Sunday, 6 January 2013

Conflict through politics: A lesson

The holy grail for peacebuilders is finding means by which conflict can be managed without the use of violence, and the answer to that is some form of politics. Therefore the discipline is essentially one of political science, with our actions guided by a thorough analysis of what is going on in what are always multi layered and complex situations.

Those factors are likely to be local, national and often regional with factors not respecting borders or sovereignty. Increasingly they are also global with the obvious example being the economic slowdown which started with the crash of 2008, or perhaps the changing role of China in Africa.

So what does this actually look like, day to day? Have a watch of this very fiery exchange from the Irish Dail between Mary Lou Mcdonald of Sinn Fein and Eamon Gilmour, the Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government between Labour and Fine Gael. I would embed it here but Youtube seems not to have the right embed code.

It draws all of the conflict factors relating to Ireland into one exchange and does so in increasingly brutal exchanges. The situation in the North of Ireland, the euro crisis which presaged the loss of Irish economic sovereignty for a generation, the cuts to the living standards of the vulnerable that are taking place as a result and the national political merry go round.

And it does so involving a representative of what is now a democratic political party rather than an armed group pursuing violence as its primary means of advancing its goals, who wants to debate every aspect of social policy rather than solely the question of Irish unity.

For political anoraks like me, it's entertaining just as a piece of political theatre but the more serious point is that it also represents how robust the political forum is there. Frankly in the search for peace what we're really after is a forum in which politicians can tear bits off each other. And then go home afterwards.

Sort that, in theory, and economic growth follows.

There is a lesson in here for the New Deal, which is currently experiencing difficulties in many of the pilot countries as a result of different political forces contesting the single shared "vision" that that process is supposed to be developing for each country's future, for governments and civil society to work together harmoniously towards.

The reason that is unlikely to happen is that it forgets the role of politics. There will never be a single vision to which everyone subscribes and it is unrealistic to expect there to be.

While there is a very legitimate concern that countries who do not have the sort of robust forum to manage those contested visions as Ireland does may spill into violence as a result, surely a better approach might be to invest in the development of the capacity to disagree as much as deliver services and economic growth. In other words invest in political capacity as much as economic or social capacity.

The standard answer to that is usually one that involves free and fair elections, which is also important, but what about in between? It's what happens after the election observers and the world media have gone home that is usually more important than the outcome for the long term future.

The disagreement you see raging in the video takes place between elections and its purpose is at least partly to relieve tension. Rude things get said in a very direct way, things that some people feel need to be said. And while the Government dismisses the attacks, it's likely to have at least some effect on policy. The point being that happens in a democratic chamber and not through street protests or other disorder.

The New Deal was signed up to by Governments of the G7+ and it is a remarkable step forward that deserves all of our support in the post 2015 debate, if the new framework is effectively to tackle the bottom billion that have been left behind by the MDGs. But there was never any political incentive for those Governments developing the New Deal to invest in the capacity of their oppositions to engage in, well, opposition.

That, to me at least, is a missing part of the picture, and it's one that might be worth putting right. 

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