Consensus-building the Peace Tune

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 through would happen.’ Indeed, many had never thought that these two long-time foes would ever come together, leave alone arriving 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 now. 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 before. Therefore recognizing their bitter historical relationship, this change in heart and willingness to seize this opportunity in agreeing to leave behind their divisions and to forge a unity government must be applauded and supported.   

This historic agreement between the Unionist and the Sinn Fein is encouraging and it implies that at the end of the day the common aspiration of the Irish people must be respected and upheld. For so long the division between these two groups were splitting the Irish people along political lines as well as along their faith lines of Catholic and Protestants. This division 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 together because it dwells largely on the future well-being of a people. A consensus approach has been more successful when it comes to addressing ‘intra conflicts’ because it does not demand that one group should give up their individual identity for the other. Rather it emphasizes on a series of dialogue between the groups and to recognize the contributions of the other and to acknowledge that they do need to work with each other if they are to achieve their common objective. The process of consensus building is directed towards creating a common vision, which becomes the broad framework on which the basis is laid upon. 

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 and also empowers them to address historical wrongs in a positive approach of tolerance and understanding with compassion and grace. Time will tell how far they are able to uphold the spirit of dialogue and really engage on contentious issues with the intent on building consensus that will shape the destiny of their future. While Paisley and Adams are only just 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 future. 

Another recent initiative in which several attempts have been made to forge a unity government through consensus building has been the Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah. Is it therefore possible for Nagas to learn from these experiences and create the space that will persuade all the groups to engage in a process of consensus-building? If the Irish can muster the will and the heart to arrive at a consensus in spite of their divided past, why cant the Nagas?