Northern Irish, South Africa Leaders in Secret Peace Discussion with Iraqi Parties


Sunni and Shi’a leaders began a potential peace process at secret meetings with leaders of the new Northern Ireland and South Africa one month, signing draft set of principles which resemble the protocols that guided the peace settlements in those two countries.


Chairing the closed meetings near Helsinki were Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army commander, lead negotiator with the British, and now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Roelf Meyer, former leader of the pro-apartheid National Party in South Africa‘s peace negotiations. The Irish delegation also included former IRA hunger striker Leo Green, minister Jeffrey Donaldson, former Stormont speaker Lord Alderdice, and former loyalist paramilitary leader Billy Hutchison. South African participants included ANC leaders Mac Maharaj and Rashid Ismail, key participants in the military and political negotiations in South Africa. [See "McGuinness in Iraqi Peace Negotiations," An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein Weekly, Sept. 6, 2007, and "NI Figures Boost Iraqi Peace Talks," BBC, Sept. 4, 2007]


The Iraq delegations’ names have not been released but reportedly included six Sunni and nine Shi’a who signed a statement of principles. About 30 Iraqis were present, including Akram al-Hakim, minister of national reconciliation for the Baghdad government, representatives of Moktada al-Sadr, Sunni leader Adnan al-Dulaimi, and Humam Hammoudi, the Shi’a chairman of the Baghdad parliament’s foreign affairs committee.


There is no doubt that American and British authorities knew about and approved the meeting, though they were excluded from attending. Instead, the meeting was facilitated and funded by the Finnish Crisis Management Initiative [CMI] and the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts.


At this point, virtually no American media outlets have reported the meeting, despite the importance of the parties in attendance.


Irish political consultant Quentin Oliver, who directed the successful referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, summed up the significance: "The Iraqis saw the dynamics from us. Apartheid removed. Troubles accommodated. Baghdad next. They did it, not us. We only helped." [Peter Fabricius, "Promising Future for Iraq Thanks to SA Trio," Johannesburg Star, Sept. 6, 2007]


The Iraqis saw former military enemies — McGuinness and Hutchison, for example, or South African apartheid leaders and ANC guerilla commanders — chairing meetings together on how sharply divided communities can coexist.


The key question for the Iraqis, who are circulating the draft at home, is whether the major parties believe their armed strategies have reached a stalemated point of no return, or whether one side [and foreign sponsors like the U.S. and U.K.] still hopes for a military victory. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, secret peace discussions were initiated while the wars were proceeding, but eventually grew into the peace processes as the rival parties concluded that armed struggle [or military occupation] had reached its limits.


South Africa was first to settle its war, in 1994, and the ANC became close advisers to the IRA as the Irish peace process was being evaluated. At one point, President Nelson Mandela even presided over discussions in South Africa between republican and unionist/loyalist leaders who would not sit in the same rooms together.


The Finnish role in the current process stems from former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari’s past involvement with the independent decommissioning agency established in Northern Ireland.


The key moments at the meeting were when Irish and South African representatives told stories of how their militarized strategies ultimately led to stalemate and the prospect of endless war. "The most remarkable impression on the Iraqis was McGuinness, once evil incarnate to the Protestants," who now sits as vice- minister to First Minister Ian Paisley, the right-wing fundamentalist preacher trained at Bob Jones University who swore that the Catholic Church was the "whore of Babylon." A meaningful peace process "only emerged in both countries when all parties agreed that those who adhered to violence had to be brought into negotiations, and that those parties adhering to violence had accepted that violence could never lead to accommodation. One could see Iraq heads nod in agreement." [Padraig O'Malley, Boston Globe op-ed, September 24, 2007]


The so-called "Helsinki principles" which were agreed to, with each Iraqi signatory praying "In-sha’Allah" as they signed their names, are very general and appear utopian, but so were the early framework agreements in Ireland and South Africa. Most importantly, all parties agreed to continue the discussions towards a settlement.


The agreement commits all parties "to work towards a robust framework for a lasting settlement [and] a set of recommendations to start negotiations to reach national reconciliation…The principles of inclusivity, power-sharing and a commitment to removing the use of violence as a means of resolving political differences were among the most urgent concerns agreed."


The 12 principles and 19 "political objectives," which are online at Helsinkiagreement.com include:


* to resolve all political issues through nonviolence and democracy;


* to form an independent commission approved by all parties to supervise the process of disarmament in a verifiable manner;


* to commit to accept the result of the negotiations with no party subjected to threats of force;


* to establish an independent consultative body to explore ways to deal with the legacy of the past in a way that will unite the nation;


* "a common vision for all Iraqi political entities on the importance of termination of the presence of foreign troops in Iraq through the completion of national sovereignty and rebuilding a national army and security apparatus according to a national vision within a realistic timetable";


* "to convince political groups that are currently outside the political process to initiate and activate a constructive dialogue to reach common understandings";


* "to deal with armed groups which are not classified as terrorist, encouraging them to use peaceful political means to address the conflict and to provide their members with jobs and opportunities within state administrations";


* "the cessation of the violation of the human rights of Iraqi citizens and their properties by continuous bombardment and military actions by foreign forces";


* "to be rational in political speeches, for the national interest, and to move away from sectarian and ethnic dispute";


* "to bring an end to the displacement of Iraqi people and work to take care of those displaced, and secure their safe return, with guarantees of their safety by the national forces in cooperation with political parties and tribal leaders."

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