Victim of the “Northern Irish Troubles” Michael Gallagher was in Colombia to share his experience of armed conflict and peace as the Colombian people approach the beginning of the dialogues between the government and the FARC guerrillas.
Gallagher’s 21-year-old son was killed in the notorious 1998 bomb which killed 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins in the town of Omagh during the long and bloody conflict of Northern Ireland.
The Northern Irish man has high hopes for the peace process in Colombia, “they are going about it the right way,” he said. “They are being very realistic about it.”
Human rights groups both nationally and internationally have voiced concerns over Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos‘ Legal Framework for Peace, drawn up to facilitate the peace process with the country’s largest guerrilla group. According to the human rights organizations the framework allows for amnesty for the actors in the armed conflict, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands, kidnappings and people being forced to abandon their homes.
Gallagher however, holds a different view. “We had amnesty in Northern Ireland,” he said, “sometimes you have to shorten your expectations for peace.”
According to Gallagher, amnesty holds a lot of problems and pain for those involved in the conflict. “You have to understand, people have suffered for a very long time and now those who have been players in the armed conflict are elevated to politics and democracy so it is a double-edged sword.”
Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the illegal armed group the provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) is now Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, which Gallagher describes as “very unpallatable” for the Unionists who support being part of the United Kingdom. “However you can’t just turn around and say ‘I don’t like these actors and exclude them,” said the Northern Irish man.
“The FARC will probably play an important and positive role in communities in policing and politics in the future. It is time to pass the baton to the new generation,” said Gallagher.
Santos has laid a deadline of June 2013 for the conclusion of the Colombian peace process, however FARC leader Timochenko has said that this time limit was not agreed to on paper and is unrealistic.
Gallagher also thinks a deadline is unachievable and said, “there has been mistrust for over 50 years. It can’t be just brushed aside in a few months. From our own experience, when deadlines were set and not met, people would say the talks were failing.”
“The desire to rush it will result in a situation like Ireland where the illegal groups formed break-away factions as they were not happy with the peace process. It is not the time it takes that will be remembered, it is the agreement at the end,” said Gallagher.
The bomb in Omagh was planted by the Real IRA, an IRA splinter group who did not accede to the Good Friday Agreement drawn up to facilitate peace between the illegal groups on both sides and the British and Irish governments. “Not all the followers will come to peace,” said Gallagher, “but deadlines will not help.”
One of the most important elements for a stable and durable peace according to Gallagher is that the victims are involved from very early on. “The combatants on both sides make rules about how they will be treated when the conflict is over,” he said, “but the victims who have paid the ultimate price don’t get to do that.”
According to Gallagher, “15 years after the Good Friday Agreement the victims in Northern Ireland still feel that issues have not been solved, that they have not been involved in the process.”
The families of the victims of the Omagh bomb are still calling for a cross-border public inquiry involving the authorities from the United Kingdom and Ireland to investigate the circumstances surrounding the atrocity. Inquiries have been held but the full reports have never been made public, leaving many questions unanswered for the families.
“It is easier to come to terms with these things if the victims are given a voice,” said Gallagher, “the victims can make more concessions than anyone on these issues.”
Northern Ireland still sees sporadic violence and the communities still live in resolute segregation, but according to Gallagher this can be avoided in Colombia if the issues are dealt with properly. “The Real IRA are growing stronger and that is because they have never been dealt with properly by the British and Irish governments.”
Gallagher is positive about Colombia’s chances for a true and lasting peace. “In Colombia it will be much easier,” he said. “Ireland had religious barriers and antipathy to deal with, along with sovereignty issues and international issues that go beyond the boundaries of Northern Ireland and to Britain and the Republic of Ireland too.”
In Colombia, said Gallagher, things should move more smoothly as “it is just a difference of ideology, in the end they are all Colombians.”
“After 50 years everyone is worn out and everyone wants a better life. If the government are genuinely reaching out their hand and building trust and creating an atmosphere for peace, then the FARC and others will lay down their arms,” said the Northern Irish man. “You don’t need to like your opponents, you just need to respect them.”