Lord John Alderdice on Middle East Conflict Resolution, Interview with Noted Northern Ireland Diplomat

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Lord John Alderdice is a Northern Ireland politician, who served as speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998-2004, and leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 1987-1998. He played a significant role as a negotiator in the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement and became one of the youngest life peers ever upon his election to the House of Lords in 1996. He currently chairs the Liberal Democratic Party caucus in the House of Lords, while also serving as a senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford and remaining actively involved in conflict resolution initiatives in the Middle East. Lord Alderice agreed to share his perspectives on Middle East conflict resolution and lessons that could be derived from the Northern Ireland experience, after his speech at the St. Antony's International Review launch in March 2016. The transcript of our interview is below:

You mentioned in your speech your aversion to the use of force to resolve conflicts in sectarian environments and intra-state conflicts. But in the context of combating transnational terrorist groups, like Islamic extremists, the overriding consensus amongst Western policymakers appears to be responding forcefully, with the debate primarily being one of extent. Do you believe that diplomatic solutions derived from Northern Ireland's experience of taming the IRA can be effective in combating Islamic extremism and ISIS?

Lord Alderdice: The first thing to say is that in most of these situations, there is a role for security but there is no security solution to these problems. No amount of bombing people is going to change their minds for the better. They will harbor resentment. Their friends and relatives will store up anger and venom for the future. I don't believe you can resolve these problems without security involvement, but security engagement needs to be possible and helpful. It needs to contain the problem so you can engage in the political dimension of it and solve the problem. All the excess security involvement has made the situation much worse than it was two years ago, in the case of Islamic extremism.

As for diplomacy, I don't think that diplomatically engaging leaders of terrorist groups is always ruled out, but I don't think it can be done at any time or at any stage. I don't think there is an advantage in trying to engage with ISIS. They still think they can defeat us. But there are lots of other people we can engage with in the Middle East when we are trying to combat ISIS. One of the very few positive signs I've seen in the region is the engagement of the West with Iran. After a long period of resistance to engagement, Obama, Rouhani and other Western leaders took a courageous step. An agreement was reached. No agreement is perfect, but an agreement was still reached. You can see by the recent election results that it has increased the number of moderate progressive people in Iran. It has improved the atmosphere in Iran and the Iran-West relationship. There are still problems, but this is a positive thing and we need to build on the positives. There are many efforts that can be done to reach out to other countries in the Middle East before determining exactly what we should do with ISIS.

Recently, there has been considerable optimism that a peace deal can finally be achieved in Cyprus to resolve long-standing tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Do you the Cyprus conflict can be resolved as successfully as the Northern Ireland conflict, and what lessons derived from the Belfast Agreement can be applied to Cyprus?

Lord Alderdice: We would never have resolved our difficulties if the British and Irish governments were not able to dissolve their difficulties. It was also important that the other stakeholders, the United States and Europe pushed hard for cooperation. The Cypriot conflict will not be resolved unless the relationship between Greece and Turkey is improved. There are some possibilities of that happening for various reasons, not least the changing economic environment because of the discovery of oil and gas. The issue of water being provided to Cyprus by Turkey could also create new elements in resolving the conflict.

In your speech, you discussed that lessons from Northern Ireland could be extended to Israel-Palestine. What advice would you give the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as they attempt to resolve this conflict? And why do you think the conflict has become so intractable?

Lord Alderdice: The most important thing is that external stakeholders change their attitudes: the US, EU and front-line Arab states. I don't think the leaders in Israel and Palestine are likely to change their attitudes anytime soon. The prospect of the two-state solution is dead and there is no real peace process. Engagement with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Lebanese and Jordanians as equal partners is crucial. The United States should not try to solve these problems alone. Genuine multilateralism has not taken place. The Arab Peace Initiative did not get much attention, especially from Israel and the United States. So it is not surprising that the issues have not been resolved, because the full context of the conflict has not been engaged properly.

You mention the lack of engagement of extra-regional actors and front-line Arab states as a key problem damaging peace prospects in the Middle East. Do you attribute this primarily to poor leadership or rivalries between different countries?

Lord Alderdice: It is important to recognize that there are many conflicting interests amongst major stakeholders in the Middle East. They are engaged in a vicarious struggle, not unlike the US and Russia or the West and China. One thing that was absolutely necessary in our situation was for the British government to say honestly and clearly we no longer have any selfish strategic or economic interests in the question of Northern Ireland. We simply want to find a way of achieving peace. If the US could say the same about the Middle East, we could take a big step towards peace. At the moment of course, there is a great deal of economic self-interest by the United States, which is a problem.

Finally, do you think that Israeli leaders should engage in dialogue with Hamas, even though Hamas has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel?

Lord Alderdice: I do not think at the moment that Hamas would even be interested in engaging with the Israeli government, because there is no belief on their part that the Israeli government is seeking a resolution to the conflict. Ultimately, should there be engagement? Absolutely. Would engagement five years ago have helped? Yes. I think it would have helped and I tried to encourage it. But in some senses, the Israeli government missed the boat and finding a way to resolve the conflict has become more difficult.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2