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‘Keep your eye on the prize’

/ 01:50 AM February 22, 2015

In August 1998, in the midst of start-and-stop negotiations for an end to the campaign of violence being waged in Northern Ireland, a car bombing took place in the city of Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200, most of them bystanders and even foreign tourists. It was, said media analyses, “the highest death toll from a single incident during the Troubles,” referring to the decades-long campaign waged by Catholic separatists against continued British control of the predominantly Protestant North.

But the bomb knew no religion. The victims included Protestants, Catholics, six teenagers, one of them a Mormon, six children, a woman pregnant with twins, two Spanish tourists, and other tourists on a day trip from the Republic of Ireland.

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The bomb was determined to have been manufactured and driven into the center of Omagh by a group calling itself the “real” IRA, a breakaway group of the Irish Republican Army. The “RIRA” was opposed to the peace process leading to the ceasefire agreement between the UK government and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. But though the bombing set off public anger and grief, the path toward peace remained open.

“It was a tough decision,” says Lord Jack McConnell, a Scottish politician and member of the House of Lords, about the position of then Prime Minister Tony Blair to continue with the overtures toward peace. Calling the Omagh bombing “an appalling act of savagery and evil,” Blair pursued earlier initiatives toward peace, even if the deaths and injuries opened new wounds of distrust and disgust. Indeed, says McConnell, the RIRA failed miserably in its goal of derailing the peace process, with many expressing even stronger support for an end to the fighting.

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With support from allies in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States, the Blair government persisted in the peace talks, in which McConnell played a part.

The result is that in 1998 a referendum resulted in the vote by over 70 percent of Northern Irish in favor of changing the constitution to accommodate the agreement. But it was only in 2007 that “the Troubles” came to an end with the formation of a coalition government of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.

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Today, some eight years after the Troubles were settled, says McConnell, “there is a generation of young people in Northern Ireland who have lived all their lives in peace.”

Though McConnell was in the Philippines as part of his “other hat” as a global climate change campaigner, he is, he asserts, “a passionate campaigner for peace.” Indeed, while in Jakarta for a regional conference on the environment, McConnell also met with Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to talk about the progress being made in the peace talks. He also met in Quezon City with a group of media, NGOs and peace advocates to talk about the long years of working toward peace not just in the United Kingdom but in other parts of Europe as well.

McConnell knows intimately how it is to yearn for peace and enter into negotiations for it. As a young politician, he was involved in the struggle for the creation of an “autonomous” Scotland, serving in its parliament for many years, even as chief minister. “It is important to keep the discussion going,” he emphasizes, and to build and maintain trust, people’s fears “need to be treated as legitimate.”

Asked about the recent defeat of the independence initiative in Scotland, McConnell says that, despite the poorly managed campaign of the republicans, Scottish voters apparently felt it was to their advantage to remain part of the United Kingdom, “an autonomous state within a republic.”

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McConnell’s advice to those bewailing the many attacks on the peace process with the Bangsamoro triggered by the killing of 44 police commandos (and 18 MILF fighters plus a number of civilians) is succinct: “Keep your eye on the prize.”

“You will need patience, time, discussion and dialogue,” he adds.

The most crucial task at the moment, says the British MP, is “building back trust in the peace process,” not just among the police and military and politicians, but more importantly among the Filipino public, in Manila, Luzon, Visayas and especially Mindanao.

“Steer your legislators from abandoning the peace process” is the second challenge.

“Buy time,” he urged.

Achieving peace with our Moro brothers and sisters, McConnell notes, is important not just for the Philippines, but also for the rest of the region, if not the world.

“Southeast Asia is on the top of the list of areas for expansion for Islamic jihadists,” McConnell says. The group known variously as Isil, Isis or Islamic State, now considered to be in “competition” for influence with al-Qaida, he says, is spreading its depredations from its bases in Iraq and Syria to the rest of the Middle East. It is believed to be in contact with allied groups in Nigeria, such as Boko Haram, which has begun incursions into neighboring countries. Jemaah Islamiyah (believed under the sway of al-Qaida) is already operating here and in Indonesia and Malaysia, and “definitely the peace process in the Philippines is a target.”

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Indeed, it is a roiling, boiling pot heating up not just in Mindanao but also across borders and seas in the region.

The deaths of the Special Action Force troopers, MILF fighters and civilians in Mamasapano have only heated up the troubled waters in Mindanao. And yet, says a Muslim leader listening to McConnell, as far as Mindanaons are concerned, “we are all for peace, we are all right.” It’s only in Manila (and perhaps areas of Luzon), she says, “where we hear talk of fighting and of war.”

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TAGS: Jack McConnell, Mamasapano, peace process, Peace talks
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