In this issue’s spirit of living a gentler life, we look at the role of mediators in Northern Ireland and Hong Kong (see right) and ask what it takes to get two sides that despise each other back to the negotiating table.
“If you’re trying to make peace,” says Jonathan Powell, “it’s not like buying a car. You’re not trying to haggle a price down.” Powell, 63, is the founder and ceo of Inter-Mediate, a charity devoted to negotiation and mediation – disciplines that he’s learned at several sharp ends. As chief of staff to former UK prime minister Tony Blair, he was the government’s lead negotiator in Northern Ireland. He was also involved in attempting to resolve conflicts in Spain, Colombia, Afghanistan and Myanmar, among others.
So how do you get two warring sides to talk? Timing is key, says Powell: the fighting won’t stop until people want it to stop. “The academics call it a perceived mutually hurting stalemate,” he says. By 1997, when Powell arrived in Downing Street with Tony Blair (pictured), there had been war in Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years and even those waging it were weary. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, wasn’t perfect but it was a vast improvement on what preceded it and a case study in conflict resolution.
Leadership is also important. “In South Africa, even if you had Nelson Mandela, it would have been hard to get an agreement if you hadn’t had FW de Klerk,” he says. The same goes for Northern Ireland, where Irish Republican figures Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness “risked their lives and political futures”, along with Unionists Ian Paisley and David Trimble. “And if we hadn’t had Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, we wouldn’t have had an agreement,” says Powell.
History can turn on whether people get on. There’s been no more bemusing political friendship than that of Paisley, a Unionist firebrand, and McGuinness, an infamously ruthless ira chief.
“In 2007 I got a call saying that Paisley was in a bad mood and wasn’t going to agree to anything,” says Powell. “He’d been up very late, Scottish-Irish dancing with McGuinness.”The main quality a mediator needs, however, is patience. “Negotiations aren’t just about the piece of paper,” says Powell. “They’re about getting that paper implemented. It can take a long time.”
Lewis Lukens served in the US embassy in London from 2016 to 2019 and is now a senior partner at Signum Global Advisors. As Brexit looms and there are fears that the US could gain a stake in the UK’s National Health Service, Lukens surmises the countries’ relationship going forwards.
How strong is the US/UK ‘special relationship’ as we start the new year?With Boris Johnson elected and Donald Trump focused on his own campaign, I don’t see much of a change. The close military, diplomatic and trade ties will remain. The wild card will be the EU. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a scenario where the UK/EU relationship gets better and Trump is left disappointed.
Do you expect the US to be a good ally or take advantage of the UK’s vulnerabilities?
Trump didn’t make up “America First”; US diplomats and trade negotiators have always looked out for the US. Their job is to get the best deal and the UK negotiators will be trying to do the same. So even though our countries are closely aligned, the reality is that the trade negotiations will be complicated and difficult.
What do you make of the relationship between Johnson and Trump?
It’s certainly warmer than the relationship between Trump and Theresa May. But the president is so thin-skinned that it could change in a second. That warmth could cool quickly.
Do you think that the UK should wait until after November’s US elections to negotiate?
Remember, [Trump losing] is not a done deal. Besides, the US and UK negotiators have met, know each other and are ready to go. Neither side wants to wait another year.
How do you get people who hate each other into the same room? It’s a sign of Hong Kong’s seemingly endless divide that South African and Irish mediators have recently visited to share their experiences of bringing two warring sides together. “When a society feels divided, families and friends are arguing, and relationships have fallen apart, having some facilitators is useful,” says Christine Loh, a former government official. Loh is also a prominent member of the Forward Alliance, a group of independent individuals working to promote dialogue between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps.
Chief executive Carrie Lam’s aborted attempt at community talks were notable for their lack of protestor representation (a charge that can also be levelled at the Forward Alliance’s first attempts at dialogue). But despite the scepticism, the biggest risk is doing nothing, says Paul Zimmerman, one of the Alliance’s leaders: “The greatest threat is people believing that the gap between the authoritarian system and the liberal system is unbreachable.”