistan's active involvement and support to militant movement in Kashmir and hostile relations with India only ensure continuation of conflict.


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