Colombia’s government and FARC rebels have been looking to the example of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland as an example for the FARC’s future demobilization and disarmament, but how good is this Irish model?
Ahead of their self-imposed March 23 deadline, both sides in Colombia face the tremendous difficulty of solving the issue of demobilization of troops, the decommissioning of weapons and the reintegration of fighters, or DDR.
This DDR process will dominate the final stages of the negotiations and if it follows the same pattern as the situation in Northern Ireland, it will not be without difficulty.
Colombia’s government and the FARC consulted with a delegation from Northern Ireland in the summer of 2014 and received the delegation in Havana in October of last year.
Delegates from the Northern Ireland traveled to Colombia this week again.
This delegation consists of political figures from both sides of the Irish divide, nationalists and unionists who underwent a similar peace process in the 1990s.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement 1998, put a power-sharing government in place thus ending a 30-year conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ which claimed over 3,500 lives.
For decades the guerrilla group, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) had fought against the both loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army over British occupation of 6 counties in the Northern Irish province of Ulster.
However, if we reflect on the process in Northern Ireland, demobilization and decommissioning were perhaps the greatest challenges to the stability of the deal in the immediate aftermath of it being signed.
As the Havana negotiations enter the final stages, both sides may consider some aspects of the ‘Irish model’ regarding the demobilization of troops and decommissioning of weapons.
Preparing the ground
After 25 years of armed opposition to British occupation of the North of Ireland, the IRA announced a ceasefire in 1994 which eventually paved the way for political negotiations to begin.
A “twin-track” approach to make progress on decommissioning and on “all-party negotiations” simultaneously was announced in 1995.
The need for international assistance and supervision in the process was recognized early on.
US President Bill Clinton visited the province in 1995 to endorse the peace negotiations while US Senator George Mitchell led an International Body and played a key role in the peace process as a whole.
The ‘Mitchell Report’, was published which put forward the recommendations of the international body. These “Mitchell Principles” further advocated a “twin-track approach”, specifically, political negotiation and weapons decommissioning.
However given the high levels of mistrust on both sides, the IRA accused the British government of acting “in bad faith” and accused Unionist leaders of “squandering an unprecedented opportunity to resolve the conflict” by refusing to allow the political wing of the organisation, Sinn Fein, into the peace talks until decommissioning had taken place.
The detonation of a bomb in London brought an end to a 17-month ceasefire. Following a continued period of violence and a change of government in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the IRA announced another ceasefire in July 1997. The change of leadership in both states gave the talks a new impetuous.
Sinn Fein were re-admitted to engage in the talks a month later having previously been dispelled by the Britain’s Conservative Party.
An Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was set up to propel the process of removing weapons from paramilitaries. It was chaired by General John de Chastelain from Canada.
Tackling reluctance to demobilize
In the case of the IRA, the issue of demobilization was a tentative one. Opposition groups questioned the legitimacy of the talks, suggesting that the guerrillas were terrorists who had “bombed their way to the negotiating table.”
This criticism was mainly derived from a high profile bombing campaign conducted by the IRA in Britain in the years leading up to the talks. Many unionists felt that Britain had betrayed them by engaging with so-called ‘terrorists’
This led to a lot of mutual distrust and the reluctance of both sides to demobilize. Unionists called on the IRA to decommission their weapons before the talks, while the IRA feared that such action would weaken their negotiating power and leave them vulnerable to attack in a weakened military state should the talks fail.
Providing for reintegration
As part of the demobilization and decommissioning process, the release of IRA prisoners was coupled with initiatives to reintegrate them into post-conflict society.
This provided further encouragement for the demobilization process as IRA members were given an opportunity to rebuild their lives in a conflict-free society.
The agreement stated that “both Governments continue to recognize the importance of measure to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or re-skilling, and further education.”
The European Union Peace and Reconciliation Fund invested £1.25 million to support prisoner re-integration schemes distributed by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust- which assisted in financing a ‘self help model for reintegration’ managed by former prisoners
The reintegration process was an important part of the demobilization as it sought to provide an alternative to guerrillas who had been part of an armed conflict for decades.
Lessons to be learned?
1 – Both sides establish a framework for demobilization with clear, realistic protocols
While the disarmament process of the IRA was ultimately a success, there were several problems during its course. Some of the problems centered on what many viewed as inadequacies in the framework agreed upon in the peace negotiations.
In the aftermath of signing agreement, it transpired that the ambiguity in the language used regarding demobilization allowed scope for evasion and delay.
The Agreement requires that all sides “reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations” and “use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years”.
The lack of specific details and clear protocols for disarmament meant that both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries took advantage and this delayed the process further and increased tensions fueled by mutual suspicion.
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The Colombian governments’ recent decision to ban the FARC from interaction with the media is quite similar to the ban that was imposed upon Sinn Fein and paramilitary organisations by both the British and Irish governments. Amid protests from journalists and the public, regarding freedom of speech, the bans were lifted in 1994.
This enabled the media to clearly inform the public on the key stages of the peace process throughout the 1990’s.
2 – Realistic deadlines
The issue of setting deadlines is perhaps the greatest lesson that we can learn from the experience of the IRA and the decommissioning process.
Due to the high levels of mistrust between all sides involved and the need for loyalist paramilitaries to disarm through the same process, the IRA failed to deliver on two occasions, May 2000 and June 2001.
Although the political situation was extremely complicated, this had the effect of destabilizing the agreement as it appeared to many that the IRA were not meeting the conditions agreed to in the peace deal.
The decommissioning process hit crisis point in July 2001 as the leader of the New Executive resigned in protest amid the IRA’s slow process regarding the destruction of weapons.
Granted that the political landscape is very different, the establishment of clear, realistic deadlines agreed upon by both sides will still be essential in the process of the demobilization of the FARC.
The early stages of the process will be crucial as realistic deadlines and achievable targets will ensure trust-building and prevent stagnation.
Should the negotiating teams set unrealistic, unmanageable deadlines causing them not to be met, all involved will face criticism from an already vocal opposition causing further tensions regarding the implementation of the peace deal.
3 – International assistance and supervision
International assistance and supervision were key features of the Northern Ireland peace process in general. However, the setting up of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was essential to oversee the demobilization process for both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.
This body sought to ensure that the process took place “to the satisfaction of an independent commission.”
Headed by General John de Chastelain of Canada, it was made up of officials from Finland, the US and South Africa.
They oversaw the destruction of weapons and their report at the end of the process stating that “beyond a shadow of a doubt the arms of the IRA have been decommissioned” satisfied observers and facilitated political progress in terms of further implementing the terms of the peace agreement.
In the case of the FARC, the guarantor countries have Cuba and Norway have been actively involved in the process from the beginning.
Their supervision along with the rest of the international community, particularly the US may be crucial in facilitating the demobilization process and subsequently making further progress in implementing the terms of the agreement.
Conor Murphy, a member of the Irish delegation in Havana highlighted the importance of international involvement, “It is vital that the international community get behind this peace process as they did with ours. We must do everything we can to support a lasting peace in Colombia.”
4 – Foster trust through the delivery of the items on the program of reform
The fostering of trust between all parties in the negotiation was important to successfully carry out decommissioning and demobilization.
While a paramilitary group such as IRA may find it difficult to make the final steps towards demobilization it was important for the government to deliver on their promises.
In the IRA’s case, they failed to engage in decommissioning of weapons for deadlines in May 2000 and June 2001 citing dissatisfaction with agreements made in relation to police reform and demobilization of the army.
The knock on effect of the failure to satisfy the demand of the IRA and Sinn Fein in relation to reform caused them to delay the decommissioning process.
This in turn caused the resignation of the First Minister of the power-sharing executive which in turn threatened the collapse of the agreement.
The IRA placed the blame on their failure to decommission on the British government and their political opposition for their inability to press on with adequate reform agreed upon in the Good Friday Agreement.
The IRA felt that the British government were not living up to their side of the bargain and this inevitably delayed progress on decommissioning.
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The Colombian governments’ ability to deliver on the reform that has been agreed upon may be essential regarding the progression of the demobilization process.
5 – Sanctions or consequences for the failure to meet demobilization and decommissioning requirements
One of the main problems with the Good Friday Agreement was that it did not contain any comprehensive provision that sanctions would apply for non-decommissioning.
Consequently, decommissioning became dependent the individual groups’ desire to complete the process. Article 25 of the Good Friday Agreement relates that decommissioning exclusively concerns politicians and does not set out any consequences should decommissioning not occur at the grassroots level.
Some Unionists accused the Nationalists of ‘failing to live up to the spirit of the Agreement’s requirement for the decommissioning of arms.’ The ambiguity regarding protocol and consequences for failure to disarm prolonged the process and threatened the success of the agreement at various points.
Colombia’s government and the FARC may avoid a repeat of this difficulty with a reasonable exchange of reform implementation and demobilization.
6 – Risk of breakaway extremists
Following the second IRA ceasefire in 1997, which paved the way for their re-engagement in the peace negotiations, there was a split in the organisation involving more extreme members who rejected the idea of a peace negotiation.
The Real IRA was founded after the IRA’s quartermaster left the group with a dozen others in the autumn of 1997, in protest at Sinn Féin – the Provisional IRA’s political wing – entering into dialogue with the British and Irish governments.
It developed into one of the most active factions opposed to the Good Friday settlement.
The Real IRA was responsible for the Omagh bombing on 15 August 1998, the worst atrocity of the Troubles, in which 29 people died.
While the RIRA only enjoyed the support of a small minority of the public, their mere existence became another strain on the agreement.
However, the shift in the public mindset in favor of a peace agreement minimized the true impact they had in undermining the political process.
Should the leaders of the FARC fail to sell the benefits of the peace agreement to their troops during the pedagogy progress, this is one danger that both their leadership and Colombia’s government must be aware of.
Long term stability
On the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a committee comprising of members from North and South of the border offered their reflections on the success of the peace process.
“The Good Friday Agreement is looked upon as unique and ground-breaking in an international context and has laid the foundations for a more peaceful, safer and the beginnings of a fairer Northern Ireland (…) Many people are alive today because an Agreement could be reached.”
As the ‘Irish model’ continues to function without the gun and peace continues to be fostered, it is important for all involved to realize that the process is ongoing.
This was duly acknowledged in the report 15 years later.
“It is clear that the Agreement and the peace process is still a work in progress and is by no means complete. A number of challenges remain in relation to segregation, sectarianism, mistrust, continued paramilitarism in some areas and the need to implement the agreement on the ground in communities.”