MANILA, Philippines - Beyond the decommissioning of firearms, the more important issue in a peace process is determining whether there is real commitment to move away from violence.
This is one of the lessons that the Philippines can learn from Northern Ireland, Nobel Peace Prize awardee Lord David Trimble said in Rappler's #TalkThursday.
"The focus of the attention was on the decommissioning of weapons but behind that stood a bigger, more important issue. The big issue was whether the various groups that had previously been involved in violence were going to give up violence permanently for good and commit themselves to democratic peaceful means of pursuing their objectives," he said.
Lord Trimble arrived in Manila just as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) opened the latest round of negotiations, a few weeks after the historic Framework Agreement was signed in Malacañang.
He is here to share his insights about the ongoing Mindanao peace process based on his experiences in resolving the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland that involved the British government, republicans who wanted the country to remain under British rule, and nationalists fighting for the reunification of Ireland.
As the leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, Lord Trimble, along with John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, was at the other end of negotiations with Gerry Adams of the left-wing republican party, Sinn Fein.
The peace talks eventually led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement, which gave birth to Northern Ireland's power-sharing government called the Northern Ireland Assembly. Lord Trimble was awarded the Nobel Peace with Hume in 1998.
Although operating in a different factual context, the Philippines faces similar issues as Northern Ireland.
Lord Trimble said peace processes in both countries involved these factors: a terrorist situation, religious elements (Protestants and Catholics in the case of Northern Ireland, and Muslims and Catholics in the case of Mindanao), territorial issues, cessation of hostilities, the recreation of a local regional administration, and continuing issues with paramilitary activities and the handling of weapons.
Northern Ireland started establishing its power-sharing government in 1999 with Lord Trimble at the helm as First Minister. But in 2001, he was forced to resign from the post when the left-wing paramilitary organization Irish Republican Army (IRA) failed to fully surrender their arms.
Northern Ireland's devolution, or the delegation of powers from the central government to a lower level, was suspended in 2002 and was only restored in 2007 after the IRA completed decommissioning in 2005.
Decommissioning and policing
The decommissioning of firearms is seen as one of the most contentious issues in the peace talks. MILF members earlier admitted that they are divided over the issue.
Lord Trimble said that in order for the peace process to proceed, there must be a commitment to move away from violence toward peaceful democratic means.
"I think the party here, and I'm thinking particularly of the MILF, the question it should ask itself is: What do we need to do to generate confidence in other people that we are definitely changing and are definitely moving away from this?" Lord Trimble asked.
Connected to the issue of decommissioning is the issue of policing. After the signing of the Framework Agreement, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal admitted that the provisions on policing were the most difficult part of negotiations on the Framework Agreement.
Lord Trimble said that after the ceasefire and the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland employed two approaches toward transforming what was then a heavily-armed police force focused on countering terrorism.
The government changed the orientation of the police force from an anti-terrorist body to a community-oriented group, and recruited more Catholics proportional to the number of Catholic residents in the area.
"We had reorienteering necessary for the move from terrorism to normal policing. We were downsizing but at the same time recruiting, so, we had incentives for early retirement," he said.
On the importance of personalities
Prior to the signing of the Good Friday agreement, Hume held negotiations with Adams that eventually led to the 1994 ceasefire of Sinn Fein's armed wing, the Irish Republican Army.
Lord Trimble said he was lucky that he came into the picture at a time when the circumstances were already falling into place.
"It was a long time before we had a right conjunction of circumstances and persons to get to the agreement that we had in 1998," Lord Trimble said.
"My predecessors, I became leader in 1995, some of them tried very hard to seal through the settlements. In some respects I was very fortunate to come to the leadership at a time when the circumstances were beginning to come together that made an agreement possible," he added.
Although the leaders involved in the peace process are crucial, Lord Trimble warned against putting too much weight on trust-building between negotiators.
"Trust is overstressed in this because if you're depending on trust, if you're thinking it's a matter of developing trust then you could find yourself being abused. It's a question of doing business with people you could do business with," he said.
The government's chief negotiator, Marvic Leonen, is one of the candidates for the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and there has been concerns that the peace process might be affected should he leaves his post as negotiator.
Lord Trimble said that beyond the role of negotiators lies a larger concern.
"The other bigger question is whether the parties involved in the process are still trying to seek a victory over other people or whether they are seeking an accommodation. That I think is the crucial issue. Part of the reason why it took us so long to get an agreement because there were significant parties who were seeking victory over the other while being prepared to have an accommodation," he said.
On dealing with splinter groups
Despite the generally peaceful situation in Northern Ireland, some "dissident republicans" are still creating trouble.
But Lord Trimble said that they are not expected to prosper for long because they don't have the support of the community.
"And so, the society as a whole can cope with that. It's not a big problem although obviously the fact they can commit acts which may cause damage or even take lives as has happened in a couple of cases. As I said, that is not going to threaten the process," he said.
In Mindanao, the splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement has declared that they do not honor the Framework Agreement and would still insist on a separate Bangsamoro state.
Lord Trimble said that the Framework Agreement only sets the steps that would put the mechanisms in place.
Asked on what kept him going despite derailments in the peace process, he said, "It's just a simple thing. There was no alternative. It's what you can do when you have to do it."
Lord Trimble is set to go to Mindanao over the weekend to meet with leaders of the MILF.
Since his arrival on Wednesday, November 14, he has met Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senators, House members, and Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles. He is also expected to meet civil society groups. - Rappler.com