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Learning from Others

When Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat side by side for the first time in history to announce to the world that they had agreed to forge a power-sharing coalition, Peter Hain, British Secretary of State remarked ‘We all saw something today that people never, ever thought would happen.’ Indeed, many had never thought that these two long-time foes would ever come together, and leave after having arrived at a consensus. The union of Paisley and Adams is a fundamental step towards addressing their common political agenda with Britain, while enabling their own constituencies which are polarized along faith and political lines an opportunity to come to terms with their past and to build a new future.

Paisley, a Democratic Unionist representing the Protestants, and Adams of the Sinn Fein embodying the Catholics, have been at logger heads for years. Paisley, a Protestant evangelist had long denounced Adams as a ‘man of blood,’ and for 14 long years of the Northern Ireland’s peace process, he had never agreed to negotiate directly with Adams. Therefore, recognizing their bitter historical history, this change of heart and willingness to leave their divisions behind that allowed them to forge a unity government is indeed laudable.   

This historic agreement between the Unionists and the Sinn Fein is encouraging, and implies that, at the end of the day, the Irish people’s common aspiration can be respected and upheld. The division between these two groups was splitting the Irish people along political lines, as well as along their faith traditions as Catholics and Protestants. These divisions only further enabled the British government to strengthen their grip over the ‘north of Ireland.’ This power sharing agreement is, therefore, not only pragmatic, but will enable them to negotiate with Britain from a position of strength.

The process of consensus-building is a critical approach in building understanding between conflicting parties because it focuses largely on the people’s future well-being. A consensus approach has been more successful when it comes to addressing ‘intra conflicts’ because it does not demand that one group give up their individual identity for the other. Rather it emphasizes a series of dialogue between the groups and recognizes each other’s contributions, in addition to acknowledging that working together is necessary in order to achieve their common objective. The process of consensus building is directed towards creating a common vision which forms its broad framework.

This intent is quite clearly reflected in their statements, for instance, Paisley stated that, ‘We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future for our children.’ He went on to add that, ‘In looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are, please God, now emerging, We owe it to them to craft the best possible future.’ These sentiments were reiterated by Adams who affirmed that, ‘The relationships between the people of this island have been marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy. ... Now there's a new start, with the help of God.’

Consensus-building as an approach allows the space where new beginnings can be made. It enables a society to move forward in an entirely new spirit. Historical wrongs can constructively be addressed using a positive approach of tolerance and understanding with compassion/empathy and grace. While Paisley and Adams are only two individuals, what is remarkable is the fact that their ability to set aside their differences has made it possible for the Catholics and Protestants to come together as one nation and work in consensus for their common future.

Is it possible for Nagas to learn from all these experiences and create the space where all the groups will engage in a process of consensus-building? If the Irish can muster the will and the heart to arrive at a consensus despite their divided past, why can’t the Nagas?

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