Building a Lasting Peace

Nancy Ng

On Monday, Colgate hosted 1998 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate David Trimble for a lecture and dinner conversation with members of the Student Lecture Forum.

During dinner with the distinguished politician, students had the opportunity to engage Trimble in conversation and listen as he vividly illustrated the precariousness of the political situation that has existed in Northern Ireland throughout most of his 30-year career.

“It was fascinating getting to hear the inside view of what doesn’t usually come across as politically significant but that actually speaks directly to the experience of working politics in Northern Ireland – like the paramilitary organizations that threaten politicians who speak against their goals,” senior Director of Student Lecture Forum Pat Kabat said. “He told us of how colleagues of his would sit during meetings pointing pistols at doors underneath the table because they had been told that an assassination attempt had been planned for that afternoon.”

This atmosphere of hostility and mutual distrust made the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, for which Trimble won his Nobel Peace prize, even more significant.

For the first time in history, four major parties in Northern Ireland – Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party; the party of his fellow recipient of the 1998 peace award, John Humes, the Social Democratic Labor Party; Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party – along with 13 minor parties and the governments of the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain met together in the interest of establishing a path towards peace.

In Trimble’s lecture, Colgate students heard a version of the conflict in the Northern Ireland that diverged from the canonical religious interpretation.

“The most fascinating thing to me about his lecture was that he reframed the conflict from how I’ve usually heard it told,” Kabat said. “He presented it not as a religiously motivated, fundamentalist issue; the point was that it had moved beyond that and it was now strictly a political game.”

From Trimble’s perspective, the matter had more to do with interconnected national and socio-economic issues.

“Religion is a useful marker for a people’s political views, but it isn’t always the case that religion and politics always coincide,” he said. “The larger issue is not about religion, per se. It is what I will call a national problem and the question of ‘to which state will this territory belong?’ The other issue is socio-economic and has to do with the questions of relative advantage or disadvantage, and the extent to which a people were incorporated or excluded from society.”

Trimble also addressed the issue of the paramilitary organizations that had taken advantage of the civil disorder of the 1970s to rise to power, particularly the provisional Irish Republican Army. Its complete disarmament as stipulated in the agreement has been undertaken recently, but in a secrecy that has served to create little public confidence.

Trimble emphasized the need to ameliorate socio-economic problems so as to not leave them for terrorists to exploit, as well as the success that localization of security and infiltration personnel has yielded in foiling terrorist plots. He also warned against the dangers of making parallels to such situations as those in North Africa and the Middle East, each of which has its own unique history.

In assessing the current situation in Northern Ireland, Trimble stated that the two sides seem to be at a political impasse – but that the situation is stable.

“Though we may be stuck politically, the situation on the ground is vastly different than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “There has been an increase in the quality of life and economic prosperity. People can go where they wish without having to be constantly looking over their shoulders. There has been a decline in paramilitary violence. Their campaigns have failed; the people see a better life.”