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Irish Voice News
Yale Professor Blair on Irish Peace
November 12, 2008
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently accepted a teaching post at Yale University, where he will demonstrate how religious faith and globalization often underpin ethnic conflict. With the lessons he learned from working on the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland, Blair is teaching diplomatic skills to a handpicked group of future leaders at one of the world’s great universities. CAHIR O’DOHERTY spoke to Blair and heard how his private convictions have helped his public decision-making.
IT turns out the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 55, had personal as well as political reasons for tackling the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Throughout his 10-year premiership many of the North’s leaders had reason to suspect that Blair’s private beliefs helped animate his political ones, but it was still remarkable to hear him hold forth on the subject in an interview with the Irish Voice at Yale University last week.
Since he recently stepped down as leader of Britain’s Labor Party, Blair’s international profile has increased. Since 2007 he has added several high paying consultancy jobs to his already bursting portfolio. There is even talk of his seeking the presidency of the European Union.
Considering his heavy work schedule, it’s no wonder that his aides are said to be worried about him. The appointment that’s causing the most stir at the moment is Blair’s high profile decision to teach faith and globalization at Yale, one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Working in a joint teaching post between the Yale School of Management and the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, former Prime Minister Blair has become Professor Blair, teaching a course that looks closely at how religion can underpin and prolong conflict in the modern world.
“I think the interesting thing about Northern Ireland, even though it was a political dispute and a territorial dispute, it nonetheless had a religious dimension to it,” Blair told the Irish Voice. “What we’re exploring in the course here at Yale is the degree to which religion is a part of the problem, and the degree to which it can become a part of the solution as well.”
Blair’s experience in Northern Ireland has attuned him to the ways in which religion becomes a means of expressing cultural identity, and how that awareness also plays a major part in fueling conflict. And likewise when people reach out and engage in inter-community relations with a faith-based perspective, Blair believes that religion can also have a major impact in healing conflict too.
“The religious dimension to the conflict is quite important to me because my mother’s family were all Protestants, very strongly so – my grandfather and I used to visit Donegal when I was a boy. My mother was from there, and my grandfather was a master of an Orange Lodge.
“My grandmother was a very quietly spoken woman, and toward the end of her life she had Alzheimer’s, so there was a lot she couldn’t recognize or say. But on one of the occasions I was with her before she died she suddenly grabbed my hand and said, ‘Whatever else you do you must never marry a Catholic!’
“She barely knew who I was, but she could tell me that. I didn’t mention that I had started dating my wife Cherie, who is Catholic, around that time.”
Moments like this left a profound impression on Blair, reminding him of the challenges that religion often posed.
“I remember very vividly visiting Donegal as a teenager. Then we stopped going when the Troubles got very serious in 1969. I still used to correspond with my teenage friends from there, and I noticed how their attitudes changed from disliking Republicans, and how that changed over time to the whole Catholic population.
“I think that one of the things that happens is that when there is a conflict that erupts in violence, people go back to a tribal position and they start to see everybody who is from the other tradition as in opposition – whereas of course probably the majority of the other side want to live in peace too.”
Ireland for Blair was an idyllic place, a home away from home. But over the years he grew more conscious of the challenges that lay there too.
Asked if he ever heard Ulster politicians justify their political positions theologically, Blair nodded he had.
“Yes, not so much on the Catholic side to be fair. But on the Protestant side it was definitely an issue. Before I became prime minister one of the members of the Orange Order gave a speech saying I was unfit. He said my Catholic wife was a ‘painted jezebel who owes her allegiance to Rome.’”
Blair laughs at the memory. “This shows you how divorced I was from life on the ground there because I thought he was speaking about the Italian government. At the time I wondered what he thought my wife be doing speaking to Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister. Someone had to explain to me that the Orange Order speaker meant the Vatican, not the Italian government.”
Asked if he thought the conflict resolution model from Northern Ireland was applicable to other nations, he was emphatic.
“I have a very strong view about this. I think that the differences between nations are obvious, and the similarities are less obvious but to me even more clear.
“Once you start to analyze the situation you really draw the lessons, and incidentally one of them is, there is almost certainly a need to reach a point of exhaustion before you can start to get people to be willing to participate in conflict resolution. In order to resolve a conflict you have to have an agreed basis for proceeding, and that’s what we achieved with the Good Friday Agreement.
“That’s what the Middle East peace process lacks at the present time. It’s more important than an agreed outcome. You won’t make progress until there is an agreed method for moving forward.
“The second thing is that you never solve a conflict until it is gripped. It has to be gripped continuously and relentlessly. We used to have a saying to ourselves in the Northern Ireland process: if you can’t solve it manage it, but don’t either manage or solve it.
“The third thing is that you never resolve a conflict like this unless there is the assistance of a third party. The help of America, Britain and the Irish government were crucial.
“The final thing is that you only get a chance to solve these disputes when the external forces operating on them are also more benign. The reason why were sure we could solve the Northern Ireland issue was because I could see the objective relationship between Ireland and Britain would keep changing.”
Growing up, Blair remembers hearing people make jokes about the Irish, about Ireland’s economy so on. But by the late 1990s it was a dynamic, enterprising country and had clearly found a new confidence.
Ireland and Britain were both in the European Union, working together closely. Northern Ireland became an issue that both countries decided they wanted to solve.
“The agreed basis of proceeding is the only framework for success,” says Blair. “Republicans yielded on the issue of consent, in other words that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority wished to. Where unionism and in a sense the U.K. government had to yield was that the only basis in which that would work was equity. Equity both in treatment and the sharing of power.
“So peace through the principle of consent accepted on the one hand, with equity and power sharing on the other gave us a way of redressing the historical grievances. It’s the only way of doing it.
“These disputes will always have in them genuine causes of injustice. If you look back at the history of Northern Ireland there plainly was a situation where people were treated as second class citizens.”
One of the crucial breakthroughs in the negotiations with the Unionists, led at the time by David Trimble, was when the party accepted a form of power-sharing that put to one side the old majority model. “The Unionists used to say we’ll have an assembly and government in Northern Ireland based on the basis that the majority wins,” says Blair.
Asked what fortified him personally as he negotiated the resolution of a centuries old conflict Blair said, “My own background was important. I often puzzled on the fact that I used to visit Donegal and then couldn’t. It had a personal impact.
“But I also felt that in Britain there was something wrong and reactionary about our failure to find a way forward. I came to the conclusion that this dispute was irredeemably old fashioned in a way.”
“The fact that Britain couldn’t find a way to resolve this dispute was a bad reflection, in a way, on us. Once I began, once I could see that there were possibilities, and then I became determined. And very quickly I could see the difference it was making.
“I remember going to Belfast in the height of the Troubles when there was barbed wired everywhere and it was in lockdown. Today you go and the only reason there aren’t tables outside the restaurants every night is that some nights it’s raining.”
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